London exhibition, Hoxton Arches, 2-4 May 2013
Vietpro and KREU organised an exhibition of John's photos in May 2013: Hanoi: Spirit of Place. At the opening, a band played music from the period, guests ate Vietnamese food, girls wore traditional silk tunics and the Vietnamese ambassador read a poem. Encouraged by the reaction, Vietpro decided to stage a bigger show in Hanoi.
Exploratory visit, July 2013
To prepare for the exhibition in Hanoi, John visited the city in July 2013. He writes:
My first visit to Hanoi for 30 years was an amazing experience.
Flying direct from London with Vietnam Airlines was the first big change (back in 1980 you had to get to Bangkok from where there were two flights a week to Hanoi!).
To begin with, I was completely disoriented. The city used to be completely quiet and peaceful. There were almost no cars, motor scooters or neon lights. Well that has changed!
But once I had survived crossing a few roads and started to explore, I soon got my bearings. The city is still the same at heart, only far more open and lively. It was wonderful to see how life has changed for the Hanoians; and to enjoy the profusion of cafes, street restaurants and shops packed with lovely things.
The aim of the trip was to prepare for our exhibition in October. We wanted to sort out all the arrangements for the exhibition, such as the choice of venue, and to re-visit as many of the scenes as possible, to see what they look like today and make sure our descriptive captions are accurate.
I was lucky enough to visit Bui Xuan Phai's family and see Phai's studio once again. Phai's son Bui Thanh Phuong is now a successful artist who has also written books about Phai and works hard to preserve the memory of Phai and the "Phai streets".
We had some wonderful meals. Back then there were almost no restaurants or cafes that a foreigner could go to. Now Hanoi must be one of the food capitals of the world. I even ate my first cricket. We went to a 'ration card' restaurant, to relive the period, accompanied by a team from VTV4.
I had all my photos on my iPad, which I took everywhere with me. People were very kind and helped me to identify lots of scenes that my notes didn't cover.
By the end of the visit, we had largely fixed the arrangements for our exhibition. Everyone was extremely helpful. It was a privilege to meet distinguished historians, writers and painters who lived through the period. With their help, we had the makings of a really interesting exhibition...
Hanoi exhibition, October 19-26 2013
Only five months after the London exhibition, the London-based Vietnamese community helped organise an exhibition in Hanoi. The exhibition was a great success and was covered in the media. The following is an extract from John's introduction to the book, 'Hanoi After the War':
The exhibition opened in October 2013 in the heart of Hanoi, in a large gallery whose peeling paint and makeshift fittings recalled the ‘ration period’. For ten days the gallery was full. Some visitors pointed excitedly, gesticulated and reminisced about the period. Others stood silently and seemed far away in their memories. Grandparents told how they used to queue for rice and carry water; how they all washed in the communal courtyard; that a pedal bike was their greatest luxury. The young listened and recorded, on the latest smart phones and tablets.
I found the past coming in and out of focus as the show progressed. There was a photo of an emaciated lad, spotted at random on a visit to a nearby temple, who had just caught an eel. He turned up at the gallery, now a man of forty one. Someone had recognised him among the six million inhabitants of Hanoi and here he was, shaking my hand and being interviewed on TV.
…. The photographs were mine but everything else— the selection, the design, the captions, the catalogue, the spirit of the show—was Vietnamese. To organise all this within five months had seemed to me impossible. Yet my London friends did it in their spare time and from the other side of the world: an example of the energy and élan that has taken the country so far in so little time.