Everyday objects bring back a bygone Saigon

By Sen    December 10, 2018 | 03:35 pm GMT+7

Ordinary yesteryear artifacts displayed at a free exhibition in Saigon takes viewers on a nostalgic journey into the past.

Everyday objects bring back a bygone Saigon

Huynh Minh Hiep, organizer of the "Ancient Saigon" exhibition, reads a 1971 issue of the anti-French colonial Saigon newspaper, Duoc Nha Nam

The living room furniture and settings reflect interior decoration trends before 1975, he said.

Hiep can explain in detail to visitors every fragment of history that he has been collecting for 25 years, traversing French colonial and Vietnam War eras, among other things.

The display at the Institute of Cultural Exchanges with France (IDECAF) in District 1 ended on December 9. The artifacts can now be seen at Lua Cafe, 28 Nguyen Co Thach Street in District 2.

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Pointing to a gown that dates back to the 1940s or fifties, he said: "My grandfather used to wear this."

A closer look at the crumbling but still readable Duoc Nha Nam edition shows that it cost VND100 at a time when VND1,000 (4.3 US cents) was the highest denomination. Then, the collector said, VND100 could buy you more than eight kilograms of rice or half a kilo of pork meat.

The newspaper headline goes: "1971: Where does Vietnamese currency go?" Tran Tan Quoc, the editor-in-chief was a journalist revered for his undaunted courage. He once said: "Since entering the school of life, I worship one religion. My religion is journalism." as quoted by An Ninh The Gioi Online.

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Motorbikes are strong reminders of old Saigon. "These bikes carry historic value that I'm very lucky to own," Hiep told VnExpress International.

The rusted reddish brown, 125 cc bike on the right belongs to the Bao Dai Government, the last emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945) and also the last monarchy in Vietnamese history. "This type of bike was owned by officials back then," Hiep said.

The relatively new-looking 63cc gray bike on the left was a gift from Apostolic Delegate to Indochina, Mario Brini, to the Archbishop of Hue, Phero Martin Ngo Dinh Thuc, to use in Indochina.

Hiep even has the letter conveying this message signed by Mario Brini along with the registrations of the two vehicles.

"Many people want to buy them from me but I will never sell them."

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From the left, a pre-1975 American polaroid camera, an Akai brand 1972 edition music system that only the elite could afford then. The green marble dial phone on the right is a symbol of childhood for many Vietnamese kids who grew up in the 1990s.

As one walks through the exhibition, one is accompanied by the gentle melodies of Vietnamese singers of the 1960s-70s.

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Hiep occasionally obliges with poses that make the living room more real, like pouring tea from an old teapot into an old glass.

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One of the shelves in Hiep's living room holds an autograph of Pat Boone, a well-known American singer and actor, a picture of a famous Vietnamese artist in the 1950s, a red viewfinder, a camera, a motion camera and other things.

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The Co Ba or Madame Ba soap was the first ever made in Vietnam. Madame Ba, the model featured, won the first Miss Vietnam pageant organized in 1865.

"The French were mesmerized by her beauty. She had a tough life though, lots of agony," said Hiep.

Unlike local media reports that refer to Truong Van Ben as the soap brand`s founder, Hiep said the soap was a French creation.

"Not many people know about this. When Truong Van Ben bought the brand, he changed it to 'Vietnam Soap' but kept the model. People were accustomed to her face on the soap so they keep calling it 'Co Ba Soap'," Hiep told VnExpress International.

"The soap was produced for the first time in 1920 by pharmaceutical brand F.Moreau & fils and imported and distributed in Indochina by Pachod Frères," he added.

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The showroom of over 700 artifacts also boasts a series of movie posters, one of which is of the first movie made in Vietnam in 1937, called Tran Phong Ba. It featured a Vietnamese cast and was shown with French subtitles.

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Soft drinks were and are still a huge part of the leisurely lifestyle of the Saigonese. Hiep showcases decades old bottles of soft drinks, a lot of them still retaining the fragrance of mint, cream soda, and many other flavours.

"These were the produce of the 1960s. They were sold at school gates, in front of the ballroom, in the heart of markets, on pavements of densely populated streets," Hiep said, not needing to pause as he reeled of one fact after another.

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Cigarettes from the French colonial era and American occupation are lined up inside a glass cabinet. 

Hiep has worked as a deputy office manager at the Vietnam Federation of UNESCO Associations since 2005. 

Hiep said he hopes that his collection inspires younger generations. "Instead of chasing a vain hobby, I hope that the younger generations see the value in preserving the heritage that our fathers left us."

 
 
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