Story: Gia Ji
Photos: Philippe Chaplain

Fifteen years ago, Frenchman Philippe Chaplain, President of the French Federation of National Heritages, began to collect old Vietnamese postcards. We learn about his passion for Hanoi

Instant chemistry

Philippe Chaplain’s feelings about Vietnam began with a 1994 exhibition of photos of Vietnam by the veteran French journalist Jean Claude Labbe in France. Mr. Chaplain remembers how Jean Claude predicted: “There will be a day when you will follow in my footsteps.” That prediction came true eight years later, when Philippe visited Vietnam in 2002. At that time, he only traveled to Ho Chi Minh City. Back in Paris he found some old Vietnamese postcards being sold by the side of the Seine River. These postcards were made in a forgotten paper-craft village near Hanoi.

Mr. Chaplain bought 40 old postcards and started to collect them. Just as his collection grew, so did his love for Hanoi. Although he lived in France he began to enter and win quiz contests about Hanoi. In 2006 he won a prize in the International Quiz Contest of Thang Long – Hanoi with the theme “Searching for historical and cultural hallmarks in the Co Loa Citadel”. In 2007, he won first prize in a quiz contest about the 36 streets of Hanoi, and aquiz contest about historical buildings in the run-up to the 1000th Anniversary of Thang Long – Hanoi.

His postcard collection grew to contain more than 1,000 cards and documents. Mr. Chaplain found the old images moving. He describes a card bearing the image of buffaloes near a pond with thatched-roof huts and coconut trees. This image makes him feel “free and happy”. His later postcards depicted everything from landscapes and craft villages to clothing and scenes of daily life. To expand his collection, Mr. Chaplain traveled from France to many other countries, and of course, back to Vietnam. The old postcards he finds the most astonishing are those that depict life in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. He feels these images have helped him to understand locals’ customs and the mores of Vietnamese people.

Sharing is caring

Mr. Chaplain has donated many old postcards to Vietnam’s National Library. He has donated photos of Indochina to the Historical Library and to the Hanoi Opera House on its 100th Anniversary. His postcard exhibitions in 2009 and 2010 in Hanoi and Paris enabled not only Hanoi locals but many foreign guests to learn more about Hanoi’s past.

Mr. Chaplain decided to set up a website to introduce old postcards and articles about Hanoi in English, French and Vietnamese. He launched his website www.hanoilavie (“Hanoi Life”) in 2007. Mr. Chaplain hopes the old photos tell stories that will inspire young people to investigate and cherish the past and find better ways to approach the future.

When asked what he loves most about Hanoi, Mr. Chaplain does not hesitate: “Hanoi in the morning and its outskirts in the afternoon. There are lots of suburban villages in Hanoi to explore. Its all part of an exotic and enchanting Hanoi in my eyes.”