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Northern village the nexus of Vietnam photography (October 26, 2006)

There is a village in northern Vietnam unique among others. Dubbed “photography village”, it has given birth to many a prominent photographer, who popularized the art of capturing time across the country.

Lai Xa village in Ha Tay province’s Hoai Duc district has long been considered the cradle of Vietnam’s photography. Its tutelary god is Tran Lieu, King Tran Thai Tong’s brother. It is said towards the end of his life, Tran Lieu retired to this small village to help the poor and later deified.

Interestingly, this happened exactly 600 years before a pioneer Vietnamese photographer was born. Dang Huy Tru, though not hailing from this village, later became the first Vietnamese to learn photography abroad and introduce the technique to his home country.

Much more interestingly, the year Tru died saw another man, probably more influential in Vietnamese photography history, being born right in the village.

Though Tru was responsible for importing photography, it is this man – Nguyen Dinh Khanh – who was instrumental in popularizing the art and training numerous successful photographers.

The duo’s names now appear in the Vietnam Encyclopedia as the most prominent photographers ever. Only two others have this honor.

In 1890 at the age of 16, Khanh left the village for Hanoi where he apprenticed under a veteran Chinese photographer.

Khanh later opened the Khanh Ky Camera Shop in Hang Da street in Hanoi’s ancient quarter, training novices and shooting photos for hire.

Many of his students are successful, having opened studios across Vietnam and abroad: in Laos, Cambodia, China, Myanmar, and even as far as Europe.

According to photographer Hoang Kim Dang, Hanoi has 33 camera shops owned by Lai Xa villagers, Ho Chi Minh City 34, and Hai Phong 16.

The studios mostly have names bearing Lai, a means to remind the owners of their origin - from Lai Xa village.

Thanh Nien recently visited the village and was told amazing stories.

President Ho Chi Minh and the villagers

Locals here said in 1913 Khanh was in France and managed to take a good shot of the newly elected president Raymond Poincare taking the oath.

His photo was considered the best among thousands and illustrated on many French magazines and newspapers, some on their front covers.

According to a book published by a Vietnamese state publishing house, Khanh in 1916-1917 funded Nguyen Ai Quoc – later becoming the great President Ho Chi Minh – while they were in France.

Khanh practiced photography there while the latter was involved in political campaigns to save his country from the French colonialists.

Khanh even taught the art to Nguyen Ai Quoc. When the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was founded in 1945, Khanh wanted to return home but unfortunately died just days afterwards in Paris.

When President Ho Chi Minh was in France in 1956 for a conference, he visited Khanh’s tomb as an old friend.

Another son of the village, Vu Dinh Hong, had the honor of being a personal photographer for President Ho Chi Minh.

Then there is Doctor Nguyen Quang Quyen, also hailing from the village, who was responsible for embalming Ho Chi Minh after he passed away in 1969. The president’s body is still in excellent condition and lies in state in Hanoi.

There are probably many traditional villages majoring in different crafts and trades but Lai Xa stands out and is so far unique, managing to produce not only excellent shooters but patriots as well.

Reprinted from THANHNIEN News


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