Vietnam in the late 19th century through French photographer's lens

By Mai Nhat

Mon, 9/14/2020 | 08:40 (GMT+7)

French lensman Pierre Dieulefils captured images of daily life in Vietnam in the 1880s.

At the end of the 19th century southern women preferred "ao ngu than" (five-piece ao dai) and beaded jewelry. According to designer Sy Hoang, rich women used to wear this type of ao dai, with four layers representing the parents of the wife and husband and the fifth, the wearer. The tunic also had five buttons, symbolic of the five qualities everyone should have - nhan (kindness), le (decorum), nghia (uprightness), tri (wisdom) and tin (faithfulness).
These photos are in a book called "Indo-Chine Pittoresque & Monumentale: Annam – Tonkin", by Dieulefils, who was a soldier in Indochina before returning to Vietnam in 1888 to follow his passion for photography.

Southern women eat a daily meal. Rich urban people used to wear the ao dai to differentiate themselves from poorer ones. The ao ngu than was popular until the early 20th century, when another kind of ao dai with westernized features was introduced.

A Saigon official with long nails symbolizing intellectuals’ traditional exemption from manual labor. Many Confucians also believed that since their bodies were a gift from their parents, they had to keep it as unchanged as possible.

Members of the ethnic Chinese community (Hoa) in Saigon's Cho Lon area prepare ducks for cooking.

Cho Lon was formed between the 17th and 19th centuries when ethnic Chinese and their offspring settled here and built a bustling area. When the French dominated the country, Cho Lon was a town distinct from Saigon. The two were combined in 1956. Currently it is Ho Chi Minh City's Districts 5 and 6.

Funeral of a rich person in the south.

Father and son in northern Vietnam. Ao dai with banded collars were worn along with the traditional turban especially at important occasions such as funerals, weddings, etc. These ao dai had five buttons, usually made of ivory, bones, gold, silver, or bronze, depending on the social class of the wearer.


Family of an official in the north.

Officials used to travel on horseback with their attendants carrying parasols and other stuff.

King Duy Tan sits on a palanquin in central Hue Town. His original name was Nguyen Phuc Vinh San (1899-1945), and he ruled Vietnam from 1907 to 1916. According to "Vua Duy Tan" (King Duy Tan), a book written by Hoang Hien and published in 1995, the king was confident in dealing with foreigners and could speak French fluently despite his tender age.

Women of the Lo Lo ethnic community in the northern mountains near China's Yunnan Province. Their traditional outfits include colorful turbans and long-sleeved shirts with square collars.

Members of the ethnic Tho community in Dong Dang District, northern Lang Son Province.

Photos by Pierre Dieulefils

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