Memories from handwritten letters of the past century

(VOVWORLD) - “In an age like ours which is not given to letter writing, we forget what an important part it used to play in people’s lives”. You will find this statement by famous New York Times editor Anatole Broyard relevant to a place where hundreds of handwritten Vietnamese letters during the past century have been put on display in Hanoi to remind people of this beautiful means of communication.

Located in a quiet alley, ‘A letter home’ is where 30-year old book lover Nguyễn Thị Dạ Thương held an exhibition of letter written by hand at some point over the last 100 years. The first floor of this homestay has long been a popular place for people who love patisseries, cafés, and books. Since early January, visitors can also read a variety of letters framed on the wall and displayed in glass cases. They can even open hundreds of stained envelopes to read those dating back to the 1900s written by Vietnamese intellectuals, artists, writers, and ordinary people including lovers, friends, and family members. Thương has collected these letters for many years. She came across most of them while collecting old books. Thương said she wants to share the beauty of letter-writing through this exhibition.

“I opened this exhibition as I believe handwritten letters reveal the emotions that go into its creation by the sender and its reading by the receiver. It also helps retain memories. If you have a compilation of letters, you can reread it after years and let the memories live again. We rarely do the same thing with emails. Besides that, writing a letter makes us slow down significantly to think carefully before we start writing. Therefore, we put more efforts, energy, and feelings into it. I think it’s a great means of communication.”  

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Nguyen Thi Da Thuong (R) introduces her collection of letters to visitors.

The oldest letters in the exhibition were sent by a laborer to a landlord in Sóc Trăng province asking for an extension to pay his debt, which are dated 1905. Most letters were collected from a bookshelf of scholar and antique collector Vương Hồng Sển. Some are love letters, others are official documents, and there are also friendship letters. Thương said: “This is my first exhibition in Hanoi so I also present some letters related to the upcoming season of sprin. They are written by renowned Hanoian writers and poets including Trần Dần, Dương Tường, and Vũ Đình Liên.”

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Sitting on a puffy couch, taking a sip of hot tea, many visitors, particularly young people, ended up spending the whole afternoon immersing themselves in imagining the eras of writing in Vietnam.

“There are so many letters in the exhibition. I’m impressed with the poems. A letter that moved me was the one expressing a writer’s difficulties and asking for support.”

“I’ve read lots of letters written by ordinary people. I’m keen on reading love letters. Besides that, I found a letter asking how to get rid of termites. That’s quite interesting.”

“I read several letters about Vương Hồng Sển. Many people didn’t know his home address so they sent letters to his office to make friends with him and show their admiration. There are some letters exchanged between poets Trần Dần and Dương Tường, which let us know more about their personalities because they didn’t only write about their works but also their daily lives.”

The exhibition also highlighted the complicated details in handwritten letters in earlier years. Thương illustrated: “Several letters have special designs. The senders had customized letter paper, seals, symbols, and signature paper sizes. These letters are so beautiful.”

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Have you seen ‘The Tailor’, a Vietnamese movie revolving around the life of Ms. Ba of Sài Gòn? The movie showed the vibrant fashion world of Ao Dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress, which has criss-crossed years from the 1960s to today. At the exhibition, you can find a letter with stamps featuring this infamous woman. Thương said: “When ‘The Tailor’ became a blockbuster, I was really curious about Ms. Ba of Sài Gòn. Then I came across a letter that has 3 stamps depicting her wearing Áo Dài. I did some quick research and found out that these stamps were used widely between 1921 and 1935.”

Phone calls, video calls, text messages, and emails can help connect people in the blink of an eye. But if you want to slow down, A Letter Home provides you with pens, paper, envelopes, and postcards, all for free so that you can write letters to anyone you love. 

The exhibition will run until February 7 at A Letter Home, 20 Lane 33 Tan Ap Street, Hanoi.