For many people, the subsidy period (years before the Doi Moi – renovation – period started in 1986) was associated with deprivation and hard work. It was a time when all goods were distributed according to ration coupons and rice books. During that time people suffered physical shortages but they seemed to have a more adequate spiritual life.
They led a simple life and lived in harmony together, regardless of wealth and poverty. A reminder of people’s love for one another at that time, Nguyen Ngoc Tien has collected old things from this period to satisfy his pastime and help future generations learn more about a historical period of the nation.
In his collection of over 3,000 items Tien is very interested in the ration coupons for different kinds of goods, such as cloth, batteries, sugar and bread from many areas. Some coupons are still intact. During that time rice was distributed to a family on the basis of a rice book, which is a small hand sized book. Tien showed us a rice book of a family in Hanoi in 1980 on which there are still signatures and red stamps for the receipt of rice each month. This faded book has become an indispensable part in the history of the country’s subsidization period.
Besides the ration coupons and rice books, Tien has also preserved many typical objects from that time, such as large soup bowls, enameled mugs, mess tins, soldier’s water-bottles, an “elephant ear” electric fan, clocks and radio sets. Tien’s collection is so large that his house could not accommodate all of them, so he has asked his friends to keep part of it.
Tien was proud to introduce a heavy “elephant ears” electric fan. It was made of cast iron with blades made from leather. We also saw an enameled mug, which is very rare now, and a large-brimmed basin made of aluminum. He said that now many people make enameled iron mugs which are similar to those from the subsidy period, but they have a lower quality. In Tien’s collection there is a stone carved with the name of a person. In the past it was used to replace a person who had to stand in several lines simultaneously to buy food and other products. Tien said the stone is a product of human creation in the subsidy period.
His 3-storey house, from the stairs to a small corner, was piled up with the objects which are reminiscent of that time. Among them there are two old bicycles with numbered plates.
During the process of collecting these items Tien was interested in discovering things from the war. They were common utensils made from remnants of aircrafts, fragmentation bombs and flares. For him they are not only utensils but also relics of a war time. Every year, when Tet (New Year) Festival comes he usually hangs a shell of a fragmentation bomb and fills it with soil to sow mustard greens seeds for decorative purposes. He said few people think that inside the shell of a deadly bomb there were buds symbolizing life that were rising every day. Even the marbles in an unexploded bomb were detached and assembled to a ball-bearing of a bicycle that helps it run smoothly. The magical transformations of these objects helps people remember the war in another way and it feels less painful.
During the war, remnants of the aircrafts which were shot down were popularly used to make utensils. Besides simple things like hair combs and mugs, people with skillful hands could create many other items, such as a set of table and chairs, suitcases, hookahs, ashtrays and cases of vacuum flasks.
Now Tien still uses a set of a small table and four chairs which were made from the remains of an aircraft. They are simple in style but meaningful to those who were soldiers. He also has a suitcase made from the wreckage of a B52 bomber which was shot down over Hanoi. This suitcase was a companion of a soldier fighting in the battlefields. The most special thing is a two-stringed fiddle which was entirely made from weapons and war equipment.
Tien said the person who made this fiddle would have had skilled hands and a great love for music. It was a product of an optimistic person with a beautiful soul, even when death was nearby. The neck of the fiddle was made from the “Tranggenradio” which was a device that the US army dropped over the Truong Son trail to detect Vietnamese soldiers. The box of the fiddle was made of a flare’s pipe and the bow is made from the strings of the “Tranggenradio”.
Over more than a decade Nguyen Ngoc Tien has been absorbed in collecting the items of a memorable period. For many people it was the period of bombs and shells and a time of subsidy associated with the distribution of goods. This period has passed, but it reminds us of many things that he is still searching for.