When my husband was with Emirates Airline in the United Arab Emirates, I was able to fly to just about every country on the airline’s routes – some more easily than others, as it turned out. It seemed like quite a simple matter, for example, to get to Vietnam from Dubai: the flight left at about 3 a.m. (Dubai Airport’s busiest time) and arrived in Vietnam in lots of time to spend all afternoon and evening exploring Ho Chi Minh City. However, this was not as easy as it sounded. Just getting a visa was the first adventure.
To obtain a visa for travel to Vietnam, you must deal directly with a Vietnamese Embassy; the closest one to Dubai was in Cairo. So I contacted them, they faxed me an application form, and I returned the completed form, photos, money, and my passport, via courier. Nothing happened. I delayed my hotel and flight reservations (twice). Still nothing, so I phoned everyone I could think of in Dubai and Cairo. Each time I phoned the Vietnamese Embassy, they would find someone with progressively less information to give me. Just when I thought all was lost, the Canadian Embassy in Cairo sorted everything out and I was on my way.Since I am an artist, I was particularly excited about the possibilities for painting when I finally got to Vietnam. Unlike the more visited tourist destinations, where you go with some idea of what you’re going to find, this country was a surprise – a very pleasant one. Besides adding an extra dimension to my explorations, there was another good reason for planning to do some painting in Vietnam: there are almost no postcards available of many of the prettiest landscapes. It’s just as well I was prepared to create them myself.
Ho Chi Minh, formerly Saigon, is architecturally fascinating. The beautifully restored pastel rococo government buildings, soaring pagodas and Christian churches cannot possibly all be found together in any other city in the world! Equally intriguing were the unique four- and five-storied over-the-shop residences – parapeted, terraced and landscaped, and all of about ten feet wide.
Undoubtedly, the most paintable parts of Vietnam are in and around Hanoi, so I arranged to see the spectacular northern part of the country as soon as I could. I use the term ‘arranged’ loosely. When I inquired at some of the tour companies, I discovered that arranging anything for an independent visitor rather than an incoming tour group was a brand new concept.Eventually, I selected one of the airport taxi drivers, who wanted only to take me to an ‘excellent hotel’ in Hanoi. I soon set him straight with a list of the eleven places to which I actually wished to be taken. He recovered quickly, calculated this was going to take several hours, ascertained that I would pay in American dollars (a very reasonable number of them, I should mention) and off we went.
My objective was to see the sights in three basic categories: the lakes of Hanoi and seascapes of the Gulf of Tonkin; mountains (of course); and finally, contemporary Vietnamese paintings.Everywhere you go in Vietnam, north or south, city or country, driving or walking, requires the negotiation of mixed flows of bicycles, motorcycles, cars, carts and buses. At first I was terrified. Cyclists are not expected to confine themselves to slow lanes, and the motor vehicles, some of which have all the acceleration of a grocery cart, are not about to lose precious momentum by slowing down unnecessarily. When I calmed down a little, I realized that as long as my taxi didn’t do anything the rest of them couldn’t possibly anticipate, like come to a stop, we would eventually get where we were going. They simply wove us into their pattern.
Our first stop was Ho Hoan Kiem, The Lake of the Restored Sword. Its intricate temple, footbridge and Tortoise Tower are situated on tiny islands, and their shimmering reflections are exquisite from any point around the perimeter of this lake in downtown Hanoi.
Next stops were the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum, two impressive structures, quite striking in appearance. But much more appealing were the many elegant smaller buildings also located in their vast park-like setting. The One-Pillar Pagoda was particularly paintable. Passing other museums, parks and monuments, including a huge statue of still-revered Lenin, we left the city and headed east toward the sea.Spectacular Ha Long (Descending Dragon) Bay is the most famous landscape in Vietnam. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, its thousands of islands, honeycombed with amazing grottoes and caves, are scattered over hundreds of square miles of luminous turquoise water. Needless to say, the painting possibilities are incredible.
Another picture-perfect setting is located further down the coast, almost directly south of Hanoi. It is the ancient Thai Vi Temple beneath the mountains of Ninh Binh.
After this tour (all done at top bicycle-equivalent speed), we returned to Hanoi to search out some artwork. Contemporary Vietnamese painting is the unique result of the diverse, but never subtle, incursions on the country’s history and culture. In this century alone, there have been several revolutionary changes.
The Asian roots of both formal and folk art gave way to a strong Impressionist tradition introduced in 1925 by the French colonialists at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi. During the 1930s and 40s, this predominantly French influence fell into disrepute, first edged aside by the anti-colonialist movement and then, in the north, almost physically marched out of the country by ranks of Socialist-Realist soldiers, peasants and workers. Then somehow, within the last two decades, styles lacking in social comment and formerly ‘too European’ regained respectability.Many outstanding exhibitions of vibrant, modernist Vietnamese painting have been mounted, particularly in Hanoi. Purchasing and collecting this work, however, appears largely limited to foreigners. My bewildered taxi driver knew the location of many art shops and galleries and the Fine Arts Museum, but he made it clear that neither he nor his friends had ever been inside any of them!
I once met a lady at the Dubai International Arts Centre who told me about the spectacular Tien Shen Mountains on the China-Kyrghyzstan border, and suggested I plan a painting trip there. She mentioned that, like many of the former Soviet Republics, it lacked the infrastructure of a place like Dubai and wasn’t really “ready for tourists”. But she thought it would be “okay for artists.” I wondered at the time just what that might mean. I am now starting to figure it out. Vietnam is a little like that, and it’s more than okay for artists. It’s terrific.
Born in the heart of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, Charlene Brown goes home to the mountains as often as possible. She spent most of her career writing research program evaluation reports in Canada’s capital city before moving to the Middle East in the 1990s. There she wrote a monthly art column for the Khaleej Times and a series of travel articles for the Gulf News. She and her husband now live in Victoria, British Columbia.
Charlene’s website is predictably named: www.painteverymountain.ca.