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Old Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, the name itself makes me feel like a romance novel from Humphrey Bogart days in The Quiet American. As a reminder, if you haven’t seen it in a while:
“In Saigon in 1952, as Vietnamese insurgents are delivering major strikes against the French colonial rulers, an innocent and enigmatic young American economist (Audie Murphy), who is working for an international aid organisation, gets caught between the Communists and the colonialists as he tries to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. By promising marriage, he steals away a young Vietnamese woman (Giorgia Moll) from an embittered and cynical English newspaperman (Michael Redgrave), who retaliates by spreading the word that the American is actually covertly selling arms to the anti-Communists.”
This film has stuck in my head, I think I saw it in my early teens way before I could ever of imagined I would be living in this part of the world. Going on a 5 day visa run to continue a few more months in Bali allowed me time to run around like a heroine “back in the day” enjoying a theatrical musical in the Opera House, learning about the lacquer painting techniques that the Vietnamese specialise in at the Museum of Fine Arts, seeing a beautiful array of Buddha’s at the History Museum in the Botanical Gardens from all the various Asian countries, sipping the delicious green tea frappuccino’s with cubes of green jelly at the local chain Highlands, having an elegant lunch in the lobby of the 5 star Majestic Saigon Hotel and enjoying a riverboat ride down the Saigon River, not to mention the elegant shopping street Dong Khoi. I enjoyed a pop-up live fashion show at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and one day I walked a street that was nothing but bookshops, new and used and coffee cafes.
Later that day I enjoyed a peach tea in a gorgeous boutique shop with home furnishings to die for just before a rooftop sunset swim at Liberty Central City Point on the 19th floor of this luxurious hotel for the evening Saigon nightlight views. All the beautiful French colonial architecture was so photogenic and I also enjoyed lots of divine sushi every night in the old Chinese quarter that seemed more like a small intimate Japan town. Whew, it was a marvellous 5 days and most people warned me how crazy Ho Chi Minh is but I feel since I went with the attitude of “I’m going to Old Saigon in a romance novel” it made me approach the city in a different way; just doing the best of the best, elegant things, sophisticated things, things that make me feel like buying silk pyjamas! My goodness, there is even a very pink church, inside and out, Tan Dinh Church, seeing is believing! The best I can do to show all the wondrous things and places I saw was to put some of them in collage form.
Being an artist myself, the first port of call on day one was the Saigon Museum of Fine Arts. There are two buildings next to each other; sculpture, oil and silk works are shown along with a specialised kind of art that was new to me, lacquer art. The main building was constructed by French architect Rivera between 1929 and 1934 as a villa for the Hua family. Hui Bon Hoa, a Chinese immigrant, moved to Saigon in the late 19th century. A penny-less man when he arrived, he went on to become one of the city’s wealthiest men. He discovered precious antiques and traded them and there are some controversial stories surrounding this. However he accumulated his wealth, he became Saigon’s “king of real estate” and his business boomed in the early 20th century. By 1975, the entire Hui Bon Hoa family had left Saigon. Following the end of the war, the newly installed government took over the Hui Bon Hoa complex, turning it into an information and cultural centre at first before opening the Fine Arts Museum in 1987 and permitting visitors inside in 1992. Under the 1996 Vietnam War Convention, French citizens who owned property in Saigon prior to 1975 were eligible for some compensation, so the family also received some money from the French government for the Hui Bon Hoa complex.
I got lucky because the group Son Mai Bac (Northern Lacquer Art) was having an exhibition and most of the artists were “in house”! The groups focus was on “a clear spirit of creation” based on traditional materials and techniques of Son Ta (traditional lacquer art of Vietnam) in the Northern Delta. Since the establishment of the Indochina Fine Art Collage, the Son Mai technique has changed a lot in the direction of diversity and closer to painting. The technology which Son Mai painting as well as Vietnamese art has found is a very unique voice but challenging in the flow of world art and globalisation. There were 8 Son Mai artists that came from different directions. The artist’s ideal was to bring light stories portrayed through art as a gift for a friend, colleagues and art lovers in Saigon. When I first looked at the pieces on display I thought they had used petrified wood and abalone sea shells somehow but after speaking with the artists at hand, I learned it was crushed eggshells! The intricacy and beauty was astounding. There are many thick layers of lacquer combined with colour and eggshells.
Source: Expat Life Thailand
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