The Fine Arts

Vietnam Fine Arts Museum

Vietnam Fine Arts Museum

Wherever I go I seek out art: in museums, galleries or on the street. I’ve visited a number of galleries in Hanoi but have noticed that the art seems to be produced in bulk, whether it’s in the touristy galleries in the Old Quarter or the more upscale galleries at the other end of the Hoan Kiem Lake. There must be some really upscale galleries but I haven’t found them yet. And hopefully there are some featuring the work of younger, more adventurous artists. In the meantime I’ve made a couple of visits to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum.

What impressed me the most were some of the traditional and historical pieces in the museum. Sometimes you look at a piece of art and you can see the love, the effort and the talent that went into making it. My studies of Asian art are limited to some survey courses in university and seeing exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, however, it doesn’t take a great deal of knowledge to be awed by The One Thousand Eye and One Thousand Arm Guan Yin (1647).

One Thousand Eye and One Thousand Arm Guan Yin

One Thousand Eye and One Thousand Arm Guan Yin

I know it’s hard to see in the above slow shutter speed photo but all those pointy things in the background are the thousand arms and hands. A good description of the Guan Yin can be found here. The first time I saw this statue I sat down for a few minutes, overwhelmed by the beauty of the piece. On my second visit I discovered another room, filled with sculptures from the Tay Son period (1788 – 1802), considered to be the zenith of ancient Vietnamese sculpture.



These sculptures are renowned for their evocative portrayals of characters, probably modeled on real people. The Bahulata above is from the Tay Phuong Pagoda in Ha Tay province and was made in 1794. Once again I had to use a slow shutter speed but hopefully you can see how expressive the sculpture is. It is wood, painted with lacquer and almost life-size. I felt quite serene pondering these pieces and could happily sit with them.

On the other hand there are many galleries filled with examples of social realism and other forms of propagandistic art. I totally understand that Vietnam suffered under years of colonial rule and for years fought for its independence. However, it all becomes overly didactic and a bit boring. War art is war art, propaganda is propaganda and sometimes they find their way into the fine arts but the expression of the angst and heroics of war is very narrow here. I haven’t seen much expressionism, almost no abstraction and certainly little graffiti, all of which are immediate and visceral expressions of the human condition. Illustrative and impressionistic views of the wars do little for me. Perhaps they are meant to educate, to honor. Although I believe art can be a means of expressing the horrors of war I’ve seen nothing here that comes close to a Goya or even a Picasso (the most apolitical of painters who nonetheless painted one of the masterpieces of the horrors of war: Guernica). And sadly Vietnam’s colonization brought the influence of European painting styles. I’m more excited by the traditional lacquer painting. And there are many fine examples of it in the museum; even though many, once again, are dominated by scenes of warfare and are propagandistic.

Compare these two painting titles and think which you’d sooner spend some time with: Rejoining the Bucket Ropes or When the Shift is Over, Let’s Meet and Enter the Best Female Workers Contest. Both are affixed to paintings showing women at work. One, however, is a lovely pastoral painting showing two women in a landscape. The other is a social realistic painting of women in a factory.

End of rant. If I want some propaganda I’ll go here:

Propaganda Poster Store

Propaganda Poster Store

Although I do have a little trouble believing that these posters are authentic and original. More likely they’re copies created for the tourists. Yeh, yeh I did buy some Cuban cinema posters but I believe they were probably originals, especially as many were no longer available.

One thing I’m rapidly learning here is that despite so many of people being very friendly and helpful that there are many trying to make a buck and scamming to do it. I don’t blame ’em. It must be a tough go. But sometimes a bit of honesty and a real deal will go a long ways.

For instance: the restaurants. I go back to those where the staff are friendly and the food’s good and reasonably priced. I won’t go back if I feel I’ve paid too much or the staff doesn’t make any effort. Interestingly one of the least thrilling places I’ve been is owned by an ex-pat American. His wife chatted but he was very taciturn (maybe he was having an off-day but in reading reviews in the New Hanoian they’re losing a lot of customers).

Here’s a shot from one of my favorite, slightly upscale, restaurants:

Five Restaurant, Hanoi

Five Restaurant, Hanoi

I dined here last night after going to look at an apartment. I had spent the day recovering from heat exhaustion and an upset tummy and felt I deserved a real good meal. As you can see by the table settings they like to serve wine and good food. I’d gone a couple of times for brekkie as they do a great Eggs Bennie so I thought I’d try dinner there. I wasn’t disappointed. I did have a glass of wine (not cheap, around $6, but very good); a bowl of pumpkin ginger soup (yum) and stir fried seafood/veggies. Plus they threw in a tasty appetizer. And the staff are wonderful. Because it was very quiet while I was there one of the waitresses wandered over and chatted to me before I left. That’s what I love about it here: the people are so friendly even though it’s a huge city with lots of tourists.

This afternoon I ventured into my first pub: LePub, just down the street from my hotel. Check out this sign on their wall…

Sign in LePub

Sign in LePub

Ha, ha. No, I didn’t try a shot. Maybe another day. But I had a couple of beers, watched some footie and enjoyed the scene. As I was about to leave one of the staff had a bit of fun fake harassing me, telling me I’d be back in a matter of hours. But here I am blogging away. Although they do have wifi there….

On my way to see the apartment yesterday I had a few minutes before meeting the realtor so wandered about the neighborhood. I spotted a tennis court so walked by and was called over for a beer by a gentleman relaxing after a game. He spoke little English but we managed. I had my notebook so did a bit of sketching to explain where I came from. Meanwhile one of the fans behind us started smoking and had to be disconnected. Before I left I had the waitress take a photo of us.

Beer with a New Friend

Beer with a New Friend

On the way to see the apartment, on a very busy road, while on the back of a bike myself, I saw a scooter with two riders… wedged between them was a pocket door, with all the extended framing and the fellow on the back had his head ducked down so he could hold several pieces of glass against the door. It’s unreal what people carry on their bikes and scooters. And how they maneuver. It’s going to be hard to adjust to traffic lights again when I return home, I’ve become so used to just stepping out into traffic. But I may buy my own helmut, one that fits.

I’ve been taking lots of photos trying to capture the essence of traffic here. I’m sure I’ll get a better one eventually but here’s one for now.

Hanoi traffic

Hanoi traffic

And I’ve also being taking lots of night photos, trying to capture the interesting cubbyholes along the streets. Here’s one of a jam-packed little souvenir shop.

Souvenir Shop

Souvenir Shop

This place is so intense, and dense. I’m still trying to focus. Stay tuned! And, hey, thanks for the comments! Now, where’s that beer… oh, yeah, in the fridge….


1 Comment

Filed under Travel

One response to “The Fine Arts

  1. Rob

    Finally got onto your blog and have caught up. Your pics and descriptions are as enjoyable as your European trip. Am looking forward to your further travels and explorations.

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