On our last morning in Saigon Pete and I joined two of the ladies in our group to visit an artists’ colony on an island in the Saigon River. We were taken to the location in an SUV, crossing a brand-new bridge and driving through a neighbourhood studded with very expensive houses. This was going to be one of Saigon’s up-market locations.
We were told that people could now own land and the simple little artists’ colony was now an expensive piece of real estate. The owner, a well-known artist, had resisted all attempts to get him to sell. It’s a rustic property with a number of different rooms separated by court yards. We were met at the gate by a phalanx of dogs, medium sized animals of no recognizable breed. Our guide told us not to touch them. I noticed several quite small puppies being guarded by mum. While they were inquisitive, they weren’t specially friendly and they clearly weren’t allowed inside. Made sense. Nobody wants dog pee on their masterpiece.
Our hostess for the day was the owner’s wife, a lady around our vintage. She spoke a little English and what she couldn’t manage our guide translated. She showed us around several galleries which included oils, ink wash, water colours, pastels, and lacquer work. Our hostess was a lovely lady who was delighted as a little girl if we admired one of her works. Apart from paintings the galleries are sort of like museums, with wood carvings and pottery to admire.
She demonstrated how lacquer works were made. Lacquer is collected from the Rhus succedanea tree, which grows in the cooler climate in the north of the country. The sap is collected from the tree in the same way as rubber trees, very early in the morning (3-4am) to prevent the sap from hardening.
The first step in creating a painting is to prepare the canvas by coating plywood with around fourteen layers of muslin laid over the painted-on lacquer. After it dries each coat is sanded before the next one is added. Our lady showed us a brush with short, stiff bristles – made from human hair – used to apply the lacquer.
Paintings are created by applying crushed egg shells, nacre, hessian, dyes, or silver or gold leaf to the lacquer. The work is sanded to finish. A painting can take months to complete.
The morning finished with a cup of tea and a fruit platter in a shaded area by the river, with a view of Saigon in the distance. It’s obvious why a rich man or a developer would like to purchase this property.
On our way back to the hotel we chatted with our APT guide, asking him about his twin sons and his family life. That afternoon we’d be going to the airport for our domestic flight up the coast to Da Nang. From there we would be driving to the ancient city of Hoi An to experience some of Vietnam’s older history.