Tag Archives: art

An artists’ colony on the Saigon River

Cool and rustic

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.

Ink wash or water colour

Love this. So very Saigon.

This one is laquer

Our hostess with her oil painting

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.

Adding gold foil to lacquer

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 the river bank

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.

Not every hermitage is a mountain cave

Outside the Winter Palace on a lovely bright day

When I think about hermitages I image a skinny little guy in rustic robes living in a cave high up in the mountains or a tumble-down cottage deep in the forest. Somehow, the Hermitage in St Petersburg doesn’t fit the mould.

The Hermitage Museum complex. From left to right: Hermitage Theatre – Old Hermitage – Small Hermitage – Winter Palace (the “New Hermitage” is situated behind the Old Hermitage).

For a start, it’s huge. It comprises six buildings, one of which is our friend Catherine’s winter palace on the banks of the Neva River. She sure liked building palaces. It seems the museum has over three million items, although around a million of them are in the stamp collection. Even so, that’s a lot of stuff, only a fraction of which is on display.

A walkway from one building to the next crossing a canal

While our guide, Irina, went off to get tickets Pete and I hung around the entrance where we were approached by touts flogging picture books of the Hermitage and Catherine’s Palace. Pete had some fun haggling, then bought a couple to take home. Irina returned and took us inside. We were told we could take photos but please, no flash. I could understand that and set up my camera accordingly. But an awful lot of tourists can be just plain ignorant. Flashes were going off everywhere, despite the guards’ attempts at preventing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t allow photography anymore.

Once again, the building was covered in gold decoration. The main staircase is just the beginning. The Winter Palace is every bit as opulent as the Summer Palace with fantastic decoration on the ceilings and walls. The parquetry flooring is remarkable. It’s hard to imagine how much painstaking work went into creating them.

And then there’s the art. The works of every painter you’ve ever heard of is in the collection. I’ve included just a sample of European artists. There’s oriental art, Islamic art – everybody’s art. There are sculptures, porcelain ware, jewellery. There’s an Egyptian section with hieroglyphs and statues. We were supposed to be at the Hermitage just for the morning before moving on to shopping in Nevsky Prospekt but Irina was quite happy to skip the shopping trip and stay at the Hermitage. Even a day is just the tip of the iceberg. Like the British Museum, you could spend a week in here and then you’ve only just begun.

The lady herself, Catherine the Great

van Gogh



Probably Manet


The Malevich is to my mind one of those pretentious pieces where art critics look down at us plebs because we don’t recognise its worth. It’s called ‘black square’ and I seem to recall a figure like $1 million. Apparently he did four variations… don’t ask me .I’m just a pleb. Read all about it here. Give me Rembrandt any day. Look at the detail in the old man’s hands. I love the way he used light, too.

With just three of us in our little party, we took the chance to talk about politics. Irina told us that Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the dismantling of the USSR, is not popular in Russia. Maybe that’s why he lives in New York. Putin, on the other hand, is well liked. She also told us that when it came to changing the name of the city, many people wanted to keep the name Leningrad because of the nine-hundred-day siege during the war. A vote was taken and in the end a small majority preferred the old name – St Petersburg.

Wandering around inside a building is actually quite tiring. We were quite happy to head back to the ship for our 2pm curfew.

The Norwegian Sun sailed just before sunset, heading past the naval facility on Kronstadt. Rusting ships and submarines were tied up in holding pens, a monument to the Soviet days.

We sailed out through the barriers into the Baltic Sea. We were on our way to Helsinki.