In May 2013, I found myself in the lovely city of Hue, Vietnam. My partner and I wanted to do something different. We had been to the Citadel and taken the trip down the Perfume River to the Temples and Tombs and loved it all. But we wanted to see something of the ‘real’ Hue of old….how did the ordinary folk live in times gone by and what was left of that culture?
So we went to the village of Sinh where the ancient art of folk painting is still practiced.
The trip began with a short walk to the Perfume River where we boarded one of the Dragon boats. This time we went up river, in the opposite direction to the Tombs and Temples. The countryside was gentle and relaxing and all too soon we were ready to go ashore. However, our disappointment at leaving the river was soon replaced by the warm greeting that we received from Mr Ky Huu Phuoc and his charming wife.
Our guide explained that the village was once a bustling center of the production of the special folk paintings. Time and lack of interest from the younger generation leaves Mr Phuoc with the responsibility of being the last of the local artisans to carry on with the tradition. We felt very blessed to be able to share this time with such a warm hearted and talented man.
Through our interpreter, we learnt that Mr Phuoc, ably helped by his wife, makes his own paper. That in itself I found to be quite remarkable. They have no factory or industrial set up at all, just their home and garden space. To make the paper more sturdy and provide a sheen on the surface, they make a paste using shells taken from the river. In a hilarious few minutes of miming and playacting, I discovered directly from Mr Phuoc how they collect the shells and pound them into small pieces before mixing with water and making a paste. The effect is very pretty but in our industrial world where machines dominate, it was amazing to me that such a lot of effort was put into creating this lovely effect.
So we have the paper….all made and prepared with natural resources and ready to go. With this information tucked under my belt, I was invited to create an imprint using pre prepared, hand carved (of course) blocks of all of the animal symbols from the Vietnamese/Chinese horoscope. I chose my appropriate animal according to my birth year….the Tiger. But before we could start, I had a friendly disagreement when Mr Phuoc insisted that I was a Cat and not a Tiger. We finally agreed the dates lined up for the more demonstrative Tiger.
So having created my black outlined print, I was then invited to paint it. Recognizing my total absence of any artistic skills, Mrs Phuoc kindly gave me a finished product to copy. With great relief I set about creating my masterpiece.
I was offered a range of colors to use and a rather short and unusual paintbrush. Always curious, I asked about both. All of the paints were made using products from nature…. plants and flowers provided the nature and lovely range of colors. So this man not only creates his own paper and glaze, he also makes his own paint and colors, not to mention carving the printing blocks. (oh, forgot to mention, he built his own house and work area). So then I was intrigued with the paint brush to be told that the stem was made from bamboo and the bristles were taken from the wild papaya plant.
Engrossed in my creativity, I thought about the work and love that went into this life and creation and sent out a strong wish that someone was willing and interested in carrying on this wonderful set of skills.
Creativity over, we were offered tea (delicious) and fresh fruit from the tree (yummy) in the front garden. I bought some of the folk paintings created by the master and a bamboo casing to keep them safe in my travels. We then took our leave after having a wonderful time.
Instead of going back to Hue by river, we headed across country on the back of a couple of bikes. It was harvest time for the rice crops and so we were able to see many people hard at work in the fields. The landscape around Hue is flat but really beautiful in its clarity and simplicity.
En route back, we stopped off at the village where Ho Chi Minh lived in his adolescence. It is a small, humble home very well preserved and cared for and we loved it. As well as being a significant piece of Vietnamese history, it offered a perfect example of homes as they were built in the last centuries.
And back to Hue, exhausted and very happy after a truly lovely day of relaxation, creativity, friendship, excitement (it was certainly exciting on the back of the bike!) and history. Off for a shower, change and a drink at the local bar.