Tuesday, April 29, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Traveling to Hue and Hanoi

Hanoi Street Market
After a lovely  trip along the sea, over the mountains, and past rural agricultural and fishing communities, we arrived for just one night in Hue, the imperial city of the Nguyen dynasty. En route we visited a wonderful temple.  That evening we were treated to royal feast where we dressed in traditional royal clothing. I kept wanting to bow to Bob who looked like a Catholic Bishop to me.
Dressed for the Imperial Banquet
(grownups playing dressup!)
Our group feasting and enjoying live traditional music
We were out very early in the morning to visit the Nguyen Imperial Citadel and the Forbidden Purple City and a local monastery. There we boarded a boat to travel on the Perfume River to our lunch. 

Imperial City of Nguyen dynasty

Car driven to Saigon in 1963 by the monk who immolated himself
protesting South Vietnam's government that discriminated against
After lunch we flew to Hanoi, a city about 430 miles north of Hue. I knew from the information provided that being in North Vietnam, we would have a different climate. Immediately it was cool and we wore layers until we traveled on to Laos. 
Hanoi culture is both similar and different from South Vietnam. During the French colonial period, Hanoi was the capital and some of the French architecture remains. During the American War (known to us as the Vietnam War), North Vietnam was the center of the communist movement to reunify Vietnam and remove foreign government involvement. Today it is the capital of a reunified Vietnam, home of the monolithic communist government, and a capitalistic economy with many foreign companies occupying business parks. There is a more serious feel to the city.
The most interesting piece of the economy to me is all the small businesses; it seems there are many more than we have in the USA. In the city are many shops stuffed with merchandise and street vendors who are licensed to cook on the streets and serve meals. There are many more popup businesses, such as the woman in my painting -- selling fruit from her bicycle on a side street in Hanoi. This practice is illegal but often overlooked. As a cyclist I am in awe of what people can carry on their bicycles.
Bicycles, along with scooters, are to Vietnam what cars are to the USA.
Old Hanoi thrives
In the smaller towns as we traveled in rural Vietnam, every home has a business on the street level -- scooter repair, barbers, clothing shops, markets, furniture builders, and restaurants, to name but a few. The people are very industrious and maintain their close family ties.
Small town homes and businesses
We visited the Temple of Literature, site of the oldest university in Vietnam, dating back more than a thousand years. We also visited Hoa Lo Prison, famously known as the Hanoi Hilton to North American flyers like John McCain who were imprisoned there along with many Vietnamese enemies of the Viet Cong.  Some of McCain's uniform is on display. We were told not to ask to be taken to the Hanoi Hilton because we would end up at a hotel! The prisons visits were very sobering.
We took in a charming piece of culture, the Water Puppet Theater. These puppets were originally created by farmers during the monsoon season. The puppeteers stand in waist deep water behind a curtain and  manipulate the wooden puppets by sticks under the water. There is live music. The small skits are charming stories of love and day-to-day life. Today the theater is a huge tourist attraction on the shores the Hoan Kiem Lake.

Time Out for Art Business


Where is the rest of the tour? I had an art show almost immediately after returning from Indochina and then I had to prepare for Silicon Valley Open Studios, three weekends of 400 art studios open to the public. So I've been framing, matting, ordering supplies, and piecing together a booth.  That and a busy life got in the way. Here is an approximation of my invitation to SVOS (format has to be different for the blog). I am almost ready, so I will resume my tour posts.

Silicon Valley Open Studios
May 10 and 11, 2014
821 Riverside Drive, Los Altos, CA 94024
11:00 AM - 5:00 PM.  

The 28th Annual Silicon Valley Open Studios is coming right up. Save the date. This year I will feature my watercolors and collages on canvas, a recently added medium. In addition, you can select from matted, unframed watercolor, acrylic, charcoal, and conte works. New works also will be available in greeting card format.

“November Morning at Byington Winery”
Santa Crus Mountains
24” x 20” framed watercolor
  “City by the Bay”
20” x 18” torn magazine collage on canvas
My art business can now accept credit cards, as well as cash and check, though there is never an obligation to purchase. I value your interest and support. 

This year I was invited to join a group of very talented artists at a popular Los Altos site: Wendy Marshall,  watercolorist; Jeanne De Campos-Rousseau, mixed media artist; Janet Trabucco,  craft artist; and Debbie Bobby, jeweler,   There are many Open Studios in the area that week, so you can plan an enjoyable day viewing art.  

See http://svos.org/ for more information about the three-weekend art extravaganza and to map out your art trail.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Rural Vietnam

"Rice Harvest in the Mekong Delta Region"
"Cao Dai Temple"
We traveled by buses, boats, and planes.  As we traveled out of Ho Chi Minh City, we saw this amazing scene of rural produce being delivered to the city. This was, of course, a common sight.
Rural produce heads to market
The bus trips gave us opportunities to view the more rural areas of the countries. On our travels to the Mekong Delta, we saw the great rice fields where the country people tended their harvest. This is extremely hard work, as the person is standing or squatting in water. Mostly this is considered women's work, but I saw quite a few men working as well. The scene is colorful, because the Vietnamese wear their conical hats, a wonderful invention to protect from sun while allowing air circulation. The hats were not prevalent in the other countries we visited.
The spiritual life is ever present. We stopped at a Cao Dai temple, which later I realized was a very different temple after seeing many traditional Buddhist and Hindu places of worship. The religion is unique and colorful, founded in the 1920s. It combines secular and religious philosophies, and is  based on séance messages revealed to its founder, Ngo Minh Chien. Because the Vietnamese people revere their ancestors, the religion makes sense to me. What struck me was the lavish use of neon in this temple, something you did not see at the many other temples we visited. I chose to paint a part of the façade.

Another sight, especially prevalent in Southern Vietnam, is the burial of family members in the back yard or the rice paddies in raised graves. This photo was taken from the bus, hence the poor quality. This is very interesting to a Westerner used to formal cemeteries. Their veneration of the dead is based on the belief that the dead have a continued existence and can influence the fortune of the living. It is important to respect and look after ancestors in their afterlives, and they often seek their guidance.  The family prefers to remain on the land to care for their dead. I reminded myself that we also honor our dead, though in different way.

Family ancestors buried in the Mekong rice fields.
There was so much gorgeous scenery to see. We traveled by bus from Hoi An to Hue. When the air conditioning quit in almost 100 degree heat and high humidity, we got to relax on a restaurant patio at China Beach while repairs were made.


 Heading out of Danang, we climbed the mountains and were treated to this view.



Sunday, April 6, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Hoi An, the Lantern Town

"The Lantern Town"
Leaving Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) from Tan Son Nhat airport, familiar as a major base during the Vietnamese/American War, we flew to Danang, another major base for Americans. Some of you will remember China Beach which served as an R&R location for American troops. We drove past the beach and about an hour to Hoi An, a beautiful small UNESCO town, free of pollution and city bustle, which has been revived by tourist visits. The Thu Bon River silted in years ago killing the port trade. With the return of tourists, Hoi An blossomed. There is a wonderful Old Town with a mixture of Japanese and Chinese architecture. There is the Japanese Bridge, built in 1593.
Japanese Bridge

We visited the Chua Thanh Pagoda, established by Chinese in the 1500s. I begin to understand the Chinese and Japanese influence in Vietnam.
Chua Thanh Pagoda
 We walked the town with our guide and learned of the history. The streets are lined by shops. The town is known for custom shoes and clothing. Bob and I both had shoes made overnight for a very reasonable price. We were very restrained in purchasing goods, and felt these were worthwhile.
The old streets are filled with shops.
Our busy tour day that started in Ho Chi Minh City ended with a cyclo tour of Hoi An, and somehow I felt pretty silly being pedaled around in a long line of cyclos when I love to ride bikes.

Our cyclo tour awaits.
The resort on the river was very charming. I took yoga one morning and was amazed at how well I felt after my body cracked its way into place.

The second full day saw us walking through the market and taking a cooking class. We enjoyed our lunch on the goodies we made -- spring rolls, Hoi An pancakes, and a chicken dish. What fun. We went home with a souvenir tool to quickly peel and dice mangos and other fruits, very clever and simple. Who needs a Cuisinart. We bought a second tool for $1.00 that replaces a mandolin.

We had some leisure time and I finally caught up on some sleep with a long nap and pleasant evening with tour friends. The following morning Bob and I borrowed free bikes from the resort and rode across a lovely bridge into a neighborhood. The people in that section of town are very prosperous. The ride along the river is pleasant. We maneuvered through scooter traffic for a just a few blocks and it was rather exhilarating to find I knew enough about their full-on approach to driving that I did not get hit.



Thursday, April 3, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Life on the Mekong Delta

"Life on the Mekong Delta"

Up and at 'em early for a trip to the Mekong Delta. This river dominates multiple countries, running from Tibet to the China Sea (the Vietnamese call it the East Sea). We would stay on the river in Laos, and travel near it in Cambodia.

Life on the delta is so different from what I know. The river is the highway of the community. Boarding a boat after a lengthy bus ride, we feasted on the sights. Floating markets pass us: large boats carrying produce, the wash hung out, small vegetable gardens on the prow, usually with a husband and wife on board. There are always eyes painted on the front of the boat, to ensure a safe journey. Learning the beliefs of the culture is a daily task for us. Many Vietnamese who identify as Buddhists or demurely say they have no religion have beliefs that mingle Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism with ancient animism.

Houses cling to the shore on stilts and hug each other. Some are ramshackle, others more solid, a few downright prosperous. One feels the ancient life that continues today. We stopped at a local village and walked the roads. I am amazed by the versatility of the commerce. Little mom and pop businesses sell food, make furniture, carve statues, fire bricks, and cut lumber. We visit a few businesses that are very profitable and obviously making money with tours as well. We visit one where women are making and packaging crispy rice papers for sales to city markets. Everything is done on the floor or small stools. We Americans should be so limber. People squat or sit on their haunches. One woman making the rice papers said she makes 3000 a day. A half dozen people did the packaging. The woman who started the business is doing well, judging from her substantial home across the narrow path, squeezed in with more modest dwellings.

In the next shop a women had a more comfortable setup (from my Western perspective). She stood at a slab while making traditional rice papers, steam rising in the 98 degree heat. Everything is open to allow air to flow. Life is lived en plein air.
"Making Rice Papers"

The next small business made delicious candies by hand. We tasted the luscious coconut gems that were like caramels. On to another factory with some cooking done over rice husks. Here we were treated to tea and nibbles. All of this industry was going on within the equivalent a couple city blocks.

Next we take one of the tributaries to visit a gorgeous old traditional home and have lunch served in a lush tropical garden. Fish were swimming in tiny waterways on the property and one made it onto our table, fully intact, and served in a rack in his natural position with a heavily salted outer skin. He was delicious. Leaving, our guide wished to continue through to the main river rather than backtracking. The boat crew seemed concerned and not far down the way, we all had to shift to the front, with Bob pushing up against the underside of a bridge for us to pass. Along the way we saw furniture and brick making businesses lining the water. This day tour was one of my favorites.
Some of our group enjoying lunch

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Indochina - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

"Flowers for Women's Day"
Saigon, March 8

Our long journey to Asia ended after 11 pm on March 7th, 15 hours ahead of San Jose, with arrival in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). We were met by our tour director and a local guide who whisked us into the city to the New World Hotel, headquarters for previous US Presidential visits. The late Friday night street scene delights the senses, with families dining on the streets and the street market sellers packing their wares. April tells us that the locals are very social and family oriented. This is a city with over 7 million inhabitants and they love to spend time together.

My Lonely Planet guidebook describes it as "Vietnam at its most dizzying, a high octane city of commerce and culture that has driven the whole country forward with its limitless energy and booming economy." There are teeming markets; people on the street selling vegetables, fish, and meat, families seated on tiny stools at makeshift cafes in front of ramshackle wooden shops that sell all kinds of wares, skyscrapers; large modern malls; wide boulevards and French architecture harking back to colonial occupation; ancient temples, churches, a gorgeous opera house, and government buildings. I was exhausted and on sensory overload.

Our day began early at the hotel breakfast buffet. We were never disappointed with our accommodations and the gorgeous breakfasts. Not only could we have Vietnamese pho, but also American and English versions of eggs and omelets and all the usual trimmings, or select from Japanese and Chinese offerings.  These countries thrive on tourists from other parts of Asia. The fruits and yogurt were delicious, especially Dragonfruit, unfamiliar to us, with a lovely pink outer skin and white fruit dotted with tiny black seeds.

The scene outside the restaurant is Saigon at its finest. A beautiful park across the street encouraged good health with exercise equipment and a Tai Chi class in session. Scooters filled the boulevard, ridden by many people wearing masks for sun and pollution protection, and often whole families or marketers with their wares amazed us with their ability to exploit the scooters to the max. Our first day was International women's day, so the flower sellers were doing a brisk business. From the bus window I captured the scooter with a couple and a basket of flowers buzzing through an insane intersection.
 Off to work
When first observing the scene, it's hard to imagine crossing the street as a pedestrian. There is no such thing as a protected crosswalk, though there are a few crosswalks. I had read how to approach the task and the guide confirmed for us. Walk slowly, do not make eye contact, and be very predictable. The drivers will fly around you. They will try to miss you, but they will not slow down. Actually, by the time we reached Bangkok, we realized that Vietnam has traffic figured out. In Bangkok there are many cars and few scooters or bicycles. It would take us 20 or 30 minutes to travel a few blocks.

After orientation we headed out to tour the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum,  lunch, and the beautiful French influenced former Post Office. That afternoon I  swam in the pool while Bob napped, a reasonable break to allow acclimation. The Museum was an education in the "American War." Travel gives us the world perspective. Vietnam has had many wars, including the French War and the American War.  Our name for the war is not descriptive. There was a powerful photo display featuring works by war photographers from all over the world who gave their lives covering the news.  I could appreciate their view of the war, different than ours.

Reunification Palace - home and offices of the President of South Vietnam during the war
French-influenced Former Post Office

That evening, we went to the garden restaurant at the top of the Rex Hotel where some of our fellow travelers found that they would be challenged eating the local dishes. Bob and I love Vietnamese food which is plentiful in our area. There are differences, though, when you eat it in the native country. I found most of the food delicious.

Saturday night in Saigon

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Indochina

March 6-27, 2014
We returned last Thursday from Southeast Asia. As I raised my babies amidst the horrors of the Vietnam War, the thought of traveling there never entered my mind. The war is long over, many of our community are resettled here from Vietnam, and the IBM Retirees Club was offering a tour of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, with an optional extension to Bangkok, Thailand. We decided that this would be our big 2014 trip. Bob had never been on a formal tour (we are do-it-yourselfers) but was game for our first visit to Asia.
A 15 hour flight to Hong Kong, a 3 hour layover, a 2 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon to anyone over 50) and a group of 21 seasoned travelers assembled at the New World Hotel with guide April Smith from the Collette Foundation. To follow was a complex journey into cultures that I knew only in passing and history told by those who own it. We would be kept very busy everyday without any real time to capture drawings in the moment. I decided to take pens, my tiny Koi watercolor set, and a 5" x 7" sketchbook. With ink, my drawing errors are honestly recorded, and there is a freshness in paintings displaying all the artists marks. I would draw and paint by looking at the viewer of my point and shoot camera in those rare moments when we had an hour free.