Trong landed in Ho Chi Minh City a week before the opening of his exhibition, The Leavers, at Galerie Quynh. It was a welcoming, warm night, and the Tet new year's decorations could be seen in full force on the streets that were lined with lights and flowers. It felt a little like midtown Manhattan during the holidays. David arrived a few days later from Japan, and we immediately got to work.
First on the agenda was visiting Trong's two aunts and cousins, for the first time ever. The last time that he was here in 2009, Trong couldn't get in contact with any relatives, due to slower communications. This turn, thanks to Viber, he immediately got in touch with Oanh, a first cousin who offered to meet up and take him to see Bac Loc, the octogenarian aunt who lives in Trong's family's original house. She and her children came to live in the house after the war ended, knowing that her brother's family had left. Bac Loc, old and feeble now, mostly slept when we saw her, but every time she would get up from rest, her silver mane seemed in perfect Elvis order. Now we know where Trong's hair genes come from. Her son Linh dug up a few old photographs that he had stashed away, including one of the house when it was only a single story and still on a dirt road. They have since built it out to three stories, and the street is paved to neatly connect to the rest of HCMC's urban sprawl. After a short but sweet reunion, Oanh and her sisters invited us back to their house for a family lunch.
The following evening, it was time for Trong's opening. In Galerie Quynh's perfectly lit space on Dong Khoi street, near the opera house, he showed a number of new paintings that were made in New York over the last six months. The canvases depicted coloring book drawings of old family photographs, with the outlines absent. Emphasizing the blurred edges of memory and forcing the viewer to mentally draw in the lines that define, the series of paintings is one of several offshoot art projects directly inspired by the film. It was a fantastically fun evening, with an array of interesting guests and visitors, including Adriel Luis from the Smithsonian and Tiana Alexandra, the actress and director who made the seminal film From Hollywood to Hanoi. It felt, right at home, like an opening in Chelsea.
The following day, it was time to visit the other aunt, who lived 2 hours by car just east of HCMC, in the "country." Aunt Ti, the baby sister of Trong's mother, lives in a comfortable house that was built with family support over the years. She was so gracious and kind, having invited all the relatives in the area to come meet Trong and eat a big pre-Tet family lunch. They cleared the living room of all furniture, and as is country custom, the ground was swept and the food laid out directly on the floor. Lucky for him, Trong's oldest sister Hang had phoned Aunt Ti a few days before and told her all his favorite foods, which the lovely aunt sweetly obliged to make. It was a delicious spread - washed down with a lot of beer - and a festive atmosphere for getting to know the relatives, all twenty plus of them.
On to Hanoi, the capital. Galerie Quynh had arranged for Trong to give an artist's talk at the Goethe Institut, in collaboration with Manzi, a multi-purpose cafe, exhibition, and performance space ran by the ever energetic Bill Nguyen. Goethe itself supports numerous cultural and arts events in Vietnam, and we were happy to have them host and introduce us to the small but exciting art scene in the north. We had an interpreter at the talk, which was great because many of the audience members spoke solely Vietnamese, and it was wonderful to be able and connect with locals and travelers alike. The talk went on, and on, which no one seemed to mind, thank goodness.
On a side note, we won't detail any more mouth watering food escapades, but suffice it to say, if you have ever wanted to travel to Vietnam, you will not be disappointed by the culinary offerings. That alone will put a big smile on your weary globetrotting feet.
The next several days was spent doing touristy things and checking out the local artists and art scene. We visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the amazing Ethnographic Museum, and the Temple of Literature, a millenium-old Confucian compound that hosted the first national university in Vietnam, and thus venerates sages and scholars. Bill gave us a tour at Manzi, where he introduced us to works by a number of emerging artists. We also interviewed him. Throughout the trip, we sought the driving forces and figures behind contemporary art in Vietnam, hoping to glean another layer of perspective to DONG. In Hanoi, that meant tracking down the people behind Nha San, Vietnam's legendary art space dedicated to experimental art. Nha San was started by artist Nguyen Manh Duc and artist/curator Tran Luong. It literally translates as "House on Stilts," and was indeed a Muong dwelling transported from the mountains of Hoa Binh and reassembled inside Nguyen’s private home. The space has evolved over time, and currently comprises several spaces. The original location now operates as a cafe and serves as Nha San headquarters. The energy of the space was palpable, and one could easily imagine and rekindle the ghosts of radical performances past. Throughout its history, the space was censored and shut down multiple times by the authorities, but nonetheless continues to adapt and thrive. This is perhaps one of the true harbingers for change, and one often forgets the political underpinnings while traveling Vietnam, as there are many aspects of unadulterated capitalism and consumerism that would make one feel native to any international city.
While at Nha San, we caught up with one of the original founders, Tran Luong, who has become an important international spokesperson for contemporary Vietnamese art. As a very busy artist and curator, Luong's task is neverending, and he gave us much insight into the country's art scene at large.
In fact, all of our interviewees in both Hanoi and HCMC were very gracious and generous with their time. Some of those we filmed also included gallerist Suzanne Lecht, internationally renowned artist Dinh Q. Le, editor of & of Other Things Fabiola Buchele, and others. We couldn't be more thankful. We made new friends everywhere we went and of course, always seemed to enjoy a meal together.
David went northward from there, to visit the hill tribes. Trong went back to HCMC to continue trying to track down that elusive Renault Dauphine. No luck. Yet. That is for a future chapter.
On one of his last days in HCMC, Trong went on an excellent outing at the Museum of Fine Arts with Sophie Hughes, a historian who's art tours have opened an important window into the contemporary Vietnam art scene, and in particular connects the dots on how the new art continues to lean on, interface, and counter what came before it. After the tour, we went on a little boat ride along the Saigon River, catching the late afternoon sunset, combining banter and booze, and floating aimlessly for just a brief moment. Soon it's back to work!