When you were little, was there anything more exciting than a new kid moving into the neighbourhood? Not for me there wasn’t. Naturally, when it happened, I was the first to introduce myself and offer a local tour.
Even more importantly, I was the first to get into their house and have a nose around their stuff. Specifically, their art stuff. Seriously, I could not wait to find out what types of pencils, paints or paper they had. It was usually just a matter of days before we’d be shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing our crayons, and bonding over our mutual love of colouring books.
Fast forward 30 years, and not much has changed. Except now, I travel a little further than to the other side of the cul-de-sac!
On my recent trip to Vietnam, I was fortunate enough to participate in some local art classes and spend time with a number of artists who were happy to share their studios, secrets and stuff with me. Here were my three favourite classes from the trip:
1. Creating traditional Vietnamese paintings in Hoi An
Local artist, Sinh Trong, showed me how to make this handmade picture using rice paper, Chinese black ink and the finest badger-hair paintbrush. Interestingly, the local artists never wash these brushes. And, as a result, when the ink dries on them, they become firm and pointy—kind of like a pen.
Anyway, as it turns out, Sinh was a rather serious and strict teacher. He even told me off in class because I jumped a step ahead. He said, ‘You must follow my instructions to the letter, or you could end up making a mistake and wasting this very expensive piece of paper.’ When I asked him how much it cost, he replied, ‘One dollar!’ I must’ve had a blank look on my face, because after a moment’s pause, he added ‘U.S. dollar!’
2. Making miniature silk lanterns in Hoi An
Brought to Vietnam by Japanese settlers, these pretty little lanterns light up the streets of Hoi An’s ancient town every single night. As you can imagine, they are somewhat fiddly to make. You have to be careful not to get the super-sticky glue everywhere, remember to tightly stretch your silk around the delicate frame, and trim any excess fabric with absolute precision. Crafts like these are definitely not my strength, but fortunately, I had a very patient teacher. All things considered, I was quite happy with how my lantern turned out.
3. Decorating non la (palm-leaf conical-hats) in Hue
Made from dried palm leaves, conical hats are a traditional symbol of the Vietnamese people. You can buy them on almost every street corner for just a couple of dollars. In this class, we were told to paint ‘whatever we liked’ on a large conical hat using what seemed to be industrial-strength, never-coming-out-of-any-clothes, black paint.
I decided to recreate the traditional Vietnamese scene that Sinh had taught me. At first, I found it extremely difficult to paint across the ridges of the palm leaves, but eventually, I got the hang of it. Finally, the teacher showed me how to write ‘Beautiful Vietnam’ in traditional Vietnamese calligraphy on the back. Once the decorated hat had dried, I wore it for the entire remainder of the day. It gave me great pleasure to humiliate my partner that way.
So, there you go! Those were my three favourite tutorials in Vietnam. I’d like to say a big thank you to the local artists for sharing their time and space with me. As the new kid on their block, I was—and will continue to be—incredibly grateful for their generosity and patience.
If you’re interested in taking an art class in Vietnam, visit The LifeStart Foundation. They’re a grass-roots, not-for-profit charity organisation who help disadvantaged Vietnamese people and their families to become self-sufficient.
Victoria Hall is an English-born writer and illustrator with a passion for anything gothic, eccentric or quirky. She is the creator of three picture books for children, Penny Prickles at Coogee Beach, Eggy Peggy Has Lost Her Leggy and The Fairy Beasts. For more info, check out Victoria’s bio here.