23 January 2011

A Museum & Artists

The combination of Colonial French Architecture, cool interiors, and marvelous artwork makes the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts a lovely retreat from the chaos that surrounds it. I had heard that it had originally been a commercial building, but their website says that it was used to board the daughters of the French Colonial rulers. No wonder I always feel like I could take up residence inside the museum.

My friend and I arrived the day they were having some sort of ceremony, possibly an art contest finale as several of the works had prize rankings attached to them. Lots of people and lots of floral arrangements graced the main entrance. However, the rest of the art filled rooms, covering three floors, were quite empty.

We strolled through the wide corridors with open windows on our left and into rooms on the right with examples of art ranging from the 1930’s to the present. There were oils and lacquer works, sculpture and acrylics. Several areas showcased ancient ethnic artwork. We walked up the wide staircases glowing with color from stained-glass windows that looked out onto the courtyard below.

It always amazes me that these old buildings, with no air conditioning, are never hot and usually have a nice breeze running through them. Perfect tropical architecture. In some of the museum rooms there were small fans, but they weren’t on and at the time we were there and were not needed.

The Fine Arts Museum really is the best place in town to cool down, relax, and feel revitalized.


Walking back from the backpackers’ area on Pham Ngu Lau St., I passed a small group of people in a tiny shop that opened onto the street. I could see that an older woman was instructing two young men who were working on an oil painting. Two other men and a young woman sat on small, folding chairs out front, and a few others were inside the small space. I stopped to watch their work and caught the eye of one of the guy’s who was inside. What with the noise of traffic and my limited Vietnamese, I did hand signals to indicate that I was watching the artists work and that I liked what they were doing. A look of surprise came over the young man’s face and he started to use sign language to reply.

Years and years ago, I took several semesters of American Sign Language and since that time, whenever I am overseas, I tend to use signs that are clear to anyone. It has gotten to the point that I assume I am using Universal Gestures, and some of the time I possibly am, but this time I was actually using ASL.

I know from my last trip to Vietnam, when I had a similar experience, that ASL is quite similar to VNSL. I assume that is because ASL is based on French Sign Language and that the French brought Sign Language to Vietnam.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting with the group chatting. This consisted of Sign Language and Vietnamese and English. Some was written down in English, and some was translated by the Vietnamese teacher, who was hearing but spoke limited English, and some by the young deaf man who had spent fifteen years in Australia. We were all so excited that we could communicate together.

They were part of the SHI, (Saigon Hearing Impairment), Fine Arts Club. They gave me a brochure of an exhibition going on just down the road, and pointed out their works pictured in the brochure.

This was really the first time since arriving that I remembered why I go off to other parts of the world; it’s for these truly magical moments that simply don’t happen when one knows one’s surroundings and the people that populate it.

For about thirty minutes we talked about where I was from, what I did, and a little about their lives. I learned that ASL has a far larger vocabulary than VNSL. The young man I first spoke with told me that his friend was studying at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, CA. Excitement reigned when I told him that it was very close to where I was from in California.

When it was time for me to dash off so that I could catch the little shuttle bus back to my hotel, (rather than pay for a taxi), I promised to go by their exhibition and to come by again. I plan to go the see their work tomorrow and go back to talk sometime next week.