Art, artifacts, and kitsch cathedrals

Despite my distinct lack of sleep over the past few nights, I woke up this morning fresh as a daisy. I updated my journal, used the internet and was the majority of the way through my breakfast at the Sinh Cafe before Kotoe surfaced. We set off to Ho Chi Minh City’s Fine Art Museum, dodging traffic on the city’s crazy roads and passing numerous shoe shops selling knock off Doctor Marten sandals with a ridiculously high $50 price tag.

The Art Museum is housed in a classic yellow and white Asian European style building, which was built by French Architects in the early 20th century. It was previously privately owned by a businessman, Hui Bon Hoa before its conversion. There is an imposing entrance lobby and stairwell, and all work on display is exhibited in several large rooms leading of a couple of long corridors on each floor. The first floor (or ground floor, as is called in Western society) introduces selected works from individual artists, both domestic and international. Much of the work however depicts well known places in Vietnam such as Halong Bay and My Son, or scenes of Vietnamese life. There’s a good mix of styles, techniques and genres, as well as a few pieces of modern sculpture. The second floor contains pieces of contemporary art from experienced artists who graduated from Indochina and Gia Dinh Art School, and the third displays collections of antique art (art artifacts and funeral statues) and traditional handicrafts.

Following our enjoyable perusal of the work on display, we took a coffee break at The Garden Cafe in the museum’s courtyard. At the moment I am only carrying U.S dollars as currency, and – as I discovered when settling the bill for my iced coffee – this presents you with the following problem :

  • Most cafes, restaurants and small shops use the exchange rate of 15,000VND to the dollar (some as little as 13,000VND, as was the case at The Garden Cafe) when the official exchange rate at the bank is a little over 16,000VND to the dollar. Thus you will lose at least 1000VND for each transaction you make.

After having consumed our Ca-fe su-da (iced coffee with milk), we headed over to The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City (not to be confused with The Ho Chi Minh Museum which is soley dedicated to the life of Ho Chi Minh himself), stopping for a browse and a fruit shake at Ben Thanh Market. The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City displays artifacts from the various periods of the communist struggle for power in Vietnam, however many exhibits seemed to have little relevance and the whole tour became very labourious as a result. Considering it’s a museum, there were articles on display which i don’t consider old enough to be considered ‘historical’, such as the former British 5 pound note, which only went out of circulation less than a decade ago (i think – correct me if i’m wrong!)

Our plan next was to visit The Re-unification Palace, which Lonely Planet describes as ” one of the most fascinating sites in Ho Chi Minh City.” However, when we reached the palace gates we were informed by one of the officials that it is in fact closed for refurbishment until June 2006, and a large sign on the wall re-iterated this fact. So instead we continued along to Notre Dam Cathedral, the sky growing rapidly darker as we walked. The cathedral was built between 1877 and 1883, and from the outside the building is a spectuacular piece of work : it is Neo-Romanesque with two 40m high square towers, tipped with iron spires, which dominate the city’s skyline. Unfortunately the inside is disastrously kitsch, with ‘Ava Maria’ illuminated in neon lights at the front of the nave and a statue of the virgin Mary donning an electric blue neon halo.

As soon as we left Notre Dam, the tiny specks of rain landing on my face fell in rising quantities and we soon found ourselves far from home in the middle of a full blown storm. We took shelter inside the Diamond Department Store and spent the next couple of hours trying on silly hats and clothes we couldn’t afford, and drinking coffee in the mezzanine cafe next to a couple of young Vietnamese girls who looked like they’d just stepped out of a fashion shoot.

When the worst of the storm was over, we began our journey home. Innumerable puddles had formed on the pavement and someone was wringing the remaing droplets of rain from the clouds. When we got half the way along D Bui Vien (a couple of minutes walk from our guesthouse), the road suddenly disappeared beneath a mass of rain water which covered both the street and the pavement either side. Our only option was to join the Vietnamese and wade through the water, plastic bags and vegetable scraps floating around my feet as i walked. Motorbikes passed me, splashing me with dirty flood water, cyclo drivers in oversized rain macs continued to search for custom, and a lone fruit cart stood unattended at the side of the road, only the top of its wheels visible above the surface of the water. As we neared the turning into D Do Quang Dau, the water suddenly became deeper, touching the bottom of my thighs. It reminded me of being back home in the middle of the October 2000 flood, only the water here was a lot warmer, which made wading through it instantly a more enjoyable experience.

We trawled our sodden feet into Bich Thuy, showered, changed into some clean clothes and headed back out in search of some food. In under an hour the water levels had already dropped substantially, so we were able to make it to Kim’s Cafe without getting too wet. Many of the locals were also dining here, which is always a good indicator as to the quality of the food. Indeed it was good and very reasonably priced. I ate fish fried in Vietnamese sauce for 22,000VND and shared some shrimp spring rolls (30,000VND) with Kotoe.

We finished the evening by enjoying a beer Hoi at one of the small street cafes on D Bui Vien and watching snippets of Vietnamese life. The crazy sumo wrestler who we encountered on our arrival showed up on his motorbike to buy fresh crab from the adjacent food vendor and we became increasingly puzzled by the number of men on push bikes shaking tiny bells which sound like tambourines. We noticed that all of them have briefcases strapped to the back of the bike or in the basket on the front, which made us wonder if they were in fact selling something. But what? and why is it never on show? The mystery of the briefcase carrying tambourine men gets curiouser and curiouser . . .

Photo is of the Fine Art Museum, Ho Chi Minh City.

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One thought on “Art, artifacts, and kitsch cathedrals

  1. Hi Kiara,Great blog, it looks like you’re having a wonderful time in Asia…I was wondering if you had more pictures of the Fine Art Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. This house actually belonged to my parents, until they left Vietnam in 1975! I was born just after they fled, so I have never lived in this place myself, but I would love to learn more about it… Feel free to contact me at eddie@shiromi.com, Thanks! Eddie

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