by Cassidy Armbruster
We headed out very early in the morning. After stopping for some traditional Vietnamese coffee, making our way to a local market and admiring the old Chinese architecture along the street, we took a small wooden boat across the Perfume River. Our drivers met us at the other side of the river with the Vespa’s, and took us on the most scenic and vibrant drive through tall mountains and green rice paddies. We eventually made it to a small village along the water, and wove through quiet streets with smiling kids climbing trees until we arrived at a little home. The five of us were led by our tour guide into a man’s front yard where he had two tables filled with paper, ink, prints, and folk art.
We sat down and were offered refreshing glasses of green tea. The man asked us if we knew our zodiac symbols according to the Chinese calendar. “I am the year of the dog,” I responded, though somewhat unsure. He checked a chart behind him to make sure I was correct, and then proceeded to show me how to make a print art of the dog. The man dedicates his time to preserving this ancient folk art tradition. I pressed the paper onto the block of ink and let the sheet dry in the sun for a few minutes.
The man then led us to another table where we could paint our prints with organic paint made of raw ingredients from the earth. The other couple in the group was born the year before me in the year of the rooster, and were a tad more artistic than I. The man laughed at my dog painting, as I had used multiple colors and shapes to fill the dog in. He was presumably expecting a more traditional painting of the dog. Though communication was difficult, the man’s body language and his willingness to help and teach us through demonstration made it obvious that he was excited to have us in his home.
With the rise of communism, most forms of artistic expression such as this became illegal in Vietnam, thus much of the tradition withered with time. This man, however, hopes to preserve the tradition by continuing to make print art in his home, as well as to teach the tradition to others. Though this form of folk art is very much Vietnamese, it retains so much Chinese influence because Vietnam didn’t gain independence from China until the 10th century. This is why we made woodblock prints of the Chinese zodiac symbols. Historically, prints have also been made of good luck signs, historical figures, daily life, and for social commentary. Though the tradition is very much rooted in history, he has modified some methods for aesthetic reasons, as well as for efficiency. As translated by our tour guide, the man explained that he sometimes uses artificial dye to make more colourful prints. He also pulled out a blow dryer, plugged it in, and dried my paper so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the nuisance of carrying a wet runny sheet of paper all day.
After lingering around his yard for a while, we waved goodbye and hopped back on the Vespa’s for a ride to the community center of the small village. This is where people gather, and once a year have an intense wrestling match. If you interested in escaping city life for the day, join the incredibly insightful and stunning countryside tour where you can get lost in old Vietnamese traditions.