It’s not well known that Nha Trang has a thriving arts scene. The seaside capital of Khanh Hoa Province is thought of as a holiday destination first, famous for its long sunny days, beaches and seafood. No one goes there for the arts.
But that’s about to change, after the unlikely collaboration between a well-known local photographer and the Austrian general manager of a five-star resort in Cam Ranh Bay. Together, they’ve come up with plans to launch Nha Trang’s first ever art tour.
Last year, Herbert Laubichler-Pichler, from The Anam Resort, had been looking for local pieces of artwork to hang in his soon-to-be-opened resort, to decorate it and to showcase the latent artistic talent that he had noticed in the city and its surrounds.
It would only be a matter of time before Herbert would cross paths with Nha Trang photographer and local identity Mai Loc, an artist with an intriguing personal history that has seen him rise from poverty to prominence as an internationally exhibited and respected photographer and gallery owner over the past 20 years.
“I came from the bottom of society,” recalls Loc at his gallery in the centre of town. “I was a cyclo driver for eight years until a traveller’s generosity turned my life around.”
From there, Herbert was introduced to other artists from Nha Trang including representatives of the Vietnamese Art Association of Khanh Hoa Province. One of those people was Hong Van, the wife of prominent Nha Trang painter Bui Van Quang.
“I heard from Loc that he had been working with Herbert and that his photos were hanging on the walls at The Anam,” says Van, who has become the unofficial spokesperson and tour guide for the project. “Then one day Herbert told him that he wanted more local artwork for the resort and asked to be put in contact with local artists.”
On the proposed tour, guests will be chauffeured by car to the studios of at least four local artists. There are many artists based in Nha Trang, therefore, venues will be rotated to give every artist involved an opportunity to have their work seen by visitors throughout the year.
According to Van, Nha Trang is a great place for artists to live, but not to make a living.
“Nha Trang is a very nice city with the sun and sea and landscapes,” she explains. “But it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves as a destination for art lovers.”
The Oil Painter
On this particular afternoon, the first artist we visit is a 61-year-old oil painter Ngo Thai Binh who’s been painting for almost 30 years in his makeshift studio in the front room of his house that he shares with his mother. He’s excited to have visitors to his house to view his work and has his niece on standby to take photos of every smile, question asked, or inquisitive look at his work.
“I owe my pathway into art to my mother,” says Binh. “She never had much of an understanding of art, but she saw that I loved it so she helped me follow my interest.”
Over the years, Binh has juggled work with painting. He was originally a soldier before gaining work as an artist for Khanh Hoa TV, painting sets and backdrops for TV shows and later moonlighting as a university art teacher in Nha Trang and Hanoi.
“I don’t really have a style attached to my artwork but I draw inspiration from Cubist and Expressionist schools of art,” Binh says.
At our next stop we begin to gain an understanding of the eclectic group of artists Herbert and Van have put together for their proposed art tour. This time we visit 37-year-old sculptor Bui Trung Chinh who works with local clay and is often commissioned to sculpt busts of the dead.
“My family were stonemasons who made headstones for graves,” says Chinh, who sees the humour in the connection between his family background and what he does to supplement his regular income carving ostrich eggshells for tourists and locals. “From the time I was in grade five at school, I helped my family sculpt busts of dead people from cement.”
But Chinh’s true love lies in sculpting pressed metal. His work is provocative as he’s motivated by events that have taken place in the East Sea over the decades between Vietnam and China. His piece depicting one historic skirmish in 1988 when 66 soldiers died defending Vietnam is dark but moving.
Chinh also finds inspiration from the local fishing villages and the sea surrounding Nha Trang. The Cham people from the area are also a subject of interest for him with each piece having Chinh’s trademark angular human heads and sullen expressions.
“Yes, Picasso has been an inspiration for me,” says Chinh with a laugh suggesting he’d been waiting for the question.
The Soldier & His Wife
Our tour ends with a visit to the home of a young married couple who have an impressive gallery in the front room of their home, housing a large collection of both their works and other painters from the area.
Luu Thanh Qua named the gallery after his wife, Bao Tran, perhaps fitting, as it’s she who is the subject of much of his work. Qua is a lieutenant in the military, yet his work, mostly in oil but sometimes acrylic, is upbeat, colourful, and typically depicts women performing daily tasks in traditional ao dai.
When asked if it’s intentional that his work highlights the role of women in Vietnamese society, his wife is quick to answer for him.
“He wants to show that Vietnamese women work very hard for their husband and children,” she says. “He wants to bring these colours into his life because his work is difficult.”
After Qua insists that he sketches a portrait of us in charcoal as a gift for visiting his home, the tour is over and we leave having learnt as much about the stories behind the artists as we had of their works. There’s more to them than meets the eye.
Photos by Mike Palumbo