Saturday, May 29, 2010

The train to Ulaanbaatar

I woke up at 5.30am to make sure that I would be in time to catch the 7.45am train, K23, to Ulaanbaatar.

This was to be an interesting trip for several reasons. The first was that I shared the cabin with two lovely ladies from Oregon. One was a retired nurse, Mary. And the other, Karen, was thinking of retiring. They had spent a week in Beijing and were on their way to Mongolia as volunteers for a charity called earthwatch. They did not know what exactly they would do for two weeks, but they said they could end up counting wild life. This was their fourth volunteering trip. I guess we all agreed that we had restless spirits. It was very interesting talking to them on all sorts of things like healthcare in America and stone carvings of the Native American Indians. I had the privilege of advising them on how to prepare their first bowl of instant noodles.

I also met a Singaporean couple on an overland journey from Hanoi to London. I had a blog post about them. It was surprising and delightful to meet other Singaporeans on the same path, more or less.

And although it was tiring, the border crossing from China into Mongolia turned out to be a technical treat. The train gauges in China and Mongolia are different. So the Chinese engineers had to unhitch all the carriages, lift them up using hydraulic lifts and change the wheels and put the whole train back together again.

They also changed the Chinese food carriage for a Mongolian food carriage. For the first time I was happy to not have a Chinese food carriage. I do not know why, but the food in the Chinese carriage was very very salty. On the Mongolian carriage, I had my first taste of Mongolian food for breakfast, rice and beef wrapped up in a thin pancake.

And all this was just inside the train. On the outside the landscape was turning into rolling planes and the vegetation was becoming sparse. We went through at least a couple of sandstorms and one in the evening, while we were sleeping, and brought in quite a lot of sand into the cabin. The carriage attendant, I suspect was allergic to dust. He wore a mask and kept on closing any open windows. The passengers the other hand, were feeling hot and kept trying to open the windows. The skies in Mongolia were blue as advertised, and the clouds looked like water colour paintings.

I was met at Ulaanbaatar station by the tour guide for my tour which starts tomorrow, Sunday. It was nice to be picked up and sent to the hotel for a change. Although I have a few pictures of Ulaanbaatar on the day I arrived, I will write a separate post on it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Beijing Black and White

Binging in Beijing

This is my fourth visit to Beijing. And through my visits I have changed and so has Beijing. And this being the fourth visit, has also allowed me to be less of a 'tourist'. I started off by staying at the Houtong Inn, which is in the heart of historical Beijing. Finding my way to the hotel, I saw locals exercising, cluttered doorways with bicycles and charms pasted on the doors leading into narrow corridors. The hotel itself is basic, but I had a bed, a bathroom and internet access. I was happy.

I was also fortunate to have friends in Beijing. I met Stefen Chow before he left for some jobs in Singapore. Qin Pei, who once assisted me, is now a film maker in Beijing. She had some spare time to take me to the 798 art space and for really yummy Beijing duck. So it was nice to have some company for a change.

There are parts of Beijing, that like Shanghai, have become modern and consumerists. Big shiny buildings and spiritually hollow. It is like once we all have made some money, we instantly want to buy Louis Vuitton or Giorgio Armani. Or eat MacDonalds. All right, there are times that I do need a quick meal and eat at Macs. And if I really had to get a swish suit I may consider Armani, but as a traveler, I do not visit Asian countries for International brands. Near my hotel is Nanluoguxiang. An interesting street for tourist shopping, with a Chinese flavor that is authentic. It is more like how some European countries sell souvenirs, with more than a superficial gloss. In Thailand, some of the tourist souvenirs are simply rip offs of western humor. In Beijing, they make jibes with their old communist propaganda posters. And their humor is sharp.

I guess in this sense, on this particular journey, I enjoyed Beijing much more than I enjoyed Shanghai. This is because I felt that Beijing was comfortable being complex, in encompassing the ordinary citizens, the intellectuals, the internationally rich, all together. I felt Shanghai trying to deny its soul by putting up a shiny new front. It could have been because of the expo Shanghai is like this now. But all in all, the overall experience of Beijing is more gratifying.

The highlight of this visit to Beijing was going to 798 arts space. Just the space is interesting. Galleries and exhibition spaces in an old factory. And around the exhibition spaces are functional factories. Then there are so many exhibitions like that of Chinese photographer Xu Yong called 'See Again'. And in the see+ gallery, they had an exhibition of two neglected American photographers, Wynn bullock and Harold Feinstein. Sculptures everywhere you turn. Lots of different artwork, some 'commercial', some really avant-garde. It is nice to see so much concentrated creativity at the same time. There were nice cafes to rest and refresh between over indulging in art… Ok. I am hyperventilating. If you are interested in visual arts, you just need to visit this place.

Qin Pei and I also went to the Beijing Art Museum. The current exhibitions were ok. We wanted to see the Chinese paintings but they were doing a new hanging and we could not get in.

The most touristy thing I did was have a night tour of Beijing because it included the Bird's Nest Olympics stadium. I could not get in because of the timing, but I loved seeing the actual structure lit up. It is huge. The tour also took me to the new theatre, which locals call the egg. I did not think of watching any performances in Beijing, I think that I will have to the next time I visit Beijing. I want to see what the inside of the egg looks like. Qianmen was nice when lit up. But the shopping street with Starbucks and other international brands in new mock Chinese buildings made me want to puke. What can I say?

There is so much old and new stuff that I saw in Beijing I do not think that it has fully sunk in. But a part of me knows that I now want to return to Beijing after this trip than I ever did after my previous trips.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mr and Mrs Koh Around the World

What a surprise, while having dinner in the crowded dining car to Mongolia a couple sits down next to me because of lack of space. And it turns out they are Singaporeans who are traveling from Hanoi to London! They had also wanted to travel from Singapore to London, but because they only have a month to travel, they started from Hanoi. Overland to London, compressed!

Here is their blog,

Monday, May 24, 2010

Shanghai in Black and White


The reason I was interested in going to the world expo in Shanghai was because Picasso made a breakthrough in his painting after visiting the Paris Expo. The idea that an encounter with different cultures may somehow give me new directions in my work was just very enticing.

I had originally planned to go from Hong Kong to an area in China that I had never been before but I went back to Shanghai which I had been before with my parents because of the expo. The Shanghai that I visited, about seven years ago was in transition. and there was still a lot of visibly old buildings and dirt on the streets, right next to some of the world's tallest buildings. I remember seeing fish hanging out to dry on electrical poles. But the Shanghai I visited this time was a gleaming new city. It was very clean and it was only wandering around on the last day of my four days in Shanghai that I found some of the old streets that I remember. These old streets and buildings had been hidden behind hoarding that they use for hiding building sites. I did go to a place with 'old style' houses called Xingtiandi, but is was more or less an international shopping street with a little Shanghai accent. To me, Shanghai is what I would call 'Chinese Communist Capitalist'. Except for the language and a Chinese slant in aesthetics, Shanghai is not very different from any rich capitalist city.

I was fortunate to be offered lodging by a friend, Nan Yoong, in a new block of high end service apartments. Although Nan Yoong was not there, his parents were there as they had just moved into the service apartment themselves. So it was nice to have a few meals with them and I was well looked after there. My stay in Shanghai is definitely the most luxurious of my entire trip! So I thank the Rin family for their hospitality.

My first encounter at the expo was not only disappointing, it was embarrassing. The first pavilion I visited was the Singapore pavilion. The design of the pavilion is arguably interesting, but it did not grab me. The theme for the whole expo is Better City, Better Living and each pavilion had a chance to either show how they factually are creating better living or how they imagine a better city with better living. I think the theme for the Singapore pavilion was musical harmony, on the ground floor they had trampolines that made a sound when you jumped up and down. And there were 4 trampolines together, I guess so that a group like the Tang quartet could jump a tune. I certainly heard no music coming from the display. Then there was a video of 'Singaporean Life' starring JJ Lin as a lost traveler, Tanya Chua as an ethnic dancer and Stefanie Sun as a biologists. And they kind of look happy some times and kind of look stressed sometimes. I have no idea what part of the Singaporean reality this represents? And I do not see how this inspires any idea of better living. It came across as meaningless fluff. Walking from one level to another, there are facts about population and other statistics on the wall, accompanied by what appeared to be contour maps. But what the contour maps mean is a mystery, and I am science trained. And they did have a garden on the rooftop with an Orchid specially created for the expo. It is a nice gesture, but riiigggghhhhtttt…… As I left the theatre I heard a Chinese visitor telling his girlfriend that in an expo full of video presentations, the Singaporean one was the worst. And as I was leaving the pavilion, an elderly Chinese lady said that the pavilion's planning was stupid, anyone could have done it. Aaarrggghhh. As a country we are very livable. Great public transport. We are a world leader in water recycling techniques. We are known as the Garden city. We have arguably the world's greatest airport and port. How did we come across as such a lame country?!!?!?!?! Our presentations were simply incoherent and uninspiring. Sigh.

Several of the pavilions like Australia and New Zealand were predictable but quite well done. They had pictures of happy citizens and they put facts about their country across well. Some of the smaller countries like San Marino and Lichtenstein had to share pavilions in a Europe Pavilion. The presentations were usually straight forward with some history and tourist attractions. Most people used some sort of video/computer presentation. They may not have been great, but the presentations were honest. I found out some interesting information for my visit to Lithuania.

It got interesting at the Danish Pavilion. They let artists imagine what it would be like to have a perfect city, where people have more time to spend with one another and are closer to nature. There were beautiful video and photographic presentations that inspires the viewer to be drawn into a better, more holistic lifestyle. They had the guts to bring the little mermaid statue to expo and I think it is amazing for anyone to see the Danish icon in Shanghai. The Finnish pavilion, like some white alien spaceship, was highlighting design. The entire interior of the Finnish pavilion was an interesting space and design, like walking into a different dimension.

The best pavilion by a country was definitely by the United Kingdom. It looks like a giant pin cushion from the outside, but it is actually thousands of plastic rods which direct light into a room which they call the seed cathedral. And at the end of each rod are seeds from different plants. This seed cathedral highlights the work of Britain in creating a massive seed bank of plants from all over the world. The entire presentation is at once elegant, awe inspiring and brings across the core idea of the importance of nature immediately. During the day, the seeds are illuminated by light from outside, at night light is transmitted out of the rods to glow in the night. The pin cushion structure was presented in a park that resembled a present being unwrapped and this structure was a present from the UK to China. Now, this was inspiring.

There were other pavilions besides the country pavilions. Some were themed pavilions like the pavilion of the future where urban planning was discussed. It really got me thankful that there are people out there who are thinking about how to plan a city for water, electricity, mobility and more. There are also several pavilions for big Chinese companies to present themselves. The only one I went to was Chinese telecoms and they were hard selling communications technology. Right now we can transmit sound and images, but they challenge the viewer to think of transmitting all the 5 senses. Imagine visiting a friend virtually in a different country, but with all 5 senses. Seems a power akin to being a demigod, the ability to have omnipresence.

The whole expo kind of left me drained. Except for the pavilions that inspired the audience to thin out of the box, it seems impossible to truly understand much about a country from a few video presentations and iconic props (Our Singaporean one was a Durian Star with a badly drawn merlion on its chest!) I realized that my Overland trip was akin to going to the world expo, but I get a better chance of understanding things better by meeting locals as I travel.

I went and visited the Bund on my last day in Shanghai and visited their shopping street. I just could not shake off a sense of irony between how red China fought for its independence and now, through economic development, there has been an economic invasion by the capitalists.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hurried Hong Kong and the cattle car to Shanghai

Hong Kong is definitely part of my overland trip, but it was essential because I had to pick up medicine that I had left with my friend and break my trip in mainland China so that I did not have to apply for a Chinese visa.

There is not that much to say about it except that I think I did a lot. Besides getting my medicine, I bought a few needed supplies like a thermos flask for the long train rides and a toothbrush. I have been finding it hard to change traveller's cheques in most places and I have not seen an American Express outlet so far on this trip. I did find out that I could change traveler's cheques at the Bank of China. So I took the opportunity to do that. (I do not think I will ever buy traveler's cheques again)  I met up with a couple of people and generally prepared for the next leg.

What was surprising was how difficult it was to get a ticket from Hong Kong to Shanghai. The Hong Kong underground has a train that goes directly to Shanghai, but the train was completely full. In the end, I had to get a train to Guangzhou in China and then get a train to Shanghai from there. I was giasu enough to get my ticket before I left Guilin, but even then all that was left were seats. What I did not expect was the coaches to be packed like sardine cans. They Chinese railway sold standing tickets for a 16 hour trip. And some of the people who bought tickets were old enough to be my grandparents! I shared my seat with a businessman but stood up once in a while to let other people have a chance to sit down as well. Suffice to say, I did not get much sleep on the way to Shanghai. But still, I have been having relatively nice trains rides up to now, even the hard sleeper is actually quite comfortable. So this human chaos was really an eye-opener. I wanted to take more photographs, but somehow it did not feel right.

Shanghai up next.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Going down Li Jiang, a video clip

Shanghai Expo - UK Pavilion, The Seed Cathedral

Bloody brilliant.

Guilin Panoramic

View taken from Diecai Shan.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Guangxi Region in Black and white

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Karst Hills and Hustlers

For those of you who want to browse the gallery, it is here.

My first impression of Guilin was not good I must admit. I chose a hotel near the train station for the convenience and they were both of the main street of Guilin, Zhongshan Lu which is split into three parts. I was in the south. Zhongshan Lu is big, like 3 lanes each way and also smaller bicycle lanes each way. And lots of relatively modern buildings and neon signs. The trouble is that Guilin is supposed to have been the inspiration of countless beautiful serene ink brush paintings of landscapes. And here was I on an international street like any other in the world, being hustled by the locals for hotels, tour guides and prostitutes. I was kind of stunned. But I went hey, whatever.

On my second day in Guilin, it was covered in a mist. After the first day of city chaos, the mist was actually an improvement. But I was determined not to let this stop me. I thought about it and realised that this misty weather was also present in many Chinese paintings and is as much part of the psyche as anything else. I visited several parks like the Elephant's nose hill and Diechai Shan. There was quite a bit of hill climbing to see the sights. I guess this trip is not recommended for the frail. But getting up to the hills and seeing the sights, I finally understood why it was so inspiring. It was really like a dream world, ethereal. Too bad for the buildings of Guilin crowding all around the base of the hills. It was worth making the trip there, but somehow disappointing too. I guess that modern city life had not struck Guilin when it was inspiring poets and painters.

But I did take the two rivers and four lakes boat tour of Guilin a night. And this is totally worth it. The lighting is a bit like Disneyland, but the hills and the greenery of Guilin, and the artwork underneath the bridges of Guilin come alive with the lighting, and you can forget the city hustlers for a while.

Anyway, I headed out of Guilin to a better bet, Yangshuo. I was going to be cheap and take the 15 yuan bus ride down to Yangshuo but a taxi driver convinced me that the boat ride down to Yangshuo was not to be missed. The boat ride cost me 300 yuan but it was 4 hours long, included lunch and a tour of some sites in Yangshuo. I must admit that the scenery from the boat was stunning. Unfortunately, there was a lot of tourist fleecing all the way. Before and after the boat ride, we were taking to shops selling jade. And although lunch is included, we were persuaded to 'upgrade' our meals. As I was alone, a bunch of nice tourist from Hunan took me into their group and treated me to the upgrade. As for the tour of sights in Yangshuo, we were rushed through underground caves and literally allowed to get out of the bus to take one picture of the moonlight peak and get back into the bus. If there is any way possible, just take the boat down the river and skip any tours. 'Tours' are a waste of time and money.

I had planned to take a bicycle ride along Yulong Jiang to Yulong bridge on my first day in Yangshuo but it was pouring down with rain. I just kicked back and chilled and read a book. Just as well, the next day it did not rain and I had a wonderful bicycle ride. I was told by the lady renting the bicycle not to take the small road but take the main road. I was a little disappointed but I listened to her advice on the way to Yulong bridge. At the bridge there were touts trying to get me to take a bamboo raft back to Yangshuo. I declined and cycled through the farmland back to Yangshuo. But even without the rain, parts of the road was muddy. And true enough, I slipped and got quite muddy. I think that there will always be a little mud from Yulong Jiang in my camera forever. But the bicycle rides was one of the most magical ones I have had in my whole life. And I finally saw the Karst hills in the clouds and amongst the farmland. And I finally got what the fuss was all about. But I also knew that if one wanted to really get to the scenery, Guilin was only the place to pass through, the countryside around Yangshuo is the real deal.

Yangshuo itself, although a small town, is also a tourist town, like Ubud in Bali. But it still has some charm. And the Chinese are quite savvy, they do not just rehash tourist junk. There is some humor and modern design that makes the stuff worth checking out.

I had some sublime experiences in Yangshuo which made the whole trip worth it. And I am thinking of going back there to a place called the Giggling Tree Hotel in countryside out of Yangshuo. From there it would be possible to explore the scenery of the area directly. But the hustling was just awful. Even the Chinese tourist I met found it distasteful.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Vietnam - Black and white photos

My personal journey through Vietnam. Just a warning, there are over eighty photos in this set.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Days in Hanoi

I am sorry for the delay in the updates. There was no way for me to get to blogger through the great chinese firewall. I tried emailing through a post with a flickr slideshow but the code for the slideshow did not come out properly. I will have to look at different options or keep relatively quite for the next two weeks in Shanghai and Beijing. I have not edited my Guilin photos yet.

Anyway, things are never as you would expect them to be. In my mind, Hanoi is a quaint communist capital with aging french Inspired architecture. I thought of roads full of bicycles and perhaps a glimpse of a french woman looking like Catherine Deneuve wandering the streets. The good news is that Hanoi has not like some other asian cities, started on a massive redevelopment program, knocking down large swathes of old buildings to be replaced with characterless high rise blocks. At least not in the old quarter. The bad news is that the narrow streets of the old quarter is filled with motorcycles and cars going in every which direction and the sound of the car horn can be heard 24 hours a day. The shops are not austere with a smattering of goods way past their sell by date, but full to the brim of goods. The local goods aspire to the style and colour of western fashion but the Vietnamese products are not yet as polished as the Thai products. But between mountains of local t-shirts, jeans, food and souvenirs, are boutiques for Jean-Paul Gautier and Calvin Klein. You can fix your Canon, Nikon and Olympus cameras. And finding a bank ATM to dispense cash is as easy as and first world city. Communist country is not the first thing that springs to mind when walking these streets. But unlike Ho Chi Minh city, the old quarter, with its mix of small local shops, french cafes and Vietnamese temples, can still charm. I particularly enjoyed the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum as I said in my last post. The Hanoi cathedral is another place that was nice and calm in the midst of all the chaos. I had a couple of real nice meals of Vietnamese food at New Day restaurant which has both local and foreign customers. I also had lots of good coffee at La Place which is next to the Hanoi Church.

There are certain limitations to an overland trip like the one I am undertaking. I am not really staying in one place and getting under the skin of a place. I really wanted to visit Sapa, a hill village in the north of Vietnam, but with only five days in north Vietnam, traveling to Sapa and back would leave me one day to visit the place. I decided to leave Sapa for another trip, one where I can spend a week or more there, slowly wandering through the surrounding villages. And besides, Hanoi is definitely worth a revisit.

Instead, I did a couple of short day trips out of Hanoi. The first was to the perfume Pagoda complex. This is a complex of buddhist temples set in the hills about 60km south of Hanoi. The highlight of the trip is a cave right at the top of the complex, with religious shrines placed in a natural occurring cave. I was on a tour with eleven other people, and they all decided to take the cable car up to the cave. I decided to walk up to the cave, it took me an hour up and half and hour down. The whole tour group met at the bottom of the hill for lunch, and I was only 5 minutes slower than the rest of the group. After lunch we visited the main temple before heading back to Hanoi. I enjoyed the journey and the hike up the hill, but the sights were average. It reminded me of Medjugore, high up in the remote hills, worth visiting if only you are one of the faithful.

The second trip was to Hoa Lu, the old capital of some Vietnamese dynasties. They had reconstructed a couple of temples in honour of some of the old kings. These temples were built over the remains of the old castles. It was similar to the temples found in Hanoi. However, the surprise delight was an hours bicycle ride through the countryside to lunch. We got to see real farmlands amidst beautiful limestone hills. I think that this was the best experience I had outside Hanoi. After lunch we took a boat ride to see the limestone formations in Tam Coc. This was not bad but the boat people trying to sell souvenirs and hassling for tips soured the experience a bit.

Overall, I enjoyed my Hanoi experience very much. I guess we all have to pan for gold in the soil of the land, and there definitely was some.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The best 20000 Dong I spent in Vietnam

I planned to kick back a bit in Hanoi and just soak in the atmosphere. However, I did make two day trips out, one to the Perfume Pagoda and one to the scenic hills of Tam Coc. In Hanoi, I have walked around the old town, had plenty of coffee, both Vietnamese and Italian. Seen a few temples and walked through a day market and a night market. I have also eaten things like Hanoi curry and Veal Cordon Bleu. And today, I visited the Temple of literature, whose main sanctuary is under renovation, you think they would mention this small point at the entrance.  I must admit though, even though the temple of learning had not revealed its full glory to me, I was impressed by a culture that had dedicated a temple to learning.  After this tourist highlight, I walked across the street right into the entrance of the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum.

I have been to many museums all over the world, and outside major cultural centers, my experience with museums has been usually underwhelming. I went to an artist village in Chennai, whose work shown may have been historically significant, but was a little bland to me. I do not know what to say about the art museum in Penang, even the guard downstairs did not know if the gallery was open or not. Maybe I should not say any more. But I had done a fair amount of 'tourist' sites in Hanoi but I did not remember any recommendations for this museum. There may have been a line somewhere but it certainly did not get the full descriptions like the Temple of Literature or Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, or Dong Xuan wholesale market. But I was at the front gate, and it was a not too big three story colonial house and annex.

A female guard issued me a ticket and got me to put my cameras in a locker. I walked over to the building not expecting all that much. But the first thing that surprised me was that the building was air-conditioned, the displays were clean and the lighting really showed the work well. Some people cared about this museum. And I think I learnt a lot in the next couple of hours about Vietnam, and come to respect it a lot more.

One starts with the early art linked to the Vietnamese dynasties. The first surprising thing I learned is that the Vietnamese dragon is unique, unlike any other dragon from other cultures. And I took a closer look at the examples in the museum, and realized the head of the dragon is shaped like water. In the Vietnamese culture, the dragons bring rain, and in a rice growing nation, this is so important. I had seen and photographed a dragon in a temple in Hoa Lu, the old Vietnamese capital, but could not comprehend it as I was expecting a western or Chinese dragon. But it now all made sense.

And then I came across the figures that one would find in Vietnamese temples, Kings, Queens, guardian spirits and retainers. It is new to me, but the emphasis in Vietnamese temples is not on Buddha, but ancestors. I think that these lines from a traditional house in Ma May street explains it,

Only trees with root can grow well
Only waters with source can create deep oceans, deep rivers
Where do humans come from?
Ancestors come first, then we do.

So we sometimes think of Vietnam as a mainly Buddhist nation, but the people here worship their kings and ancestors more. There are a lot of figures of famous rulers, and less so of Buddha. But in the Fine Art Museum, there are two of the most amazing Kuan Yin statues I have seen in my life. Beautiful, serene, sensuous. I was not allowed to bring in my camera so I do not have any pictures, but I think that the two statues are alone are worth a visit to the museum. And I like the way, the female statues of the queens seem to be as well crafted as the king. There seemed to be some sexual equality here, but maybe I am reading too much into this.

On the second floor, there are lacquer paintings from the best artists in Vietnam. And I think we have all seen the innocuous lacquer paintings sold as tourist souvenirs, a little exotic colour that is pretty. But not the work in the museum. The themes of the paintings range from still life, to everyday life to images from the war. There is an intricate play of three dimensional outline and two dimensional textures that I did not understand at first. Then I found out that the artists not only use paint on the lacquer, but also materials like egg shells. The effect is somewhat like the work of Gustav Klimt, lifelike outlines filled with textured two dimensional patterns. But the results are very much unique to Vietnam. There was one particular painting of a crowd walking in Hanoi at an earlier era. The women wore traditional dresses,  and the men wore mao-looking suits. But it was a happy, beautiful scene. And somehow, it has an innocence that the t-shirt and jeans wearing citizens of Hanoi today lack.

The other thing that struck me was the war theme that kept playing through much of the art work. And what struck me was that a lot of the art work was not about triumphing over the enemy, or the atrocity of the war. Many of the images were of the people working together. And the angle of the images were not heroic in the stoic sense seen in the propaganda art, but was almost documentary. And many of the images were of Ho Chi Minh meeting children. I guess it may be propaganda, but something here tells me that for some people in Vietnam, the war was one for independence. If this ideal of community was present in Vietnam today, I do believe that it can become a great nation. But then again, there is human nature and the sin of greed.

There were some decent oil paintings on the third floor, influenced by western art. But what was more interesting was painting on silk. The paintings look almost fragile and can I say this, bourgeois? But I learned from the silk paintings that they were not afraid of the human form. And the several paintings of young women, showed healthy women, not anorexic, not Rubenesque. But I sensed an inner strength from the portraits of the Vietnamese people. A people that had endured Chinese subjugation for a thousand years, French colonialism for a hundred and a bloody war with the powerful Americans. And somehow, the work of the Vietnamese is sensual. Even a reclining Buddha, titled 'Buddha entering Nirvana', looked sensual.

In the annex building, there is a room full of tribal art from the Vietnamese minorities. And it came across that art and culture had a very vibrant in the tribes. There are also social uses for the art and dressing of the people. I only had a cursory look at this section but I made a note that I had to come back to Vietnam to visit the tribal regions in Sapa and Hue.

On another floor of the annex building was art from various Vietnamese temples, the type of art you can see in so many temples and regular homes in Vietnam. But well presented and well lit.

In the basement of the annex building was another gem, a collection of Vietnamese pottery. From simple yellow pottery from the early history, to elaborate multicolored pottery of later ages. But there is a great sense of style in Vietnamese art, a balance that sometimes is absent in more primitive work. But I remember staring at one vase, whose white, glossy floral arabesques were subtly overlaying an off white background.

I will return to Hanoi on my way to Sapa some day. And I will give the tourist highlights a miss, but I will certainly return to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum.