Beautiful Art for a Beautiful Cause


École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, Hanoi

When France was a colonial power it liked to infuse its overseas territories with a liberal dose of French culture. So in the case of Indochina, that included the French language, the Catholic religion, baguettes, wine, coffee, gendarmes and an appreciation of the arts.

The École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine was established in Hanoi in 1925 and it instilled western art traditions in generations of fine Vietnamese artists while laying the foundation for the development of a distinctively Vietnamese style of modern art.


   Left: Marché de montagne, by Nguyễn Tường Lân (before 1946).                                                 Right: Lê Phô (1907-1947)

The school survived wars and independence and has since evolved into the Vietnam University of Fine Arts. Vietnam today is well known for its artists who can knock up a fine reproduction Monet or Van Gogh as well as produce the Vietnam street scenes that are so popular with foreign tourists.

Of course, most art is produced for profits but while researching Da Nang I came across a gallery with a nobler cause.

The Da Nang Artists Company aims to provide talented, disabled Vietnamese artists with a way to market their artwork to an appreciative international clientele.

This acrylic painting of Hoi An was is the work of disabled artist Nguyen Tan Hien who lost the use of his legs and partial use of his arms following a traffic accident.  He is a self-taught artist and did not have the benefit of University of Fine Arts training but I think his work is rather nice. Here is one of his watercolours:

You can find more paintings and some silk brocade work on Da Nang Artist’s website. They are available for sale at very reasonable prices and can be shipped world wide.

Da Nang Artists is run by a big-hearted American couple called Virginia and David Lockett who also run a small charity called Steady Footsteps providing physical rehabilitation for disabled people in Central Vietnam. Virginia is an experienced physical therapist who wanted to help improve the lives of the disabled in Vietnam. In 2005 they gave up their comfortable life in America and moved to Da Nang to begin their good work.

Please take a look at Steady Footsteps’ website and read their inspiring story. You might even want to give a donation. They draw no salary so 100% of all contributions goes directly to the people who need it (unlike organizations such as UNICEF, Save the Children or Oxfam whose senior staff pay themselves six-figure, fat-cat salaries from your donations).

Marble Mountains, Da Nang


The Marble Mountains are a cluster of five limestone and marble outcrops just south of Da Nang. The largest one, from where this photo was taken, is riddled with caves containing Buddhist statues and altars.



Visitors can either climb the stairs or use the lift.


The gardens on the hill are nicely landscaped and there are temples, pagodas and lots of paths to explore. A flight of stairs leads you to the highest point from where you can enjoy a good view of the surrounding area.


During the Vietnam War there was a large American military base near here and off-duty GI’s would take some R&R on the nearby beaches, the most famous of which was called China Beach (now known as My Khe). In fact this stretch of coastline from Da Nang to Hoi An is one continuous 25km long beach, and is rated as one of the world’s best.


A number of smart resort hotels line the beach, including this one, about to be deluged by some heavy rain.

The village at the foot of the hill makes its living from making sculptures, statues and ornaments from marble, onyx and other stones. These stones were originally excavated from the Marble Mountains (hence the many caves) but this practice has now been banned and the raw materials are shipped in from elsewhere.

Your transportation to Marble Mountain will almost certainly park in the forecourt of one of these stone mason shops and you can expect some hard-selling vendors to try and part you from your money once you return to your vehicle.


Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Vietnam

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

Just north of Da Nang, on the Son Tra Peninsula, stands a massive white statue dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion (or Mercy), known as Chùa Linh Ứng in Vietnamese, as Guan Yin in Chinese and as Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit.

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

Completed in 2010 after six years of construction, the statue is 69.7m high (229ft) with 17 storeys inside. This makes it the 4th tallest Guan Yin statue in the world, the taller ones being:

  1. Guan Yin Statue of the South Seas, Sanya, China, 108m
  2. Guan Yin of Weishan, China, 99m
  3. Chi Shan Temple, Hong Kong, 76m

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

According to Buddhist belief, Guan Yin vowed never to rest in heavenly Buddhahood until every human and creature on this earth is free from suffering (I fear she is in for a long wait). She is often depicted with 1000 arms – a thousand helping hands of compassion. For her compassion towards animals she is associated with vegetarianism and her likeness is commonly displayed in Chinese vegetarian restaurants.

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

The grounds surrounding the statue also contain a temple, a monastery and other facilities. Gardens are decorated with bonsai trees, fountains and statues of arhats (enlightened persons).

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

The hills backing onto the complex are known as Monkey Mountain, a name given by American troops during the Vietnam War, or American War as the Vietnamese know it.

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

The statue looks out over the South China Sea and Da Nang, the fifth largest city in Vietnam with a population approaching 1 million.

Son Tra Guan Yin statue is well worth a visit if you are in the area. Entrance is free.

Son Tra Guan Yin Statue, Da Nang, Vietnam

Hội An, Vietnam

Hoi An’s old buildings are well preserved despite being subject to annual flooding.

Air Asia recently resumed direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Da Nang, Vietnam. Since they were offering cheap discounted fares and I had never been to this part of Vietnam before I decided to take my sons for a short trip.

There are a number of temples, clan houses and museums which are open to the public.

We based ourselves in Hoi An, a small historic town around 30km south of Da Nang. Hoi An is every tourist’s idea of what Vietnam should look like with rice paddy fields, colourful markets, temples, locals in conical straw hats and so on. Of course reality is somewhat different but Hoi An old town is remarkably well preserved, in recognition of which it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Once a trading port, the town is now given over entirely to tourism.

Japanese Covered Bridge, originally 17th century but repaired several times since.

Tourists mill around the quaint, traffic-free streets (cars are banned from the old town centre), looking for souvenirs or somewhere to eat. Shopkeepers try to lure you into their tailor shops or sell you a pair of custom-made shoes. My son ordered a pair of Toms style slip-ons. They only took 6 hours to make and were not bad.

There are dozens of good restaurants and cafes to choose from in Hoi An. In this internet age where everyone gets their travel tips from Trip Advisor, there is a tendency for tourists to flock to the same few restaurants but we preferred to spread our custom to some of the less frequented ones and all the meals were excellent (and, importantly, no tummy problems!). The Hoa Vang Yellow River Riverside Restaurant tempted us in with its sign saying G’Day Mate, Tassie Australia, Coldest Beer in Town.

At night the silk and paper lantern stalls add to the atmosphere and old women try to sell candles in paper boats for floating down the river, which are later fished out by kids with nets and re-sold. There is a night market but by 9pm most of the shops have closed their shutters and the streets start to empty. Hoi An old town is not the place for a boisterous night life.

Many of the hotels, including the Ha An hotel where we stayed, provide free bikes for getting around. There are quiet rural lanes to explore close to town.

If you don’t want to pedal yourself you can always hire a cyclo.

Another popular activity is to take a river cruise.

Hoi An has the added advantage of being close to some very fine beaches. The best one we went to was called Hidden Beach, about a 6km bicycle ride (each way) from Hoi An.

Rattan coracles used by fishermen at Hidden Beach, Hoi An

Sunbeds and umbrellas are provided free of charge by the restaurant owners though of course you are expected to buy drinks or food from them.

Spot the rainbow?

We enjoyed our stay in Hoi An and would be happy to go again.

Relaxing Hoi An – It’s that kind of place!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

On my last trip to Vietnam I signed up for a 2 day/1 night junk tour of Halong Bay.

Halong Bay is probably Vietnam’s most famous natural attraction due to its outstanding beauty and status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Halong Bay

Its popularity and relative proximity to Hanoi (three and a half hours drive away) means that it is heaving with tourists. Every travel agent in Hanoi offers packages which vary considerably in price depending on the standard of the vessel and the quality of accommodation and food on board. Being a thrifty traveller I opted for a reasonably priced package on a junk which was hopefully sea-worthy (they have been known to sink!).

Typical tourist junk.

Halong Bay is massive with an area of about 1500 sq. km. and thousands of spectacularly shaped limestone karst hills jutting abruptly out of the sea.  Despite the size of the bay all the tourist boats seem to visit the same destinations and anchor near each other.

Hey that's my parking space!

Sometimes the competition for a parking space can get intense!

A typical tour would visit some caves, an island with a beach, fish farms, floating fishing communities and allow tourists the chance to do kayaking and swimming.

A beach and a quick hike.

They say it is so beautiful it’s impossible to take a bad photograph – but I managed it, every time.

My cabin was comfortable enough. The lounge/dining/bar on board.

I was impressed with the enterprise and energy of the vending ladies who rowed their floating convenience stores long distances from junk to junk selling items like beer, wine, water and snacks.

Floating mini-bar.

Yes, Halong Bay is a bit touristy but definitely a must-see for anyone visiting the northern end of Vietnam.

A home, a living and a mode of transport,all in one.

Asia’s Cycle Rickshaws – A Dying Breed

During my recent visit to Malacca, I was interested to see how the town’s cycle rickshaws have transformed over the years.

This is how they look now, elaborately decorated with artificial flowers and fitted with a boom box under the seat playing noisy music. They don’t seem to stray far from the main square in front of Malacca’s old Dutch-era Stadhuis and Christ Church. The cycle rickshaw drivers prey on the coach loads of tourists and no doubt charge a good sum for a quick spin round the block or to pose for a photo.  Who can blame them? They have to make a living somehow and there is not much money to be made these days from cycle rickshaws as a means of public transport.

Malacca 2010

It was not always so. When I first visited Malacca way back in 1983, cycle rickshaws (or trishaws, or pedal rickshaws, or pedicabs or tricycles as they are also known ) were still used as a poor man’s taxi and they were a charming, unhurried way to get around the town centre which those days had far less traffic.  From a trishaw you could get a close up view of the streets and ask the driver to pull over anytime something interesting caught your eye. You were more in tune with the leisurely pace of  Malacca which was a very relaxed place at that time.

Malacca 1983

I was reading an article about trishaw drivers in Teluk Intan in Perak. This town is home to Malaysia’s equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (a pagoda-like clock tower with a distinct tilt). This architectural oddity attracts visitors but not in sufficient numbers to sustain the cycle rickshaw drivers, of whom there were (in 2009) only four left and of these, three were in their seventies.  Apparently they can only earn around RM300 per month (less than USD100). They have to pay RM18.50 for an annual permit. The local trishaw licensing office must be one of the sleepier government departments as they have not issued any new licenses for decades.

It is sad but inevitable that the trishaw, as a means of public transport, is facing extinction in Asia. The only hope is that larger parts of historic heritage sites like Malacca and Georgetown (Penang) can be pedestrianised thus making the conditions right for trishaws. Of course they would have to charge tourist rates, which reach about RM30 per hour in Penang. This might attract younger people like students to do a bit of healthy trishaw driving in their spare time.

I have encountered a number of different trishaw designs in my Asian travels. Malaysia and Singapore have the driver sitting to the side of the passengers like the one pictured above.

Thailand and Macau have the driver sitting in front of the passenger, while Vietnam and Indonesia have the passenger sitting in front of the driver.

Macau 1980s 

In Macau in the early 1980s, it was quite normal to take a triciclo from the ferry terminal to somewhere like the Lisboa Hotel or Henri’s Galley, our favourite restaurant for giant prawns or African chicken. The tricilo fare was cheaper than a taxi and we would always negotiate the fare before getting in. But by the end of the journey, after staring at the driver’s sinewy calf muscles, we would often feel sorry for him and end up paying a generous tip.

Vietnam in 1993 was an ideal place for trishaw travel as there was very little traffic in those days apart from bikes. This very basic looking cyclo (as they are known in Vietnam) was typical of those found in Hanoi, where the design was lower and wider than those in Saigon. Hanoi cyclos could hold two people (slim ones) while Saigon’s were single seaters. They may have only carried one person but they could accommodate quite a few geese.

 Hanoi 1993Having a gander, Saigon, 1993.

Nowadays in Vietnam, the slow and cumbersome cyclo is banned from more and more places as they obstruct the cars, trucks and motorbikes which have multiplied rapidly in recent years. This is more or less the pattern all over Asia, though I understand that in Dhaka, Bangladesh (which I haven’t visited yet) the trishaw is still going strong, apart from on the major roads.

Ironically in the West, the cycle rickshaw has made a bit of a comeback where it seen as an eco-friendly and healthy occupation and ultra modern designed trishaws have apparently set up shop in places like London, New York, Germany and Ireland.

Hanoi 1993

Bear Bile Harvesting in Dien Bien

While looking around the Muong Thanh Hotel in Dien Bien, in northwest Vietnam, we came across the cruel practice of bear bile farming.

The bear cages were located behind the blue wall.

Behind a wall next to the swimming pool were half a dozen cramped cages, each containing a sad looking black bear. The bears had catheters sticking out from their stomachs so presumably they were being kept for the purpose of extracting bear bile which is supposed to be beneficial in treating various ailments including impotence. Why, in this age of Viagra, it is still necessary to torture poor bears in this way, I’ll never understand. Piles of foul smelling kitchen slops had been poured onto the floors of the cages. The more disgusting the food, the better the bile production perhaps?

My friend reported this matter to the Hanoi office of the World Wildlife Fund. Perhaps the operation has since been closed down but I am not optimistic the bears would ever be released. Vietnam has few places where bears could be allowed to roam free without endangering the public. They would either be killed by frightened villagers or slaughtered for their skins and body parts or recaptured by greedy bile merchants. All very sad.



Red River, Black River – Travels in Northern Vietnam PART 2. SAPA & FANXIPAN

PART 2.  Sapa and Fanxipan

It was time to depart for Sapa which is a hill town in northern Vietnam and the jumping off point for people who are mad enough to want to ascend Mt. Fanxipan. We took the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, close to the border with China, a journey of about 8 hours. To travel on a Vietnamese sleeper train sounds exciting and adventurous but it is probably an experience that I will not be looking to repeat in a hurry. The train carriage looked comfortable enough. Clean bedding and soft mattresses were provided in our 4 berth, first class compartment. But the whole journey was in the dark so there was nothing to see and the carriage jerked and juddered and was very noisy so sleep was next to impossible for me. Nearly all the other passengers were foreigner tourists – Vietnamese probably know better and take the plane! Arriving at Lao Cai station at 6am, feeling pretty tired, we took a van to Sapa, dropped off some bags and a couple of hours later were transported to Tram Ton or Heaven’s Gate, the starting point of the Fanxipan climb. 

Mt. Fanxipan , 3,143 metres, on a clear day.

Mt. Fanxipan (sometimes spelt as Phan Si Pan) at 3,143 metres, is the highest mountain in Vietnam, or, even more impressive sounding, the highest in Indochina. Since the starting point was already over 2,000 metres I was thinking how hard can this be? The answer was very hard! 

The climb started here but the first half hour or so was down hill!

A guide and porter were provided. The porter carried everything we would eat for the next 2 days in his basket.

After a gruelling afternoon’s hike we arrived at our luxurious base camp accommodation to rest up for the night.

We had to spend two miserable nights in this shack (one night on the way up and one on the way down). The hut could accommodate up to 16 people sleeping sardine-like. My grubby sleeping bag was located underneath the leak in the roof meaning I was cold and wet as I lay awake on the uncomfortable bamboo slatted floor. The sleeping bag – what vile instrument of torment. The guy who invented the sleeping bag must be the same person who invented the straight jacket, and for the same reason – to drive the poor occupant nuts. Not enough room to curl up, when I rolled over the top half twisted but the bottom half stayed put. It started off cold and clammy and then became hot and clammy without ever being just right on the way.

At least the food was good, amazingly so given the primitive conditions in the ‘kitchen’.

The kitchen, dining and bar facilities at base camp.

The porters and guides managed to knock up an impressive meal which was washed down with generous slugs of rice wine.

Hell’s Kitchen. The cosiest place in base camp.

The worst aspect of base camp had to be the toilet facilities which consisted of a wooden platform built over a pit containing a large pig who would eat the ‘droppings’. Eco-friendly, I suppose, but I won’t be eating pork again.

The disgusting toilet at base camp. The pig lives under the wooden structure.

After an early breakfast we began the final ascent to the summit of Fanxipan. It was one of the most exhausting things I had ever done. Mud, mud everywhere, oozing over the tops of boots. Muddy trousers, caked boots, shirt soaked with sweat, glasses steamed up, visibility zero. Lungs wheezing, heartbeat audible, leg muscles aching, hour after hour.

After 1 hour: “Are we there yet?”

What were the feelings on reaching the top? Not really exhilaration. Relief to get a rest but tinged with anxiety about having to go all the way back down again. It was not the best view in the world due to poor visibility but when the clouds parted there were some impressive vistas. On the way down my knees were buckling and I had to be careful not to slip and injure myself. At least my breathing was easier going down.

Not likely!

Finally back down to the bottom feeling strangely invigorated for several hours afterwards, perhaps due to the after-effects of prolonged heart pumping exercise and the intake of super fresh air.

The quaint and touristy hill town of Sapa.

Back in civilisation, we were able to explore some of the charms of Sapa while recovering for the next stage of our travels.

Cute Hill Tribesman

This region of Vietnam is home to a number of ethnic minorities such as the Hmong people who are happy to pose for tourists in their traditional dress and sell examples of their skilful handicrafts.

Red River, Black River – Travels in Northern Vietnam PART 1. Hanoi

PART 1. Hanoi

The plan was simple enough. A couple of days in Hanoi , then take the overnight train to the hill resort of Sapa, then 3 days to climb Mt.Fanxipan and get back down again, then drive to Dien Bien Phu for 2 nights before flying back to Hanoi.

 First stop in Hanoi, the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. 

Hoa Lo Prison Museum or ‘The Hanoi Hilton’.

This notorious prison held American pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese call it). The POW’s nicknamed this prison the Hanoi Hilton. One of the more famous inmates was John McCain (recent US Presidential contender) whose flying suit was on prominent display.

During the French colonial era the prison housed Vietnamese political prisoners and criminals in harsh conditions.

The French Liked Their Guillotines

 I’d never seen a real guillotine before. Efficient no doubt

Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi

There are plenty of famous attractions to see in Hanoi.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Huc Bridge Is One Of The Most Frequently Photographed Sights In Hanoi
The Temple Of Literature

The Former Opera House

The streets in the Old Hanoi Quarter are full of character, colour and energy. There was talk about Old Hanoi being recognised by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site but it seems there are no plans to proceed with that proposal. Let us hope that this district can escape the developers’ wrecking ball for many years to come.

Traditional Musical Instrument Shop