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Quality children’s picture books, published by top Vietnamese publishing houses, used to be renowned for their brilliant and vibrant illustrations, executed in watercolours by talented artists.


One of my favourites is Ta Huy Long, a long-time artist with the Kim Dong Publishing House, and I am an avid collector of any books that he has illustrated. Of his large output there aren’t many translated into English, but it’s the delightful artwork that is the drawcard for me and other aficionados of his work.


In translation there is the famous Diary of a Cricket, a text by the famous author To Hoai, who recently passed away. It was originally published in 1941 and has been brought back to vivid life by Ta Huy Long’s illustrations.


In 2009, L’Espace, the French Cultural Center in Hanoi, hosted an exhibition of Ta Huy Long’s work and it was a huge hit. If you are really fortunate you may chance upon a collection of works from the show, sold as sets of postcards. Some of the pieces in the exhibition feature in a newly released, translated book, Luoc Su Nuoc Viet Bang Tranh (Vietnam: A Brief History in Pictures), which takes the reader on a fascinating, illustrated journey from the Vietnamese creation myth of Lac Long Quan and Au Co to the present day.


Long’s illustrations of historical tales about real and mythical heroes are compelling and a recent (not yet translated) book about the myths and legends that are part and parcel of Vietnam’s cultural and literary fingerprint is full of wonderful art. Linh Nam Chich Quai is a masterpiece.


My all-time favourite of Ta Huy Long’s output is Cua So with its vitally alive watercolour drawings of Hanoi before modernisation changed the city.


A First Journey


Last year, two young Saigonese illustrators won the Asia-wide Scholastic Picture Book Award.


Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien follow in the footsteps of Ta Huy Long with their intricate artwork, but employ modern techniques, with Quang using a pigment liner for outlines and Lien using a digital painting program to colour the pictures.


Together the results are brilliant.


It has a minimal but effective text in English that tells the tale of little An who lives in a village somewhere along the Mekong. His parents have to leave home very early and, on this day, An makes his way alone by small boat to school.


Today is his first solo journey into the river during the ‘floating season’, when the swollen river submerges the countryside; hence the book’s title The First Journey.


Through a small boy’s eyes the short scull becomes a journey worthy of Odysseus with illustrations to make any small kid’s heart beat fast. In fact, every small kid we’ve read the book to has been enthralled, as has every adult who loves reading aloud to those kids. One double-page illustration of the boy and boat being tossed on waves is deliberately reminiscent of Hokusai’s famous print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.


The book is now available to Vietnamese reading kids via the Kim Dong Publishing House. 


Red Friendship Bridge


Some Western expats who write books set in Vietnam manage to escape perpetuating stereotypes in their manuscripts. One is Kylie Dunstan, an award-winning children’s author and illustrator who taught in an international school in Hanoi.


In 2011 she had The Red Bridge published by Windy Hollow Books. In it she tells a tale of a small western girl named Claire who has arrived in Hanoi to start an expat lifestyle with her parents. She’s sad because she’s left all of her friends behind.


When out with Mum and Dad exploring the bewildering city she gets separated but is rescued near the red bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake by a Vietnamese child of similar age. Thus, begins a new and valuable friendship, even without a common language.


For me, a huge appeal of the book lies in the illustrations, which are from clothing materials found in markets around the city.


Truong Hoang is behind the bookshop, Bookworm. For more info click on or visit their shop at 44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi.