Hanoi was a different world when Natalia first arrived in 1983. There were no motorbikes, no cars, no taxis and no tourists. “After 7pm, the streets were quiet. But it was good for walking. No pollution,” she recalls, pouring tea at a table in Salon Natasha, the art gallery she established with her late husband, Vu Dan Tan, in his family home on Hang Bong.
“Some younger people don’t even know that during this period, it was forbidden for Vietnamese people to talk with foreigners, or to have any connections. If somebody came to talk to you on the street, they could be arrested.”
Natalia had been sent to Hanoi by Russia’s Ministry of Education to help establish the Pushkin Institute. After two months, a colleague asked if she could deliver a package of gifts — canned milk, canned meats, sugar — to a Vietnamese friend. Though she’d signed an agreement that she would not have any contact with the Vietnamese outside of work, she went anyway.
“So I came with this bag of special presents, here, to this room, and I met my husband. At that time, he was 39. I was 33.”
Vu Dan Tan was an artist. He showed Natalia his studio and the masks he was making, and she was captivated.
“He was dressed all in black, and looked very romantic. I liked his masks. Now I feel very stupid, but at the time I said: ‘Oh, this mask looks like a tiger… is it a cat?’ and he said, it depends on how you look at it, it can be a cat, or it can be a mouse. To me, this sounded so philosophical. Love at first sight.”
It was Dec. 25, and remnants of a Christmas party were strewn about his house — empty bottles and cigarettes. Dan Tan paid no mind to the rules against fraternising with foreigners, often entertaining them in his house. He invited Natalia to visit whenever she wanted, and on New Year’s Eve, she returned.
“It was the beginning of our love story.”
They dated in secret, never announcing their affair, but often walking together in the street. Police came to visit Dan Tan’s mother several times to warn her. Natalia counts herself lucky — other Russians were known to have been deported for having a relationship like hers.
“If meeting was forbidden, marriage was also forbidden,” she remembers. But this didn’t stop her.
“I was supervising the universities where they taught Russian, and at one of these universities, the wife of the Russian ambassador was working. I told her about this love story, and that we wanted to get married, but it was impossible, and I asked for her help. She said, ‘Okay, write a letter, but not a formal letter, a romantic letter. The ambassador has not yet forgotten what love is. I will give your letter to him in the right moment’.”
Six months later, they were married. Four days after the wedding, Natalia had to leave for Russia, and it took Dan Tan a year before he was allowed to meet her there. They did not return to Hanoi until 1990.
“He had an idea to establish an independent art space in Vietnam, where he could show the art of young artists, or do experimental things. Because this is a private house, nobody could control it.”
Until Nha San opened in 1998, Salon Natasha was the only private art space in Hanoi, and one of very few places young people could meet and talk. There were only a handful of bars and clubs then, nothing like the backpacker mecca that has since sprung up around Natalia’s house in Hoan Kiem.
She doesn’t mind the backpackers; some of them are quite interesting, she says. But she is wary of the expats who come to Vietnam to reinvent themselves. “Many people stay here, and they pretend to be what they are not.”
She credits Vietnamese culture with making her a bit wiser in her social relationships, and more open-minded. In Russia, when someone wrongs you, retaliation is immediate. “But in Vietnam, it’s not. You are smiling, you are tolerant, and you wait maybe four years for revenge,” she laughs.
She feels her national identity is split, and she’s now developed both Russian and Vietnamese sides to her character. But even after 27 years, she still has trouble pronouncing the language. “I have no musical ear,” she explains. The xe oms may not understand her, but her mother-in-law does. “We can talk for hours!”
As for Vietnam, the changes she’s seen have been drastic. “People can travel everywhere. They have access to books and the internet, they can work for the government, or they can start private businesses. Before, private business didn’t exist, and you were under total control. But now, you can choose.”
Ideally, she’d like to split her time equally between Russia and Vietnam, but it never seems to happen that way. It’s been hard living here since her husband passed away in 2009, surrounded by his artwork, in the home they shared, in the room where they met. His memory is all around her, but still, she won’t leave now. “For me, Vietnam is home.”
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