My research to find this exciting-sounding place started with an online search. With no keywords and scant information to feed into the computer, the search engine yielded very little. But persistence and the algorithms on that day blessed me. My fortune came in the form of an obscure post on a traveller’s personal blog. I got an address. That led to a phone number. That led to an invitation, from a person who said she was the artist’s daughter, to visit on Sunday at 2pm.
My Ho Chi Minh City map wasn’t big enough to cover the southern part of District 2, so I drew my own map to take with me. After an hour of hunting down street names, going up and down the same road repeatedly and reading the blank faces of the people we asked for directions, I called the number to ask the painter’s daughter for help. No answer. Landline? No answer. I kept trying. We’d made an appointment confirming the time, so why was no one at home? No answer.
I gave up after another unsuccessful hour. I went home disappointed, but didn’t think much about the place ever again. Maybe once a year it would come up in conversation, and some other expat would have heard about it. I would usually shoot them down.
In Steps Fate
One day, editor Nick and I got to talking about the mythical village. Nick had seen it and remembered the road it was on. The algorithms that live in the net blessed him with a location about 3km from the one I had looked for. And his was empirically tested and proven in analogue, on a bike.
Armed with this new information, I found Ham Long village. It’s not really a village, but it might be one day, if the artists that live in these neighbouring houses lapped by the Saigon River get a business plan together. And maybe an online presence.
At the moment, one artist, Ly Khac Nhu, invites visitors to his gardened art galleries. I couldn’t imagine anyone stumbling upon this art venue. It’s halfway between the Phu My Bridge and Diamond Island. Location is instrumental to business success, so how had his shop ticked for over 10 years? The tours. Apparently those groups of tourists who religiously follow their guide know something we expat residents don’t know about Ho Chi Minh City. They also have the advantage of being boated directly to Ly Khac Nhu’s riverside garden.
I go there by road, on a rainy day drenched in swear words. After an hour-long drive, I curl under my umbrella into the first wooden house I saw, where the amount of mot-hai-ba-yo-ing suggests a homage to the recently deceased general Vo Nguyen Giap might be going on. I’m politely shooed away, but in full detective mode. Two doors down, a wide open gate and the number 35 invites me into a soggy garden. This is it.
The Gates of Purgatory
Trunks axe into animal shapes and ceramic sculptures with facial expressions are everywhere. The houses with trees all around could well be the examples of traditional Vietnamese architecture, the sort I’ve been led to expect by the person who first told me about this hidden place.
A man arrives minutes after I do. With his raincoat still on, he doesn’t seem at all surprised to see a stranger walking around his patio, unannounced, looking at the artwork. He switches the lights on and answers a few questions, but he tires quickly and disappears, and sends over a young woman to repeat the same answers, but not to expand on the details.
I still don’t know why a pond that was singled out as being ‘northern style’ was characteristically northern. It’s a green pond with lotus plants in ceramic vases. Afterwards, I make enquiries, but am none the wiser.
The pond patters away under the raindrops. Under wooden columns and straw clay walls, I peer at paintings. This northern-style porch shelters an open air gallery of unremarkable artworks, mostly lacquer or ceramic pieces. The house stops looking rustic once you go inside. Bright fluorescent lights shine on white walls, washed by terrible leaks that stream rain down to puddles on the floor. The leaks drip over many artworks. Fortunately, Vietnamese lacquer is resilient — it’s used in furniture precisely because it can protect wood from water damage.
Surrounded by a number of amateur or otherwise nondescript paintings, my gaze suddenly lands on a large lacquer of a fierce figure in a distinctively rough style. It’s indeed a Le Kinh Tai, and the price tag of VND210 million reflects the artist’s reputation.
A No-Frills Tour
The next house in the precinct is designed in Hue style, except for the antique wooden doors, which owner Ly Khac Nhu brought in from China as a symbol of his heritage. The tiled roof on this small building is better able to minimise the leaks than the palm leaves of the northern style house. But the humidity is there to stay.
The galleries inside have some splendid furniture, from Chinese cabinets with mother of pearl intarsia, to three-legged art deco chairs. But none of it is for sale. The paintings are the only items that the solitary girl looks eager to part with, at prices starting in the millions of VND.
Unfortunately, there is no information on the works, and sometimes the name of the artist can’t be found. The wide range of quality, subject matter and style and the unfathomable age of some paintings (the bad conservation probably makes some artworks look much older than they are) make the whole place a bit suspect. In another country, this would be a car boot sale.
A third house in the complex is a Tay Nguyen style house with a sloping thatched roof and a lake all to itself. It’s an appropriate home to over 20 sculptures made by different ethnic minorities, the personal collection of Mr. Nhu.
By the river, bamboo curtains shade the solid chairs and tables where the paying guests who arrived by boat enjoy tea or coffee and a spectacular view. The rest of us are not offered such pleasantries, so I scurry along with my umbrella to the lacquer studio.
The owner of this house — who’s not Mr. Nhu, and doesn’t have his taste in art — pats silver leaf onto lacquer boards. It’s a mini-factory of tourist souvenirs: small, portable lacquer paintings of any image a teenager might produce.
The artists’ village is a good idea that is poorly developed. The venue is wonderful, the journey by road long and some of the artwork, quite awful. If you decide to go, take your own refreshments because the nearest source is not exactly within walking distance.
The address is 35 Thich Mat The, Thanh My Loi, Q2, Ho Chi Minh City. But don’t trust Google Maps