Countryside culture for city slickers

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A student brings the folk art of northern Vietnam to the southern commercial hub

Tran Van Binh was disappointed when he found out there were no authentic Dong Ho paintings in Ho Chi Minh City.

As a new university student who had just arrived in the city in 2006, Binh was surprised that the cultural and economic center of southern Vietnam lacked a place where art and history enthusiasts could view or buy Dong Ho, a traditional form of woodblock painting originating in Binh's home province of Bac Ninh in the north.

Binh says he searched far and wide for days but couldn't find a single authentic Dong Ho work on display or for sale.

So he decided to bring the paintings here himself, a resolution that has lead to three years of bringing not only Dong Ho, but other folk art and folk games to the southern metropolis.

Bearing gifts

Artisans have been making Dong Ho paintings in the same Bac Ninh Village for over 300 years, and the works are famous all over Vietnam. They are sold in southern cities during holidays, but Binh thought they should be here year round.

In 2007, Binh returned to his hometown for the Tet (Lunar New Year) holidays and visited Dong Ho Village's two most famous artisans.

Nguyen Huu Sam and Nguyen Dang Che taught Binh a great deal about the paintings, which begin as carvings on woodblocks. Paint is then layered on the blocks before they are pressed onto the special do paper. Binh can now even tell the difference between real and fake Dong Ho and he's also become a skilled appraiser of the works.

Returning to Ho Chi Minh City for the second semester, Binh brought nearly 300 paintings with him.

He first began selling the paintings at very low prices online with his blog and at various forums and buy-and-sell websites.

"Some people contacted me to place orders, while others just wrote some comments on my blog," says Binh. "This encouraged me to continue my idea."

Together with his friends, Binh also made greeting cards with Dong Ho paintings for Women's Day (March 8) and sold them at a book fair.

I don't aim to earn money from selling the paintings. I want to introduce my hometown culture to people," says Binh, adding that after he began selling them, he also started nurturing the idea of exhibiting them properly.

To the cafes

Soon after Binh opened his online business, he met Duy Nhut, who owns Hoa Da coffee shop in HCMC's District 11.

Nhut told Binh he loved Dong Ho paintings and often cut out the paintings from calendars to decorate his shop as he couldn't find real ones. He said he enjoyed the scenes of ordinary life and landscapes as well as paintings depicting the seasons of the year and prosperity symbols.

Binh suggested that Nhut display some Dong Ho paintings at his shop.

"I was so lucky to meet Binh and I agreed almost immediately," says Nhut.

The display went up at Hoa Da in June last year and was a hit with customers. Nguyen Trong Hien, the owner of Thu Gian coffee shop in District 3, noticed the display and told Binh he wanted to show Dong Ho paintings at his café also.

The paintings bring luck and prosperity, says Hien. He and Binh set up a second exhibit at Thu Gian later that same month.

Binh says he's been surprised that his displays have been so popular with young people as it's usually thought that only the middle-aged appreciate Dong Ho.

After the exhibitions, Binh launched a website about Dong Ho paintings with his friends. The site, launched in May,, features a gallery of the paintings with stories about them. It also provides information about other traditional customs of the north, like hat xam - a genre of folk music.

A different childhood

Binh has also dedicated a section of his website to folk games for children that he and his friends spent a year researching in 2006. Binh says he had the idea because he noticed the city's children were too obsessed with the Internet and online games.

His two friends, Nguyen Nhu Hao and Do Thi Tuoi, agreed and the three embarked on a research project by conducting a survey at Tan Phu Primary School in District 9. They joined the students at break time every Friday and gathered 15 students from each class to play folk games every Saturday.

"We're teaching folk games in urban areas not because we miss the countryside. The objective is very clear: to restore folk games for urban children and help them use the games for personal development," a member of Binh's group told a local newspaper.

Binh and his partners have collected a list of 32 traditional folk games that could be used educationally. Based on this research, they also outlined an educational program to teach kids via traditional culture and folk practices.

The research has been handed over to District 9's education department, which will use the data to conduct some folk game pilot projects at local primary schools.

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