Miles to go before I sleep

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An 82-year-old woman in HCMC promotes artists, advises young documentary filmmakers, and opens foreigners' eyes to Vietnam 's millennia-old history and culture


Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong, 82, spends her whole life in introducing Vietnamese heroic history and stunning art

Lotus Gallery, located in a modest part of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, has been a springboard for many unknown art talents.

I went to Lotus at 10 a.m. one day and found a portly woman with short hair sitting with a small laptop. Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong, who is a young-looking 82, has owned the place since 1991, but only recently has she become well-known outside art circles.

On October 12 she was conferred France's highest civilian honor, the Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor), which has made her a national celebrity.

She is not sure why she was conferred the prize.

"They said it was in recognition of my devotion to enhancing the relationship between the French and Vietnamese cultures. It could be, but I was just doing my job."

People have been discovering since that Phuong is not just a gallery owner, but also an interpreter, a filmmaker, and, importantly, a woman who coaxes foreigners to admire Vietnamese history and art.

Life began afresh for her in 1989 after she retired, she says.

"Due to my devotion [during the war], I was offered the job of taking care of motorbikes and bicycles outside the Hanoi Opera House. I did not disdain the job, but I thought I was not meant to do it. I followed in the footsteps of Uncle Ho, who found national salvation by going abroad.

"France was my choice, but I could just afford a one-way ticket. That meant if I failed, I will have no way back.

"But my foreign friends were kinder than I expected. I restarted my life at 60."

Thanks to her fluent French, Phuong found a good job as a file translator. With her earlier background in theater and documentary filmmaking, she soon moved to a film distribution company that went to international film festivals to buy good movies.

"I was sent to Cannes in 1990 and 1991 to see movies and review them for the agency. Based on my short reviews, they would decide whether or not to buy a movie.

"It was my great luck to attend such a prestigious film festival. I saw so many good movies."

Despite having an interesting job and good friends, Phuong was longing for home.

"Only the expats, especially the elderly, could understand my feeling at that time. I was terribly homesick and longed for the sunny weather, the language, and even the disorder on the streets."

She had made up her mind: "I refused all offers of a pay rise and decided to return home."

Clearing misconceptions about Vietnam

During her two years in France she says she was often upset by foreigners considering Vietnam merely as a sorry nation that had been devastated by war.

"They have no idea about Vietnam's 4,000-year culture. Frankly, they know nothing about Vietnam.

"I would tell them that Vietnam is small but the Vietnamese nation is great. It was proved again and again against invading enemies.

"They would not be mad at me, but say sorry and ask me a lot of things," she says with a smile.

The idea of opening a gallery came to her even before returning home when she successfully held a first exhibition of Vietnamese paintings in Paris in 1990. She had thought that fine arts would be the best representative of Vietnamese culture.

She managed to sell many of the 72 paintings on silk, giay do (traditional handmade paper), and lacquer that were on show, which got her sold on opening an art gallery back in Vietnam.

She has now spent 15 years connecting local talents with foreign markets by bringing both works and their creators to international arts festivals. Many of them have gone on to become famous.

"I spend most of my time traveling to remote areas and attending national festivals to find new talents.

No abstracts, please

She says her choice of works is purely emotional. But she has no interest in or understanding of abstract and contemporary art.

She puts it down to just her age. "I have no bias against current art trends. It is simply not my type, that's all."

"I love oil paintings, lacquers featuring landscapes, festivals, traditional customs, and people's daily life. Portraits are good, too."

Phuong recalls her past with amazing coherence.

"In 1945 I quit studying to join the resistance in Hue. I was initially an entertainer, acting in plays at the IV military zone. Later I became the only woman to serve in the arms and ammunitions department."

Making dynamite is not hard as people think, she says.

"They found people good at foreign languages to read books. We just followed the book's chemical formulas exactly."

"Not a big deal," she laughs.

From 1967 her fluency in French - which she had learnt at school - saw her become an interpreter and guide

for famous foreign journalists and filmmakers like Burchett, Madeleine Riffaud (the adopted daughter of Uncle Ho), Joris Ivens, and Gérard Guillaume who came to Vietnam to document the war.

She would take them to the frontlines. Once Phuong was injured in the face by bomb shrapnel. She simply picked out the pieces and went to the assistance of a foreign journalist who was also injured.

Their works helped people around the world understand the unjust wars foisted on Vietnam by the western powers and the bravery of the Vietnamese, she says.

"Assisting the foreign filmmakers got me into a documentary-making career. I love telling true stories about people around me and life."

Phuong has a happy family, but works 12 hours a day on painting exhibitions, book translations, and consulting young documentary makers.

To her, life comes just once. It means never having to regret anything she has done.

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