It’s been raining continuously since I arrived in Hoi An. The river threatens at any moment to burst its banks; the market is several inches deep in water, vegetable detritus and fish guts swim freely in it, and puddles have grown so large that touts are selling tickets to tourists to walk around ‘the great lakes’. All the while, the sky remains a flat, impenetrable concrete, unchanging. The city’s charm has not deserted it entirely, but some has definitely been washed away.
The mildewed decadence of the peeling yellow buildings in the Old Town remains and the glow from the plethora of lanterns now inspires the emotional response usually reserved for the fire seen roaring in a hearth on a winter’s evening – that selfsame cockle-warming contrast to the elements that stirs something deep in the belly. And for these reasons, despite wading my way through a continual tacky slurry, I still believe that good things are but a few squelched steps away.
Hoi An is an enchanting maze of alleyways. In this ancient port’s clogged capillaries seamstresses busily construct costumes for hastily measured Western bodies, plump ladies preside proudly over the freshest Cao Lau ingredients, and motorbike drivers slam cards and drink tea in a near mechanical rhythm. Out on the main streets, the buildings serve up slabs of colour in pleasant tourist-friendly rows: from the fading sunshine of the colonial houses to the vibrant folds of silk and fabric in the tailor’s shops, its a kaleidoscopic treat that goes some way to compensating for the monotone skies.
On one wet wandering down towards the Japanese bridge, I found myself sponging my damp and weary form across Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street and into a gallery. The canvases were nothing like the generic watercolours that filled Hoi An’s galleries; there were no rice fields and rivers rouged carelessly at sunset and no elongated figures in conical hats, going nowhere. Instead what looked back at me from the walls of Phan Thanh Minh’s gallery were gnarled portraits and distorted figures: faces creased and defiant with life; bodies alive and agitated.
Phan’s style seems to change with each emotion expressed or experienced, but there’s an ever present sense of movement and energy in his work expounded with vibrant colours. At times there are elements of the urban vigour of graffiti art, the same free flowing lines and sense of urgency, at other times there’s a more contemplative and sombre use of oils, thick and tangible on the canvas.
Situated above the large gallery room is Phan’s studio, a superb space with a balcony looking out over the picturesque street and providing plenty of natural light, though not today, a day when light has been banished from Hoi An. The floor is splattered with paint and every inch of wall space is busy with canvasses, stacked in rows, hung high.
I sit down to speak with Phan, occasionally stooping down to pat his dog and, much to the animal’s discomfort, drip great pregnant drops of recycled rain onto her trembling body. He tells me that he graduated from The Fine Art University in Ho Chi Minh City University in 2007 and has been busy creating and exhibiting art since then. We talk awhile and all too soon my respite from the rain comes to an end, I say goodbye to Phan and allow the hood of my raincoat to suck once more at my cheeks before stepping out into a torrent – the river has finally burst its banks. Amen.
To see more of Phan’s work click here or better still, if you’re in Hoi An, rain or shine, and want to experience and purchase some genuinely exciting contemporary Vietnamese art then check out Phan’s gallery at 18 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street. Phan can be reached at email@example.com.