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Sapa Art Festival

IMG_4407After a last-minute decision to participate in the 10km leg of the Sapa Mountain Marathon, my husband and I braved the rocky night-train north for some clean air, a little exercise and, as it turns out, an introduction to the art of northwestern Vietnam. The run was steep, muddy and gruelling – but far more interesting was the launch of the first Sapa Art Festival.

IMG_6981Hosted at the Sapa Tourist Centre, the festival opened with a flurry of speeches by local dignitaries. In spite of a thick fog and steady drizzle, visitors were greeted by an open fire. Inside the centre, French doors were pushed open to let visitors through. The visitors paused every so often to appreciate the original paintings and photographs by the region’s most talented artists.

As I warmed myself by the fire, one painting in particular caught my eye. It was an impressionist scene of rolling greens, blues, purples and blacks. Up close, the painting resembled a series of sharp brush strokes and scrapings, but from afar it morphed into a soft swirl of mountains and rice paddies. The painting’s artist, Pham Phan Hoang Linh, perfectly captured the intricacy and changeability of the mountain terrain. The highlight of the exhibition was a bright room filled with student paintings depicting everyday scenes from the area, such as a woman soaking in an herbal bath, a young boy riding his buffalo and a pot-bellied pig trotting through a farm.

IMG_6985These small snippets of daily life in the northwest are curated by Bridget Marr, the founder of the art festival and artist-in-residence of Sapa Rooms. More than a hotel, Sapa Rooms is a social enterprise that seeks to improve the lives of minority women and children in the region. The new artist-in-residence program, known as Art for Community, provides room and board in exchange for art projects that contribute towards these initiatives.

“The program supports the belief that the arts are an integral part of a healthy culture, and that community-based arts provide significant value both to communities and artists,” said Pete Wilkes, founder of Sapa Rooms.

I caught up with Marr the following morning in her top-floor studio at the Sapa Rooms guesthouse. The rain had cleared and the open windows by her desk afforded views across Sapa’s rooftops and down a steep mountain valley. Originally from the United Kingdom, Marr spent two years in Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An before beginning her four-month sojourn in Sapa.

“For me it was always about helping Sapa Rooms achieve their goals rather than producing my own work,” said Marr, who still found time to produce soft watercolour paintings depicting the hills and villages of the area.

With the sun shining, I later took to the streets around town to visit a few artists’ studios and galleries. As part of the festival, local artists opened their doors and invited guests to take a look inside. From amateur to professional, oil to watercolour, the rooms were filled with the life and colour of the region. But for me, nothing came close to the beautiful colours and techniques used by Pham Phan Hoang Linh. So with only a few hours of cool mountain air remaining, I returned to the Sapa Tourist Centre ready to buy. As Linh carefully removed her painting from the frame, we chatted briefly in broken Vietnamese and English. “I like painting and living in Sapa,” she said as she presented her rolled-up canvas. “It is a wonderful place for art and I hope to stay forever.”

IMG_7025This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on November 5th, 2014, click here to see the original.

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Co-working

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My dog Marmalade and I have taken to having long conversations in my home office. I sit down with a cup of tea, her with the latest bone she’s working on, and we discuss work.  Sure the talks are kind of one-sided, but her eyes tell me what she’s thinking – unfortunately they are usually saying “let’s go for a walk” or “feed me” rather than “great article” or “that chapter needs more work.”

I love my work. It affords me ultimate freedom and every week I learn a little more about Hanoi and Vietnam. But there are days, when my entire to-do list involves desk work, that I miss the interaction and stimulation of an office environment. That was until I discovered Hanoi’s very own co-working venue, ClickSpace, and realised I was not the only independent worker to feel this way.

From the outside ClickSpace looks like any other house in Hanoi’s Tay Ho area. But inside the pale yellow exterior, the building has been transformed into three floors of office space where anyone and everyone, no matter their profession, can rent a desk and get to work. “Co-working is a social activity,” says ClickSpace founder Jason Lusk, “and Hanoi-based freelancers and entrepreneurs are discovering co-working in a big way.” It allows independent workers, like myself, the opportunity to be part of a group.

With increasing numbers of jobs offered online, many people around the world are finding they miss the companionship and inspiration of an office environment. “You don’t join a co-working centre because you need a desk. You co-work because you enjoy meeting interesting new people, finding new collaborators, eating lunch with new friends, and – most importantly – feeling some peer pressure to get some work done,” explains Lusk.

After a quick introduction from Hai Anh, ClickSpace’s bubbly operations manager, I make my way up to the second floor. The “productive area” Hai Anh explained. Surveying the large room filled with desks, power outlets and Wi-Fi signs, I set up at an empty space near the window. Except for the sounds of clacking keyboards and the whir of the air-conditioner, my workmates are quiet.

The great thing about freelancing is that you can make your own hours, and as long as you meet deadlines, nobody cares when or where you work. There is no one hovering over your shoulder making sure you don’t slack off – although on the flipside there’s no one hovering over your shoulder stopping you from slacking off. On the introductory tour, Hai Anh showed me a large kitchen where people can hang out and drink, and I briefly contemplated checking out the beer-stocked fridge, but decided that’s a slippery slope at 11am. Opting to wait until ClickSpace’s weekly Friday happy hour that evening, there was nothing else for me to do but work.

On a break in the small outdoor area that doubles as scooter parking, I chat to a few people casually standing around sipping Diet Coke. “I’ve been working at ClickSpace for about three months now,” says Cuong Ha, the managing director of Insight Frog, a new responsible tourism group. “It really cuts down on start-up costs and gives us a place to work together until we’re more established.” When I arrived earlier that day, three members of the Insight Frog team were holding a meeting on the couches of the ground floor.

One of my favourite things about working as freelancer in Hanoi is all the interesting people I meet. As cliché as that sounds I really feel that the city is a hive of creativity and constant inspiration. Spending a day at ClickSpace reinforced this feeling. Lusk agrees: “Hanoi is brimming with software engineers. It has thousands of creative workers. Moreover, it has become a top destination for foreigners and digital nomads who like the city’s chic, gritty energy.” I left ClickSpace that afternoon not only feeling decidedly cheerier than I do after a day in my home office, but also feeling more productive.  I guess my long chats with Marmalade will be coming to an end.

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This article originally appeared on the AsiaLife website on October 7th, 2014, click here to see the original.