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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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Conquering Mt. Fansipan

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Labor Day long weekend represents the end of Summer in America, but here is Hanoi temperatures are still warm and the humidity is unrelenting – although endless rain is dampening any summery feel. Zack and I were happy to take advantage of the holiday and retreat to the more temperate weather of Vietnam’s north-eastern mountains. Just a “quick” eight hour night train later and we were our of Hanoi’s noise and pollution and into the clean mountain air, relaxing in silence on a mountain top; 45 minutes from the small town of Sapa.

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Tourists flock to Sapa to take in the breathtaking views, hike amongst rice paddies, and interact with the many minority tribes that live in the region.

ImageBut as enjoyable as these activities were, we were on a mission…  to conquer Mt. Fansipan.  Towering over the surrounding hills at over 3000 meters, the mountain is the highest in Indochina and a challenge we couldn’t pass up.

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What I could pass up, however, was a night in a camp surrounded by mud, trash, and rats. So, in defiance of local advice, we attempted, and only just succeeded, in climbing the mountain in one day. A feat, according to our guide, only attempted by Australians and a few Europeans… Never by Vietnamese. We were warned that it would be an eleven hour slog up a seemingly endless slippery slope, decorated with mossy boulders, creeks, and tricky tree roots. The constant mud was just part of the fun. Feeling pretty confident in our hiking abilities we really didn’t give this much thought, perhaps we should have. After eleven and a half hours we limped out of the forest, muddy, bloody and bruised, from a trek that could have been spectacular if it wasn’t for the impenetrable cloud.

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ImageDespite the turmoil of the hike we did in enjoy the challenge… in retrospect. We slept well that night, in a our beautiful eco-lodge, happy in the knowledge that we had made it. The next day we barely moved.

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Sunset at the lodge