Vietnam days 6-7: Da Lat

Leaving our resort we headed north up the coast past abandoned building shells that gave the appearance of a war zone. image We turned inland and started to climb. The land became drier with red sandy soil, less farming, wider vistas, and more goats. image image As it became steeper still we left the bikes and went back on the bus to drive five hours into mountains. Away from the coast things became less western, the people different, with darker skin and speaking a different dialect. Da Lat means place of the Lat people, and is a beautiful cool town with a lake. It shows much evidence of its French Colonial history – exemplified in our hotel, which was beautifully proportioned and simple, retaining its cage elevator in the lobby.

imageWe ate a dinner of pancakes and cold rolls in the house of local people. Da Lat’s role as resort town for the Vietnamese was evident, as was its role as a centre for cool climate agriculture. Our ride down from the mountains was spectacular – we climbed in heavy rain with thunder and lightning around us, and then, donning ponchos against the cold, descended for 30km towards the coast.

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imageThe rain started to clear on the way down, and we had occasional views through wonderful valleys towards the coast. back in our bus for the last part of the journey we travelled to spend the night in Nha Trang – a cheesy resort town full of noise, baubles and fat Russians.

Vietnam Days 4-5: Southern Coast

“Vietnam – land of contrasts.” While first uttered as an attempt at guide-book cliche among or group, the phrase proved apt as we travelled along the Southern Coast from Loc An to Mui Ne.

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Leaving Ho Chi Min City we followed the familiar path of highway lined with stalls, hammocks, small businesses and litter, a sight that seemed not change much irrespective of location. Near the coast the complexion changed and took on the character of a fishing community, An authentic fishy smell filled the air, and was backed up by brightly painted fishing boats and small fish sauce factories. The boats seemed much too picturesue to be authentic, but were not so, clearly showing the patina of regular and heavy use, The streets retained the flavour we were used to but added to that occasional bars and small hotels.

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Moving further north we began to see larger pieces of land given over to resorts in various stages of completion. Cycling in the cooler sea air increasing numbers of signs were written in Russian and golf courses appeared where none should be.
Our hotel – or resort, set a new standard with its excess. The incongruity started when our band of sweaty cyclists entered the lobby and was presented with frangipani leis and ice tea, and only increased from there.image

The style of the Sea Links resort could perhaps best be describe as Russian Gargantuan; corridors large enough for a soviet tank to pass with ease, a ball room that would swallow the battleship Potemkin, and a gaggle of swimming pools. All  of these were executed in terrible taste, as if dreamed up by a sunburned Russian grandmother in the second week of a vodka binge.

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The resort was almost empty, and apparently stayed thus even in the high season.
At night we wandered the empty corridors marvelling at their size and lack of proportion.

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Vietnam Days 2-3: Mekong Delta

“Never get out of the boat.” Apocalypse Now references are in particularly poor taste, but hard to resist while in a small boat on the a tiny branch of the Mekong delta.

Despite the delta’s claim to be an easy place to live, where a man can fish for an hour and catch enough to eat for a week, there are glimpses of young families doing it tough in shanties among the French Colonial remnants.

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Our local guide had a rosy view of her home, and explained its cornucopia of local produce in minute detail.  The whole of Minh Island was pretty much devoted to fruit. Jak fruit, mango, durian, rambutan, pineapple, grapefruit, guava, and so it goes. We saw them in nurseries, on plantations and in gardens We ate them in restaurants, in  tea rooms and fresh-plucked from plants beside the paths.

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Despite the many cliched opportunities to see women in conical hats and girls on bicycles, some of the families living on their boats did not appear to share the idyl. I did not feel comfortable invading their lives with a camera.

We were taken to many factories, and while I feel this was done mainly to fill our tour with quantifiable experiences, what struck me most was the energy and material cycle driven by the sun. Photosynthesis in rice plants drove industries that would be powered by fossil fuels in the west. When the rice was harvested the rice husks provided fuel for just about everything. Large brick kilns are fired with rice husks, baking bricks formed from the clay taken from rice fields; the ash then being returned to the farmers to fertilise the next crop.

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Apart from fruit we ate fish – the ubiquitous elephant-ear fish steamed and fried, shrimp, cockles and snails. Freshness in places free of refrigeration was not a problem, as the fish and animals were kept alive until they were needed.

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The markets of were pretty full-on, particularly the seafood. The vendors tended their small quantities of live produce; fish, snakes, eels, shrimp, turtles, frogs, clams, snails – chicken and ducks also live, their feet tied together to prevent escape…

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This was more than enough market for me. Rats were skinned and boned out, but these were special rats that lived in coconut trees and so tasted of coconut and were thus more expensive than other meats; they had to be caught – one guy goes up the tree and scares them out with a stick, two others stay at the bottom with a net to catch them. “Rats are very fast!” explained our guide.

Vietnam Day 1: Ho Chi Min City

After the regimen of  our air  travel to Vietnam, the near-chaos  of Ho Chi Min City traffic left a distinct impression. The enduring  image is of a mother zooming through traffic on her scooter with one child riding pillion with a satchel under his arm and another, no more than two years old, in the petrol tank – both children quite  asleep.

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The only rule I could discern was, “Hold your course, no matter what; that way people can dodge around you without hitting you.”

We adopted this as a stratagem for making our way across the scooter-ridden streets  and it seemed to work.

20140509-215547.jpgDespite the potential for so much to go wrong it seemed that little did, although we were later told the grim statistic of 10 000 annual road fatalities and countless injuries.

In daylight the cars and trucks were less menacing, and the next morning we took ourselves on a walking tour that took in the old French Colonial Post Office, Reunification Palace, War Relics Museum and Markets

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Dark Heart at SA Gallery – Worth Many Looks

At a time when institutional galleries struggle ever more for relevance, it is good to see the South Australian gallery struggle and succeed.

The 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art has much to recommend it. Sex and Death worked for MONA down in Tassie, so with State and National galleries under pressure to catch up, Death is a pretty safe bet for an edgy (but not too edgy for a State Gallery) theme.

So please – leave your catalogue at home, close your ears to the inevitable gallery guides telling you what you should experience, and walk around with a smile for this clever artwork.

On entry, Julia deVille’s room is a treat, and the cat as Victorian bride/mummy is a particular delight.

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There’s a lovely absurdity about the work, and the Victorian separation from reality is marvellous, with its unsettling nuance of Beatrix Potter’s animals-as-people.

Walking on through, Trent Park’s room of vastly enlarged photographs is another highlight.

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Anyone familiar with Antonioni’s masterwork “Blow-Up” (1966) will get the concept of the film negative enlarged until the grain takes over, but for me this resonates even more in the digital age, when we are increasingly forced to decide for ourselves the point at which the surface ends and the image begins. This is good, successful photography on an institutional scale.

Skip Sally Smart next door and go through to Brook Andrew.

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He’s taken early colonial illustrations of indigenous Aussies and screen printed them onto metallic backgrounds. It worked for Andy Warhol and it works for this Andrew. Like Trent Park’s work, the interplay between the surface of the work and the larger image is what makes it intriguing. Go and stick your nose in it.

Then duck back for a break with a bit of good video art.

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(Yes, I know “good video art” is an oxymoron, but bear with me here) Richard Lewer’s animated piece is great. Simple, warm drawing and faux-simple animation techniques tell the story of a failed suicide pact. Sounds grim, but remember how Romeo and Juliet ended up, and that was a love story too. Maybe it belongs more on YouTube, but its presence here in the gallery pointed out to me how crap the other Video work in the show is. An unintended consequence perhaps, but a happy one.

The Ben Quilty work is a huge disappointment, because it’s huge, and it’s a disappointment.

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I’m a big Quilty fan. I love his virtuosic control over thick oil and his brilliant draughtsmanship. I’m glad we have an Art superstar in Oz and I’m glad it’s someone who can actually paint. But this work is a mess. It’s (yes, literally) a Rorschach blob of an island, with all Ben’s beautiful oil paint squished into a drab smear. Maybe that’s a metaphor, but it ain’t satisfying. The room is full of the wonderful smell of raw oil paint though, so it’s still worth spending some time there.

There’s lots of other stuff of course – gosh, 28 artists and I’ve only mentioned a few. It’s free, so go often: I intend to.

Until 11 May 2014
Art Gallery of South Australia
North Terrace
Adelaide
SA 5000

http://adelaidebiennial.com.au/