Photo courtesy of http://www.photo.vn.com
I faced a grueling traffic jam of motor bikes this morning on my way to class that I had to prematurely use my mental prowess in a usually un-cerebral task of going to school. I appreciated the value of buying a mountain bike when I face situations like that one. Maneuvering my bicycle and escaping the queues of motorbikes and luxury SUVs and Mercedes, not to mentions the BMWs was a great toll on my neurons. In Vietnam there is no problem with using the pavements as extension of highways so long as you do not let yourself get caught by the brown or green uniform-wearing men. I heard that for bicycle riders they seldom get caught; I took advantage of this fact.
I was reminded of what happened yesterday when Co Doanh asked me to help her transport three of her paintings to the gallery where she displays them. But since it was just impossible for me to carry three we ended up bringing only the biggest to the gallery where she intends to sell them. Chi Le, her daughter relayed to me that her paintings could easily fetch 500 USD each. Not bad, I thought, roughly equal to 8.5 million dong or three months worth of salary of teachers here.
At around three in the afternoon in the heat of the sweltering Hanoian sun, I carried a framed lacquer painting measuring 150 cm by 75 cm weighing roughly 15 kilograms on the back of her motorbike for a distance of 5 kilometers. Imagine the heat, motorbike drivers incessantly blowing their horns, the heavy traffic under the three-pm sun, and the heavy lacquer painting I am supporting with my hands, thighs, and head. And I forgot to mention that since the painting is so wide, the air turbulence it caused was so great that it made the painting three times heavier.
The gallery is inside a Buddhist temple called Den Quan Thanh. It is near West Lake, the biggest lake in Hanoi. The temple is also a place where wushu martial artists practice their routines every afternoon. I even saw Caucasians doing wushu in a manner that is as graceful as their Vietnamese counterparts.
I was forewarned by Chi Le not to speak anything when entering the temple so that I would not have to pay the entrance fee of 2000 dong (0.12 USD, or roughly 5.5 PhP) for foreigners; I thought it was funny, but I heeded her advice anyway. Although I look like any Vietnamese but more like Vietnamese from Mien Nam or the South because of my sun kissed (dark) skin, 2000 dong is 2000 dong.
The gallery was unusually improperly lighted for a place being used to exhibit paintings. We were met by the owner and her daughter. After signing the poof of receipt, the owner asked about the boy who accompanied Co Doanh who was curiously examining the paintings that were displayed. After knowing that I am a foreigner, she suddenly shifted to her plethora of American English slangs.
“Are you OK?”
“Are they cool? Lacquer paintings are ‘in’ with our western buyers. They think they’re cool.” Something I did not expect to hear from someone who owns a gallery and acts as the curator at the same time.
Then I took it as a cue that to start rehearsing my Tieng Viet. She expressed her surprise to hear a foreigner speaking a passable Vietnamese after learning the language for roughly more than a month.
I smiled. I told her that the paintings in her gallery are indeed “cool.” She laughed at my skewed translation. The word “cool” does not correspond to mat which is also cool but is used to describe the atmospheric condition; there are other words to mean “cool”. I was aware of the blunder; she was not aware of the pun (or my humor was just different).
Co Doanh finished her transaction and we went home, this time under the less threatening quarter-to-five-pm sun, minus the fifteen-kilogram painting.
“John oi, bay gia chung ta sap di.” (John, we’re going now.)
The traffic jam this morning also reminded me that we still have two more framed paintings to bring to the gallery this afternoon. Under the sweltering Hanoian sun.