In the midst of Hanoi’s hot and humid summer, Katie Jacobs soaks up the cool mountain air at the first-ever Sapa Art Festival.
After 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.
Hosted 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.
These 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.”