Destination Asia: Vietnam - Nam Quoc Art

Nam Quoc Art Vietnam 

I don't normally deviate from the usual one post per country rule, but this is one exception I could not pass up as it's too important to have it as a subheading in the previous blog post. 

While in Ho Chi Minh, on our way back from the Cu Chi Tunnels tour, we were encouraged to take a look a the Handicrafts Art studio. Now, I'm not the kind of traveller that buys souvenirs, nor am I particularly fond of tourist guides that take you to see shops in hopes that they will get a commission from it, but this time was different. 

Handicrafts Art is an organisation that supports locals affected by Agent Orange and due to the severe side effects cannot get employment elsewhere. The artists (because you genuinely cannot call them employees once you see the incredible art they produce) are trained in the art of lacquer painting and egg shell designs. We'll get to a mini history lessons on what Agent Orange is and the historical significance of lacquer and egg painting in Vietnam in a moment, I promise. 

The special part in all this is that for once you know that the money you spend on souvenirs isn't going to a large corporation but rather to individuals that would otherwise have no alternative but to live on the street as Vietnam does not have a well established social welfare scheme. In addition, from a selfish point of view, you get to see your artwork being made from scratch. 

What is Agent Orange? 

At its core agent orange is a herbicide that was tactically used as a chemical warfare agent in the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. The environmental damage, though severe was minimal through comparison to the significant health impacts on the human body. Current statistics suggest that over 4 million people were exposed to the toxic chemical during its years of use, with the Red Cross estimating that over 1 million people have lasting disabilities as a result of the exposure. Notably, these statistics continue to be disputed depending on the stance you take. For more legal information on this, have a look at the UN's ratification of the Environmental Modification Convention. 

Alternatively, if you're in Ho Chi Minh, visit the War Remnant Museum, which has a dedicated room showcasing the impact of agent orange through articles, photos and artefacts. This is another stop in Vietnam that I wasn't too enthusiastic about visiting initially, but I am so glad I did. Prior to visiting the museum I had very limited knowledge on the background of the war and its impact. 

Why has this stayed with me ?

Back to the art company and why I'm writing this. I've already mentioned that I rarely if ever buy souvenirs. 

The only thing I collect are string bracelets from each country I visit- yes, I was that person who came back from Asia with a hand full of colourful bracelets that I refused to take off for a very long time.  Now that I am an 'almost adult' with a full time corporate job, they have a home in a box I fondly open now and again to either add a new one in or go through them and remember the freedom I felt during my year of travelling. 

The trip to Nam Quoc Art was one of the only times I broke my own travel rules, and I am so glad I did. I sat down with some of the artists as they turned an ordinary slab of concrete into an egg shell painting that I have taken with me from my room in Hong Kong, to Amsterdam during my time living there, back to university in the UK and now in my home in Reading. So to say it's a permanent staple feature in my life would be an understatement. 

 Official photos / information here . 

If you're ever in Ho Chi Minh do not miss out on this! It's truly an experience of a lifetime. 

Until next time, 

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