Life is short… Art is long.

July 27, 2012 in Asia, Travelogue, Vietnam

Have I mentioned that Hanoi is hot?

We’ve sweat more in the past two days than perhaps in our entire lives to this point combined. Rivers of salt water run down every crevice of flesh and evaporate into muggy air leaving salt crystals and stick behind

There’s no avoiding it. The only thing to do is drink more, and more, and more water.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the beauty in an oppressively hot afternoon, especially with no hope of a shower and a 12 hour bus ride looming. Other times, the heat melts away and the salt water pools in my eyes instead and I’m reminded of how very grateful I am for the little things in life.

The Temple of Literature is “not to be missed” in Hanoi, so they say. We’ll never know, because we missed it. I’m so glad we did.

Instead we visited the Memory House, a little museum made out of a typical house in the district we’re staying in. It’s one of the “tube houses” that the old section of town is known for: a shop front followed by a long, narrow, two story house to live in. There are warrens of them around every corner and down every street and they remain much as they have for centuries. I’ve been peering behind shop counters for days trying to catch a glimpse of the “man behind the curtain,” so this museum seemed a good chance to get that.

This particular house was built in the 17th century and inhabited non-stop by one owner or another until 1954, when the government “requisitioned” it. After that, five families shared the space and it was inhabited straight up until 1999. It’s basic. It’s bare. And it’s filled with interesting little things if you take the time to look. Things like a Chinese chess game, books made of paper formed from the bark of a tree and coated with sea shell and rice powder glaze, musical instruments of all sorts, and an art teacher.

Hannah was sitting against the wall on a low platform next to an ancient man in traditional dress. He’d given her a brush and was teaching her to paint. We spent a happy hour with him, each child who wanted to taking a turn painting with him, trying the brushes, feeling the paper. I sat cross legged on the floor and watched as a man who seemed to have waited every day in this room for my children to arrive, painting while he whiled away the time before their arrival, patiently teach them to paint.

He told us about the paper. And the paint. He told us about his art, and that these paintings on this special paper would last two or three hundred years without decay.

“Life is short… art is long,” he admonished us with a smile.

And so it is. 

We bought one of his paintings. One day I’ll hang it in my house and remember Hanoi. Next to it I’ll hang his portrait and that caption, our life lesson for the day.