c o n t e m p l a t i o n s a n d i n s p i r a t i o n s o f a n a r t i s a n j e w e l r y d e s i g n e r

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Journey to a Million Buddhas

I have just returned from a wonderful trip through southeast Asia and thought I would share some of my experiences. In some ways it is a foreign and far-away place, and in other ways travel there reminds us how small a world it really is!

I was particularly focused on spending some time with some of the ethnic minorities in northern Vietnam. Many of these hill tribes are famous for their silver work, and I have incorporated some of their jewelry components into my jewelry. So, we took a night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai on the Chinese border, and then rode for an hour up the mountains to Sapa (switch backs, dense fog, single lane with on-coming traffic - I really wondered if we would survive this!). From Sapa we trekked to Lao Chai, a Black Hmong ethnic minority village. From Lao Chai we trekked to Tavan, where the Giay ethnic minority hill tribe lives. Along the way we were joined by some of the ethnic minority women (wanting to sell their needlework and silverwork to us). Here you see us with our Northface backpacks next to some of the Hmong women carrying their basket "backpacks" and babies strapped on with blankets.

We spent most of the trip in Vietnam. First let me dispell any notions that you may have about the Vietnamese having bad feelings toward Americans. While the older Vietnamese don't want to talk about the war (they call it the American war), the Vietnamese in general have a particular affinity for Americans. They love Americans. In his wonderful book titled "Vietnam Now", author David Lamb says about the relationship between Vietnam and America: "...Americans and Vietnamese share an almost inexplicable bond. It is not the bond of natural friendship that Americans might feel for, say, Australians...rather it is something deeper and more mysterious. It is a liaison woven in tragedy and common suffering...perhaps as much as anything, the bond is rooted in the realization that the war changed the United States as much as it did Vietnam"

Now Vietnam is a country on a rising arc of development, with juxtapostions of old and new. Old women wearing their conical hats squat on the street and sell fruit and food. At the same time, whirling around them are millions of motor bikes and young Vietnamese on cell phones. More than two thirds of this country was born after 1975 and they are full of energy and drive.

By comparison our time in Laos was calm and quiet. Vietnam has a population of 85 million, Laos on the other hand, 5.5 million. Overall I called this trip "The Journey to a Million Buddhas", because I think I may have seen that many while visiting the multitude of Buddhist temples.

In Luang Prabang, Laos we had a guide who had spent over a decade as a monk, and is now a guide and teacher of meditation. As he brought us through the National Museum I commented on the spectacular silver pieces on exhibit from the last Royal reign which ended in 1975. He told me that this silversmith was still alive and had a studio in Luang Prabang. I asked if he could take me to see him, and in no time we were at the elder Thitpheng Maniphone's studio and shop. Thitpheng Maniphone had been the royal silversmith, reputed to have made many of the beautiful items in the National Museum, including the King's crown. The master, along with a number of assistants, were busy making silver vessels for Buddhist offerings. The entire vessel is decorated using the techniques of repoussé and chasing. This is a technique where the metal is decorated by hammering from the inside (repoussé) and outside (chasing). While repoussé is used to work on the reverse of the metal to form a raised design, chasing is used to refine the design on the front of the work by sinking the metal. It was truly awe inspiring to stand and watch him work. Here are a few photos:

This trip was enormously rewarding, challenging and curious. I enjoyed time with my family, and met interesting people along the way.

We trekked among the rice paddies...

and climbed to beautiful waterfalls...

We ate street food...

We traveled on planes, trains and boats...here on beautiful Halong Bay...

Vietnam is a country full of promise, filled with people who are hard working and industrious. Unfortunately there is still grinding poverty, disease and many undeveloped ways. But since the Doi Moi (the government's free market reforms) everyone is an entrepreneur of sorts and with this the standard of living is rising, albeit slowly. I was happy to see that so many artisans are relying on their skills to make a living. While there are factories going up, and most Vietnamese are farmers, there is still a great pride among these artisans that they are able to use their craft to support themselves and their families. I will close with pictures of various artisans - weavers, potters, silversmith, wood carver. They were truly inspiring.