By Thomas Page
Vo Trinh Bien is a busy man, as well he might be. Half artist, half restaurateur, the mixture of business and bohemian lifestyles shouldn’t work, and yet for him it does. He seems at ease as he ushers us in to the New and New Art Cafe on a cool evening in Dalat, Vietnam.
Nestled amongst the Central Highlands’ pine forests, Dalat’s temperate climate has rendered it something of a giant allotment, the surrounding fields covered in greenhouses or striped with row upon row of cabbage and cauliflower. The image is a city living in and amongst nature, a sentiment lost on most of the nation, embroiled as it is in mass industrialization. Dalat is rife with vibrant colour; no wonder Vo Trinh Bien calls it home – and through his artwork, you can tell.
Trinh Bien moved to the Highlands to study literature at Dalat University, but found painting to be his calling. Twenty years later, wearing a smart blazer and neatly pressed chinos, his appearance belies his humble origins in Quang Ngai province. He is very much the self-made man. At the time of writing his paintings were featured in fifteen solo exhibitions up and down Vietnam. This is certainly helped by his prolific output; his latest exhibition in Hoa Binh Square is comprised of 59 works selected from the hundred he completed in 2013 alone.
As we sit down at our table it’s immediately apparent Trinh Bien is something of a maverick. The restaurant occupies two adjacent buildings, and has expanded into the second at some point in the past. His solution: sledgehammer a door sized hole in the concrete wall to join the two. But there’s a method in the madness; this way he can retain wall space. And what walls they are. Not an inch of them wasted, and laden in all manner of paintings from the owner, a variable melange of styles and influences, majestically framed on the border of kitsch. Coloured inks blend and bleed with a will of their own in one, mounted alongside vast stipple and dripping projects in myriad colour schemes. The room is littered with landscapes, which, given Dalat’s rolling hills, bear an uncanny resemblance to the Yorkshire Dales; Hockney-esque colour schemes without the bold lines. Even the ceiling bares the fruits of his labour. The largest (and probably the heaviest) is suspended directly above us, fittingly a mass of astral swirls against a midnight blue sky, recalling Van Gogh. In the eyes of a cynic it could be considered a mad vanity project, but for a small restaurant in a city of many others, it’s an emphatic and unique selling point.
The food becomes something of a sideshow, but when it comes it’s perfectly wonderful. Slow-cooked pork in Vietnamese caramel and chili, beef stir fried with copious amounts of fresh lemongrass, all washed down with a bottle of famous (perhaps infamous?) Dalat wine. It’s rather caustic, but it makes a welcome change from the ubiquitous bia hoi. But, and let’s be honest, one does not venture to the New and New Café for the food. People come for the art and for Vo Trinh Bien.
He’s a wonderful host, and once the plates are taken away the party tricks begin. For ten years now Trinh Bien has experimented with finger painting. He mixes red wine and black ink to create his medium and, dipping his middle finger into the emulsion, applies it to gloss paper with feather-light precision. By changing the pressure of his finger tip he creates shade within his lines, and that, combined with a staccato movement, creates what can only be described as bamboo shoots. His finger paintings are entirely comprised of these little shoots, Trinh Bien weaving them into all manner of things. Pulling up an easel he gets to work with flair and no small measure of showmanship, doodling for his customers as per their request: bamboo copses, initials, Buddhist symbols, all in his inimitable style.
His painting suggests something melioristic, showing – quite literally – the hand of mankind in nature. They make for stunning art, eschewing infantile preconceptions of finger drawing and forming a style impossible to create with even the deftest brushstroke. It is a marvel, and not one his customers are liable to forget. Each walks away with a little piece of art to remember the experience by; mine made it all the way back to England, and is hanging in the living room.
And for all of this he asks for nothing, modesty refusing payment for his art. That didn’t stop us leaving a hefty tip before walking off into the night. Quite frankly, he’d earned it.
It must be the most unique dining experience in all of Vietnam, and it owes itself the endeavour of a sole individual. This may just be his magnus opus.
About the Author:
Thomas is a literature postgraduate and features writer from London. His work has featured in The Guardian and his travel writing can be found at http://fearandloathingintheorient.tumblr.com/.