(No.4, Vol.8,Aug-Sep Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The Norfolk Hotel and Corso Steakhouse & Bar is at
117 Le Thanh Ton Street,
Ben Nghe Ward, District 1,
Ho Chi Minh City.
Tel(84 28)3829 5368

Photos provided by Norfolk Hotel

All businesses great or small find it beneficial to engage with the community and culture in which they operate. Hotels especially have an important role to play here. They welcome guests from far and wide and can be on hand to help them in their discovery of a new place and country. Moreover with their lobbies, dining rooms, corridors and other open areas, they have space to display local artwork, photography and artefacts.
It was at Saigon’s centrally located business boutique hotel ‘The Norfolk’ late in July that I attended a soiree dedicated to Vietnamese paintings of the last century and to that most alluring and nationally identifying of garments – the Ao Dai.
They had cleared away the furniture at Corso Steakhouse & Bar on the ground floor to make space for 13 exhibition works and also a winding red carpet to serve as the runway for the Ao Dai parade. There was quite a crowd of viewers – mostly locals, but with a sprinkling of westerners. Vietnamese canapés such as fresh spring rolls and other savoury delicacies were served along with the finest Australian Black Angus sirloin (strip loin) steak. This was presented Asian style in strips to be taken with little picks. Succulent, juicy, melt-in-your-mouth; these are the words that come to mind to describe this prime meat experience. As I normally eat only Vietnamese food and as this is no land of prairies nor pampas, steak comes as a rare treat. ‘Today I am at the Tower of London’, I said to the General Manager. As there was a puzzled look on his face, I added, ‘Today I am a Beefeater.’ All of this Vietnamese and Australian fare can be enjoyed by the readers any day of the week at Corso Steakhouse & Bar and of course, with the Aussie connection, you can be assured of a fine wine with which to wash it all down.
On then to admiring the paintings; I was informed they were part of a collection belonging to the owner, a Vietnamese Australian. I often attend exhibitions of contemporary Vietnamese art and there are striking differences between pictures of the last century and those of this one. Firstly, the artists here all show French influence with their subtle pastel shades and treatment of delicate realistic subjects such as portraits of demure young ladies or a beach scene with a gathering storm. They are descriptive of the world whereas today’s artists are interpretative and more conceptual, although it is not always easy to see what they are getting at. Today’s artists have wider influences. When I interview them they tell me they like people such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and American artists. Almost all contemporary artists now paint in the most vibrant colours. This is perhaps due to the popularity now of acrylic paints. These paintings use oil on canvas, water colours and gouache paint. There is also one exquisite lacquer painting of females dancing. Lacquer, an almost uniquely Vietnamese medium, I am glad to note has not lost its popularity.
I got chatting with a New Zealander pal. He particularly liked the one painting here that referenced the dark side of the twentieth century for Vietnam; namely war. It is entitled ‘Walking through the Forest’ and it shows troops crossing a ramshackle bridge. It struck a chord with my friend as he explained he himself had been trained in jungle warfare in Malaya. My friend also raised an interesting question. ‘Why were the nine artists all men?’ No less a luminary than Craig Thomas of eponymous gallery fame was on hand to attempt an answer. There was a lack of educational opportunities for females back then. ‘Nowadays there certainly are some great women Vietnamese artists’, Craig went on to say.
We were requested to move away from the red carpet upon which were standing and I thought the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk was imminent, but no, the Ao Dai dress procession was about to start. To head it on came a girl of perhaps six years of age somewhat bizarrely wearing what seemed to be a bridal ao dai. She looked supremely confident but her mother or perhaps her aunt was following up in case of any mishap. On followed the adult models. I could not believe my eyes. They all looked like the same woman. They were all super tall and thin for this country and they looked related. My Kiwi friend remarked that must be tribe in the mountains they had recruited the models from. The good thing was that it made you concentrate on the costumes with their vivid floral designs and matching cloth head-kerchiefs. The designer was Vo Viet Chung, who is very famous, my daughter informs me and has studios near to both the Norfolk and our house.
Finally there was a draw for the two trips to the ‘Six Senses Con Dao Resort’ which in recent years has come under the Norfolk Group’s management. Having visited this place I can tell you that is a very fine prize indeed!
All in all, it is hats off to the Norfolk for organising this dual cultural event and for reminding us all that there is great Vietnamese and Western food and beverage with excellent service to be enjoyed at their hotel.

By Pip de Rouvray