About the author
vivek puthan purayil
vivek puthan purayil
Founder/Partner at De Earth, De Earth
Calicut

vivek puthan purayil Founder/Partner at De Earth

Rendezvous with Vietnam.. My experience with WAT


    I knew any architecture trip would be fun, informative and inspiring, especially when you go around with a small like minded group. I had missed several opportunities earlier, reasons are many. Whenever Nishan came back with a wider, brighter eyes after each trip describing the level of enlightenment, I knew it wouldn't be too long before I had my first traveller experience. May be I was made to wait for this moment, to travel with a very special group of people to a very special place, Vietnam

    Decision to join Vietnam trip was pretty easy. I couldn't afford to miss the first trip of WAT, the World Architecture Travel, the new company floated by the most passionate travellers I have met, Brijesh and JK. After watching him present at WAF 2012 and further following a lot over the web, visiting Vietnam was always on the cards to get a glimpse of Vo Throng Ngias design experiments.

    It was a small group of 16. We all met at Singapore airport, few of us flying in from Cochin and few joining after WAF at Singapore. All i knew about Vietnam were few images of the American war and that its ruled by a communist government. I had my own reservations about the place, hearing the word " communist ". The image that always flip through our mind is about their counter parts in Kerala, who curtail most of the development projects with a lot of arrogance and violence.

    From the moment we step down at Hanoi airport, on 8th November, my reservations about communism was bound to change. Very welcoming people, neat and big airport, luxury buses, wide and good roads and what not. The drive from the airport to Hotel May de Ville, in Old Hanoi was a movie experience in itself, with a wide range of landscapes and builtscapes in each screenshots. The sight of active farming and  village clusters brought smiles to our face. One thing that struck each of us, was the peculiar proportion of the builtforms, with a narrow 3m grid , 12-15 m long and as high as five - six floors. Soon we found it was the fundamental block in Hanois urban pattern, which created a built fabric, very unique and highly efficient. Our guide, Wong, though not too vocal, could explain exponentially high land prices as a reason for such built forms. It was a city of 7 million, but streets were not as packed as India, thanks to the soaring car prices and an increased dependence on two wheelers. We reached our hotel after a long travel, but none seemed tired in an urge to explore what we just saw outside the window frames of our bus.

    First evening was for free exploration. As everybody was hungry, first exploration was for food and obviously for some appetizers. The best thing about the hotel was its location. You get down the lift, and you are on a intricate network of streets, buzzling with activities. Streets down there had everything to offer from shopping to SPA, food to pubs and a lot of local flavour and promised that none would be disappointed. I had been to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Yet, there was something different about the streets at Hanoi.

    Our first pit stop was definitely a good joint and everybody were thrilled to order the local flavours. I Swear I wasn't as excited. With my high Uric acid body and with my affinity to many of Eastern flavours, I tried to identify the safest of dishes, the fried rice and a chicken, while others decided explore everything from poah to pork and frog. But that was the first and last time in the whole 8 days where I had to be conservative in my choice. Such was the taste and the flavour, each one of us fell love with the Vietnam food. It was a love at the first sight and a romantic journey just began. What followed was a celebration of cuisine and taste, which just got bettered each day.

    Our first pub visit in the same street wasnt disappointing either, with very friendly and beautiful girls attending to us and helping us through our pool game and adding on a lot of flavour to the ordered intoxication. I felt like a giant when I walked through the streets of Hanoi. Vietnam friends are generally short and small, and the hundreds of chairs that adorned the streets for serving food and liquor were all to the scale of my little boy, just about a feet of the ground. At first it was really mesmerising, later I started feeling the pulse of those streets, grounded to earth, extremely personalised and very much connected to their culture and way of life. Families lived there. They worked there. They enjoyed there. They partied there. It was difficult to find boundaries and walls. All one could see was a seamless energy, connecting the people and their life, and that we felt, is what Vietnam made of, a very strong cultural bonding.

    The trip went on for 8 more days. From Hanoi to Nha Trang and further south to Ho Chi Minn city. Vietnam people continued to mesmerise us with their deep cultural roots, some really tasty food and of course with some authentic massages. From the little lady architect who joined us for Day 2 at Hanoi, when we visited all Vo Throng projects one by one to the guide at Nha Thrang who was passionate and sensitive,  each person we met had a story to convey and a deeper meaning to ponder about the qualities of humanhood.

    By the time we reached Nha Thrang, after all huzzles and buzzles of Hanoi, we were already full yet confused by the architecture of Vo Throng, the star designer we all wanted to explore. From the immaculate bamboo craftsmanship at eco pavilion, to the sleek contemporary garden house at Hanoi and to the minimalistic yet playful FTP university building, what we saw was an exemplary control over the materials and heights of maturity in dealing with it. We could feel the touch of a magician who turned everything he touched into gold. Do that glitter created by a swing of the magic wand be always temperory and lack what we call the soul?.Arguments were on whether the eco pavilion will stand the test of time and how the architect would have been obsessive on creating deliberate design excellence in forms. Though the garden house stood out, for its neat and simple details in the midst of a congested commercial street, the other designs were arguably miles apart from the pulse of the culture we witnessed in the streets of Hanoi. May be its intended to give a new face for the architecture of Vietnam to the whole world, matching the international race to be among the best surprises and most iconic and to draw the attention to otherwise a laid back, yet deep rooted culture.

    The trip was long from over. Vietnam had surprises hidden everywhere. And when we go with WAT, we are bound to experience that, as a true traveller who get into the deep veins of the local flavour and be a part of it. Our first destination at Nha Thrang was a coffee shop and that changed our whole perception about the architecture practice of Vietnam till the moment. A new star was born in our mind. A21 studio didn't have a magic wand, but showed a lot of heart and soul in dealing with wood and crafting out a space where everybody seems to be conversing with their souls sipping a cup of coffee. We sat there for two hours, at times silent and at time debating about the events till then. Each second counted and by the time we left the place, the trip has emerged to a different dimension, from the search of design to the search of souls.

    Probably its the spirit that engulfed us in the coffee shop that let us unwind in the night and got ourselves connected to a wandering soul from Russia, Katherine. She was all around the dance floor with some stunning dance steps. She was tall, fat, yet cute. She had sharp eyes and a strong outlook. Though we were searching for momentory casual friendships, Katherine got hooked to us deep with her imposing presence and childish innocence. What followed was some very special moments of life. Two different culture. Two different language. Communicating to each other. There were songs. There were stories. There was fun. There were hopes. What was left behind was the true spirit of cultural exchange and the spirit of humanhood.

    From Nha Thrang to Ho Chi Minn was a long travel with a cancelled flight and a extended stay.  The travel would have been crazy if not for the highly relaxing SPA we had at Nha Thrang with an experience mud bath and an unplanned water sports fun at the beach.

    Ho Chi Minn seemed to be a typical commercial city. When we visited the war museum and the chapel pavilion, we really had little idea what the city had in store for us. From the streets of Hanoi to the pubs of Ho Chi Minn,  there existed a long gap, evident by the history of western domination. Meeting people and experiencing culture has always been the content of being a traveller and not just a tourist. WAT team offered us a lot of them, and this passionate lady we met at the family garden will be hard to forget in the rest of our life. She was jumping with joy explaining the concept of community farming in the midst of the busy city and how people came there to connect themselves to nature. She was thrilled. She was living the concept of the garden. What more can we ask for.

    The most rewarding experience of the trip was yet to come. It was all about a man and his philosophy which led A21 studio to complete a set of projects with a lot heart and soul. We were all awaiting for the rendezvous with Mr.Thong.  the day started of well with a very content full visit , to vaigon house, a residence designed by block architects. The rusticness, naiveness and the purity in dealing with materials and spaces set the tone for the day. We were experiencing more of that soul, which we miss in many design excellence projects yet again.

    It was all smiles when we boarded the bus to A21 studio. We were searching for the office, and saw a man in his mid 30s, in his t shirt and trousers standing in front of a 1.5 M wide corner building. He welcomed us with no drama. The moment we set our foot it, we could feel an energy, something that started to  knuckle deep in our souls. Ground floor was a kitchen with a small court where he had some trees going up to his second floor through narrow wooden pergolas. First floor was his office and second was his partners bungalow. All inside a 1.5 M wide open entry and hardly 1500 sq.ft space.

    A true Buddhist, Thong was talking deep from his heart and as a concerned human being rather than as a architect. His designs were a quest to refound the lost connect between the people, between the families, between the people and the nature, and the people and their memories. It was a way of life and not a professional practice. He explained a lot on his projects, but language and words seemed inadequate as he conveyed more than a bundle of knowledge and energy through his eyes and presence. I have often met him in my dreams, but he then had no name, no form, no language.  Now he is called Thong.

    We all left with a full filled heart, enlighted minds and tearful eyes. He calmly went to his kitchen to wash the rice to cook for his lunch. The trip was more than complete. One could hardly ask for more. The rest was just about trying to getting dissolved in that experience gathering the spirit and the energy to each living cells in our body.

    The tour to the chu chu trenches and war site after that was informative. Celebrations had already started in the mind, and it was the last night in Vietnam. Couldn't have been better , with a good street singing session with a group of workers enjoying their weekend drinks and an enjoyable karoakae with local families in a restaurant. After all these street endeavours pubs and dance clubs just dont seem to match the same tune and strength. After all it's all about same everywhere.

    It was all but smiles when we both, me and RAMESH left to home from Vietnam while others continued their adventure to Cambodia. Yes, we missed another glorious culture, but Vietnam seemed to have made me full, content and happy. For a first time traveller it was more than one can ask for. It was not about just one moment or one project or one man. It was about the experience, about the connect, about the philosophy and about the realization of culture and humanhood. This will stay with us and hopefully reflect the way we look at ourselves if not our fellow human beings.. and that what matters. Life is to celebrate. Life is to know yourself. .......

    Till the next WAT trip.....

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