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Estonian artist falls in love with Vietnamese áo dài




Estonian artist Liisimari Randjarv is graceful in traditional long dress.

Minh Thu

When Estonian woman Liisimari Randjarv received an áo dài (traditional long robe) as a gift from her Vietnamese boyfriend’s mother, she had a strange feeling.

She hadn’t just fallen in love with a Vietnamese man, but also the national dress of Việt Nam.

Since then, she has tried her best to create beautiful silk cloth to make áo dài and introduce the dress to people in her country.

Love for áo dài begins

Randjarv was born in 1990 in Estonia and worked as an artist/designer in Europe. She came to Việt Nam for the first time in 2012 as an exchange student in Hong Kong University where she met Trần Ngọc, a student from Việt Nam, who became her husband later.

“We have mostly been in a long-distance relationship due to our origin and school studies. It’s definitely a challenge to be in a long-distance relationship with someone who’s from another race/culture but differently an enriching road to take,” she said.

She visited his family at Christmas and then went back to Hong Kong to finish her studies. Later in 2014, she got her first áo dài as a present from her mother-in-law.

“It was made from beautiful red silk, I instantly fell in love wearing áo dài. It felt like it was one of the most beautiful dress I had ever worn,” she said.

Her first impression was that áo dài is so smooth and flowy. It’s curvy in the right places and flowy in others. It really enhances a woman’s beauty and is usually made of very smooth fabric, like silk.

“I really love silk and it’s a beautiful feeling to wear áo dài made of Vietnamese silk. Wearing the dress makes me feel closer to the culture of my husband’s country. It is very special. I understand that it’s traditional clothes but widely used in modern society as well,” she said.

After finishing her master’s degree studies, she lived for three years in HCM City and focused on her passion for art. She also developed her own fashion brand – Liisi Silk, focusing on hand-painted silk áo dài and silk scarves.

“We also use good quality mixed silk on our other line, where I print my original artworks on silk. Liisi Silk brand is focused on elegance and traditions. I like silk, it’s a valuable traditional material and I love wearing áo dài,” she said.

Before meeting her husband in Hong Kong, she didn’t know much about Việt Nam.

“As a foreigner, I had mostly heard about the war and I felt empathy for the hardships in this country’s history. My country Estonia is a small country near Finland, Russia and Latvia. We just gained our independence in 1990 and have had also many foreign conquerors and wars back in history. So Việt Nam left a strong impression on me,” she said.

Estonian artist Liisimari Randjarv (right) and her staff prepare silk to make áo dài. Photos courtesy of the artist

Hope to bring áo dài to the world

The Estonian artist has studied art most of her life. Her university major was oil painting and her master’s major was art teaching. Her mother and grandmother are artists so she grew up with art.

Randjarv had a chance to learn silk painting from her mother in Estonia and when she came to Việt Nam, she saw áo dài as very special clothing that she could exhibit her artworks on. So she started to use her silk painting skills on the dress.

“I design from my passion and then I want to bring my work to customers. I get inspiration for my designs mostly from the nature of Việt Nam and my home country Estonia. I like to introduce both cultures through my artworks,” she said.

She has sold silk products in Finland, Estonia, Germany, Hong Kong and the US and recently exhibited a silk áo dài collection in Estonia.

“This Vietnamese costume deserves to be known worldwide. I will start off from my own country, Estonia, first and then Europe and then hopefully it will be known in other continents as well,” she said.

“Creating an áo dài with my patterns is like a cultural exchange. I am introducing Estonia to Vietnamese through my patterns and introducing the dress to Estonians. For example, I took inspiration from Estonian flag colours – blue, black and white and our national cornflower. It is decent and powerful,” she said.

Some significant works in her collection includes Nordic Aurora, inspired by the magnificent colours of aurora lights in the winter sky in Estonia. Another, Viola Lily, is inspired by Vietnamese beauty with beautiful purple tones of water lily and lotus flowers.

Randjarv has also introduced the history of áo dài as a school uniform for high school girls and teachers to local Estonian students and teachers to learn about it.   

She is always encouraged by her husband and his family in Việt Nam. Whenever she receives beautiful photos of her customers wearing an áo dài, she tears up at how elegant and graceful they look. That’s the motivation for her to continue to work.



Toy story: how a Saigon public bus pimps its ride



Driver Pham Ngoc Tuyen and assistant Pham Van Sang of public bus 146 have delighted passengers by decorating it with stuffed animals and plushies.

It is 12:30 p.m. when Tuyen completes his final trip from the Hiep Thanh Bus Station in District 12 to the Mien Dong Bus Station in Binh Thanh District. After the bus comes to a complete stop, Sang runs off to sign the logbook.

The 49-year-old bus assistant does not rush back to the bus, though.

He goes to try his luck with two claw machines in the bus station. Inserting a VND10,000 ($0.43) bill into the slot in exchange for two coins corresponding to two chances, Sang begins to move the lever and press the button. He manages to pluck a red buffalo soft toy with his second chance.

When his colleague brings the brand new toy, driver Tuyen is thrilled. “What a cool addition to our collection. It would have been nice if we’d got this one and hung it up during in time for Tet to welcome the Lunar New Year (Year of the Buffalo). Are there any left in the machine? You should try to get another one in the evening so we can hang it on the other side and make it look symmetrical.”

“Okay, I will try to get another one later,” Sang replies.

Pham Van Sang (L) and Pham Ngoc Tuyen (R) posing for photo in the Bus 146. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Pham Van Sang (L) and Pham Ngoc Tuyen in the public bus 146 that they have decorated with stuffed animals and plushies. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Tuyen and Sang have been friends for a long time, but have only worked together on bus 146 for about two years. When he was assigned as the new driver of this bus, Sang discovered that there was a staff member who was very good at picking up stuffed animals, so he often bought them at a cheap price for his grandchildren and also put a few up on the bus ceiling.

When they found that passengers were happy and impressed with the decorative touch, Sang decided to conquer the game and get more toys.

During the Covid-19 outbreak last year, the number of bus trips was reduced and the staff had a long time off, so he had the opportunity to try and win many plushies.

At first, he failed often and barely caught any toy with the claws. But he persisted and with a lot of experience, managed to pick the toys frequently. Over more than a year now, Sang has lost count of how many stuffed animals he has picked up. He plays one or two times a day almost every day, turning the bus into a “kingdom” of stuffed animals.

Toan, 60, Sang’s colleague who is another driver of bus 146, said: “Whenever I change shift with the two, I also feel very happy since I have the chance to drive the stuffed animal bus. All the commuters compliment us. They say that looking at the stuffed animals swaying around is a lot of fun and gives them a different feel from sitting on a normal bus.”

Stuff animals are dangling inside the bus. Photo by VnExpress/ Diep Phan.

A passenger buys a ticket inside bus 146 that is festooned with stuff toys. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

The toy lottery

Whenever he wins a new toy, Sang gives away an old one or that looks similar to regular customers, children or students. In order to create a happy atmosphere for passengers on the bus, especially during peak hours when students are out of school, Sang organizes a game to give away stuffed animals. After selling tickets to all guests, he randomly announces three digits. Whoever has a ticket number with matching last digits wins a toy.

“If a customer likes any one of the toys, I give it to them. The job of a driver and bus assistant is stressful, so doing this makes us and the customers happy,” Sang said, smiling.

Their unusually decorated bus also attracts unusual attention. Once, Sang saw a motorbike suddenly speed up to overtake the bus. When the bus stopped at a street light, two young people waiting by the sidewalk came close to the glass windows, took pictures of the bus full of stuffed animals, returned to their motorbike and drove away.

Thu Huyen, 20, a student at the from Industrial University of Ho Chi Minh City, uses bus 146 often to go to school: “I take many different buses, but the bus of Tuyen and Sang is the most special because they decorate it hundreds of stuffed animals. Their stuffed animals usually new and clean and are frequently updated. I have noticed that some of the new toys that I see in the machine make their way to the bus in a few days.”

The bus parks at Mien Dong Bus Station at noon on May 12, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Bus 146 parked at the Mien Dong Bus Station at noon, May 12, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

After completing a trip to the Hiep Thanh Bus Station, the two friends take turns inviting each other for lunch. With about 20 minutes remaining during the lunch break, they discuss removing all the stuffed toys and repositioning them in the evening.

The toys don’t just occupy the ceiling. They are also placed on armrests, in the front and other places. Sometimes they are hung in color clusters, sometimes in a symmetrical order, and in some other order at different times.

“Since the day we started having them, we are also much more diligent in cleaning the bus. We clean the bus, clean the air-conditioner fans so that the stuffed animals won’t be dangling in dust,” Tuyen said.

Although he spends VND10,000-20,000 of his hard earned money every day to “picking” up the stuffed animals just to decorate and give to customers, Sang says has no intention of stopping. He is only worried that the owner of the claw machines might remove them because he wins too many of the toys.

“Last year there were four machines, but now there are only two. I would be very sad if all of them were removed. Picking up stuffed animals is my entertainment and the passengers are also happy.

“Instead of drinking coffee at a café, now I brew my own and bring it. Since we don’t smoke, we use that extra money to pick up the stuffed animals.”


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Photographic exhibition introduces Italian mountains to Vietnamese audience



Dante Brandi, Consul General of Italy in HCMC, speaks at a press conference on the “Italian Routes – Mountains, mountaineering, climate change” exhibition – PHOTO: MINH TUAN

HCMC – The Consulate General of Italy in HCMC will organize the “Italian Routes” photographic exhibition introducing the Italian mountains and mountaineering from May 20 until June 12, 2021, at the HCMC Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition will continue in Hanoi from June 25 to July 25 at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.

The “Italian Routes – Mountains, mountaineering, climate change” exhibition is a project of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, showcasing the outstanding work of photographer Fabiano Ventura and will be promoted by the Embassies and Consulates General of Italy in the world, heading to the COP26 co-chaired by the UK and Italy at the end of 2021 in Glasgow.

“Vietnam has been chosen as the first destination thanks to the country’s effective containment of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Dante Brandi, Consul General of Italy in HCMC.

The aim of the exhibition is to highlight to an international audience the great Italian tradition linked to mountain culture and mountaineering as a means of understanding the mountain territory, its environmental value and the importance of environmental awareness in the practices of accessing natural habitats to preserve the ecosystems.

The central part of the exhibition, “Italian Mountains”, is an ideal journey that from the Gran Paradiso range explores the entire Alpine arc from west to east, crossing the massifs of Mont Blanc, Mount Rosa and Cervino, Bernina, Ortles-Cevedale and Adamello, moving on to the east, reaching the Dolomites and the Julian Alps. The Italian route ends with the main Apennine mountain group, the Gran Sasso.

Each of the nine mountain groups is represented by large-format photographs that highlight their evocative landscape aspects and by comparative historical and contemporary images that highlight the evolution of the glacial masses, underlining the effects of climate change on the mountain landscape.

Each group is accompanied by an introduction panel illustrating its geographical, historical and geo-glaciological characteristics, together with a suggested itinerary. Finally, each mountain section is enriched with reproductions of documents and historical material on the first alpine explorations.

The photographic section is accompanied by video recordings of the expedition, “On the Trails of the Glaciers – Alps 2020”, made in the same places as the nine proposed stages.

The final section, “A Look at the World”, extends the perspective to the Earth’s most important mountain ranges, underlining the continuity of mountaineering culture at a global level.

The Consulate General of Italy will also combine the Italian Routes exhibition with a complementary exhibition titled “Landscapes of Vietnam – Ecological Diversity, New Climate Pattern, New Discovery” by remarkable Vietnamese photographers Hoang The Nhiem, Hoang Giang Hai and Tran Dang Dang Khoa on the subject of Vietnamese caves and mountains.

The exhibition will offer a glimpse into local mountain areas through the eyes of prominent local artists, providing a great addition to the audience with a comparative approach.

This duo exhibition with well-curated photography is an opportunity for visitors to see the distinctiveness of nature and beautiful landscapes of the two countries.

All events organized by the Consulate General of Italy will strictly comply with preventive measures of Covid-19. All attendees are requested to wear face masks and disinfect their hands with sanitizer.


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‘Nothing is more important than independence and freedom’: A westerner’s view of Hồ Chí Minh



President Hồ Chí Minh during one of his trips to the home of resistance up in the northern mountains. May 19, 2021, is his 131st birthday. VNA File Photo

Tom Wilber*

I am an American of the generation in the wake of armed aggressors who attacked Việt Nam from 1964 until the peace accords were signed in 1973. I was a teenager then and too young to be conscripted. However, my father, Walter Eugene (Gene) Wilber, was very much a part of the American war of aggression against the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam.

He was a pilot, a fighter squadron commanding officer, shot down and captured in 1968. When Gene Wilber arrived in Hà Nội, President Hồ Chi Minh was in the last full year of his life, and would, sadly, pass away on the 24th anniversary of independence on September 2, 1969.

In Hoả Lò prison in June of 1968, Wilber began his deep personal reflection on his role in the troubling and disappointing actions the US was taking against Việt Nam. Wilber concluded that the war was illegal. He chose to act, voluntarily, to communicate to others that the US should depart Việt Nam immediately. He recorded his statements in Hoả Lò prison. They were broadcast on radio from Hà Nội and heard by US troops in Southeast Asia and the international community around the world.

In a statement he made on the US Independence Day holiday in 1971, Wilber told Americans of their country’s many deceits and violent aggressions, summarising: “We were wrong in these actions, and we are still continuing these mistakes.”

“The Vietnamese people have rallied and fight under the words of the father of their country, the late President Hồ Chí Minh: ‘Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,'” he added.

Back in the US in 1973, Wilber was criticised heavily for speaking against the American war. Despite controversy and rejection, he did not falter in his firm belief that the US had been the aggressor in the terribly long struggle for independence by the Vietnamese people.

He remained respectful in his attitude and belief toward Việt Nam, encouraged normal diplomatic relations, even offering to serve as an ambassador, and always spoke kindly about the Vietnamese people until his death in 2015.

I am most grateful to my father for speaking his mind that the war was wrong. Five years of family separation and a lifetime of criticism are minimal costs considering the benefits that my father’s actions presented to me. Through his experiences, Gene Wilber helped me to develop a deep appreciation for the Vietnamese people, including profound respect for the life and leadership of Hồ Chí Minh.

I have made more than 30 visits to Việt Nam. Many of my trips have centred around Nghệ An Province. Wilber parachuted into Nghệ An, Thanh Chương District, Thanh Tiên Commune, travelling to Hà Nội on the trails and roadways of Trường Sơn (also known as the Hồ Chí Minh Trail). Not far from Wilber’s entry point into Việt Nam, the childhood home of Uncle Hồ is in Nghệ An, Nam Đàn District, Kim Liên Commune. I have visited the Kim Liên relic several times. In my earlier trips to Nghệ An, it was in realising the humble beginnings for Hồ Chí Minh that I began to sense the meaning of those words that I had overlooked as an American: “Nothing is more important than independence and freedom.”

I consider Nghệ An not only as the birthplace of Hồ Chí Minh but as the birthplace of my awareness borne to me by my father who arrived in Nghệ An. Nghệ An is my portal to insight.

Bùi Bác Văn is a lifelong Nghệ An resident now living in Vinh City. Living in Xã Thanh Tiên in 1968, it was Văn who helped capture my father. When we met in 2015, Văn embraced me as a friend. He took time to teach me, showing me many historic sites in Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh. Not only have we visited bomb-damaged areas from the American war, but he also explained to me the significance of the poet Nguyễn Du in literature and philosophy and the victorious Quang Trung in the history of liberation from foreign invaders. From more recent history, he has illuminated to me Bác Hồ’s childhood village in Kim Liên and the influences of Hồ’s mother Hoàng Thi Loan and Hồ’s educated father Nguyễn Sinh Sắc, along with the inspiration of the nationalist scholar Phan Bội Châu, residing a few kilometres to the east of Kim Liên in Nam Đàn. At an early age, the young Hồ would overhear many deep conversations between his father and Phan about modernisation, patriotism, and freeing the Vietnamese from the grip of colonialism. Based on my education from my friend Văn, who greeted my father, and then, 47 years later, welcomed me, Nghệ An and the area of President Hồ’s childhood have become, for me, rich in meaning.

There are so many things that could be said about Hồ Chí Minh from his beginnings in Kim Liên to the learnings and influences that shaped his ability to develop his plan, as western historian Virginia Morris describes in Hồ Chí Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution (2018). His blueprint allowed Việt Nam to “fight and win a protracted asymmetric war,” as Morris wrote, “against superior powers of the French, and then the United States.”

In his early twenties, Hồ Chí Minh would work his way around the world – to New York, London, Paris – developing his strategy to realise his country’s independence and freedom.

Historian Christopher Goscha, in Vietnam: A New History (2016), chronicles how Hồ Chí Minh’s travels “brought him in contact with a wider range of reformists and anticolonialists”. On the 110th anniversary of his departure from Việt Nam for the West, it is important to remember how Hồ Chí Minh’s exposure to thought, his debates and discussions, the further refining and distillation of purpose – building upon the intellectual and practical influences of his learnings in childhood and youth in Nghệ An – would emerge from this crucible as the precious element from which independence and freedom would be forged.

The people of Việt Nam today enjoy the “happy spring” of reunification. I encourage westerners, especially Americans, to learn more about Hồ Chí Minh and Việt Nam’s sovereign struggle, their inevitable victory, and their role in peaceful international relations. As more people understand how we arrived at the present moment, our mutual recognition of Hồ Chí Minh becomes clear. –

* Tom Wilber is an independent researcher, investigating US prisoners in the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam from 1964 until 1973. In addition to having been a lecturer at Hà Nội University, he assists with special exhibitions at Hoả Lò prison relic. His early research became the source for the 2015 award-winning film produced by Ngọc Dũng, The Flowerpot Story. His essays have been published in Việt Nam News. He is co-author along with Jerry Lembcke of Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (2021). Wilber represents a US-based non-governmental organisation that works on humanitarian projects with Vietnamese organisations.


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