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Drink coffee and reflect on horrors of war opens coffee shop to protest war

Update: September, 20/2015 - 06:40
Taming the past: In He's cafe, the waste of war has its function changed from deadly to decorative. Patrons sit and have a cup of coffee while reflecting on the nation's long and bloody fight for independence from the French, Japanese and then the Americans. — VNS Photos Huy Son

A young Vietnamese painter can never forget the war that ravaged his home town in central Viet Nam and the way it affected his family. Thanh Ha reports.

Love ... not War, is the name of a coffee shop started by painter Nguyen Van He at Le Ngo Cat Street in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue.

He has decorated his shop with more than 200 pieces of defused ammunition and bric-a-brac from Viet Nam's wars of independence.

He has been collecting the material for many years. It includes different kinds of weapons and ammunition - and parts of downed American bombers.

Tran Thanh Ha, from Ha Noi, who recently visited Hue, said the name of He's coffee shop forced her to step inside.

"My father returned from the war badly injured. He often tells us stories about how people and the Vietnamese liberation army suffered from the bombs, arms and ammunition of the US and Sai Gon armies. We had not seen any of the things he told us about until I entered He's coffee shop," Ha said.

He, 34, a contemporary painter in Hue, said he recalled his childhood that his items reminded him that war was terrible. "We should join hands to stamp out wars so that people can live in peace and in love together," he said

He's home was located in the Hoa My near Hue revolutionary base of the Vietnamese army in the wars against the French and Americans.

"I will never forget my childhood when I had to collect waste left over from the war and sell it to help my parents. Hundreds of adults and children in my village also had to do this job to earn a living.

"Unfortunately, many people including my relatives were killed by mines, bombs and other weapons left behind in the war," he said.

He recalled in 1991 that his uncle's body was smashed to a pulp when a mine exploded as he was digging for scrap to sell.

His uncle's death has forced his wife and two children to lead a wretched life even till today, and the children could not go to school because they were so poor, he said.

When he grew up, He enrolled in the Fine Arts College in Hue. While painting outside, he discovered a lot of shell fragments buried in the walls of the Royal Palace.

"I saw so much scrap metal from the war everywhere in the city when I was selling them in the market. I decided that I would also keep as much as I could in my home, although at the time I did not think I would have any use for it," He said.

Since then he has been collecting the waste, until last year when he decided to open the coffee shop and decorated it with the war leftovers in an attempt to show people the way to a peaceful world without war.

Preserving the past: Painter Nguyen Van He grew up in a wartime family hit hard by the ravages of war around them.

Writer Nguyen Van Toai, a Hue resident, said he visited He's shop by chance and was impressed by his bookcase made from a bullet box and decorated with US troop cards he collected from the Ta Con Airport, 150mm gun shells from A So Hill in A Luoi District and a part of a plane discovered in Lang Co Beach.

"Since then, I have often asked my friends to meet at He's shop for some coffee and watch the sunset. It inspires us so much to write more stories about people and the consequences of war," Toai said.

Toai said the war ended a long time back, but the painter's collection was a vivid museum that displayed the once deadly relics.

"The shop is a place for us to have a more direct look at the war, and history, as well as the pain and loss that can never fade away. Young people, if they have the chance to see such a space, will get a new insight into the meaning of war," he said.

He said he had faced numerous difficulties when opening the coffee shop. Very few guests arrived initially, but he managed to woo a lot of them, not just locals such as Toai and his friends, but also foreign visitors.

"I converted shell fragments into flower pots and a strongbox into a stool," He said.

Apart from collecting war waste to decorate his shop, almost all of He's paintings are about the war so that his audience can see its heart-breaking consequences, he said.

"He's paintings really moved us," young student Bui Viet Hung from Ha Noi's Economics University said.

He has done hundreds of paintings and many of them have won prizes. In 2011, his painting titled Feeling won the third prize at a contest run by the Viet Nam Fine Arts Association in Ha Noi, and in 2013, his Battle won the C prize from the Hue Royal City's Literature and Art Association.

His Sorrow of War won a big prize at an exhibition held in Hue last year.

Asked about his plans for the future, He said he would continue to paint about the war and recycle waste to display them at his coffee shop.

He will open an individual exhibition about defused weapons by the end of this year.

"There are still a lot of weapons lying deep under the soil. They could still explode even though decades have passed," He said, adding, "I want to collect them, defuse them and put them in a big box for future generations to see so that they can understand the price that sometimes has to be paid for peace.

"I will display them in the hope that the world will stop producing weapons forever," he said. — VNS

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