“If you paint it, they will come.” So lies the philosophy behind the Tam Thanh Mural Village in Vietnam’s Quang Nam province. A joint effort between Vietnamese and Korean artists, mural painters spent weeks converting this poor, unassuming fishing village into one of Vietnam’s premier places for street art. And exploring the 100 or so murals in the tranquil seaside town makes for one of the most intriguing day trips you can take from Hoi An.
'Art for a Better Community'
The mural-painting project took place a few years ago as a joint effort between the Quang Nam provincial government and the Korean Community Art Exchange Program. Over the past decade, similar projects have been taking place throughout South Korea, helping revitalize rural villages and big city slums alike. The projects yielded such positive results that the Art Exchange Program was launched as a way to try it out abroad.
But why was Tam Thanh chosen as the very first location for the project? Supposedly, it had to with a combination of factors – its location, economic status and general layout. Given its proximity to Hoi An, one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist spots, project organizers hoped that tourists would start trickling over into Tam Thanh, helping diversify its stagnant economy. Tam Thanh and villages like it haven’t quite been able to keep pace with the rest of Vietnam’s rapid development in recent years.
And on top of that, Tam Thanh consists of a simple layout and a beautiful seaside setting. Most of its few dozen houses are clustered together in a relatively small area, making a walk around town easily viable within a couple of hours.
And so, with the location decided upon, artists gathered for a period of two weeks to paint over a hundred pieces around the town, turning this once obscure village into one of Vietnam’s most unique attractions.
Exploring Tam Thanh Mural Village
I started off at the beach, unsure of where exactly I was supposed to go to find all the art. It was a cold day, and the place seemed almost entirely deserted. Looking behind me, though, I already spotted three or four aquatic-themed murals at the top of some concrete steps. Walking further along the beach, however, yielded no results.
I headed back over to the town’s main road, walking northwest through the village until I came across a couple dozen art pieces all at once. It was a grassy area filled with what appeared to be woven bamboo objects, some of them boat-shaped and others hemispheres. It was interesting to see how the artists were even able to bring street art to areas without any walls.
I continued walking, when a local girl, wanting to practice her English, asked me where I was headed. I asked her where I could find the rest of the art, and she implied that I’d reached the end. This was good to know, as I’d otherwise have kept walking in the wrong direction!
Closer to the center of town, it wasn’t too long before I began noticing murals just about everywhere I looked. The artists who visited Tam Thanh used everything from local barber shops to private residences as their canvases. Many of the murals are stunningly realistic portraits of people’s faces. I wondered whether or not they were depictions of the people living or working in those same buildings.
Despite the initial confusion, I discovered how straightforward Tam Thanh’s layout really is. It’s a narrow town which stretches out along the coast, so you just simply walk from one end to the other. While it mostly consists of one main road, there are lots of narrow little alleyways leading to the beach. Don’t forget to explore these as well, as this is where you’ll find some of the best art.
Tam Thanh Mural Village rewards those who take their time to look out for small details. What might appear to be simple windows from a distance could in fact be paintings, while small works of art hide both high and low in some of the most unassuming places. Despite taking my time walking down each little alleyway, I’m sure there’s still lots that I managed to overlook.
Given the amount of murals painted on the walls of private residences, it’s inevitable that you’ll be pointing your camera at someone’s house, only for them to walk out to hang laundry or do the dishes. One wonders if they realized in advance of how beautifying their town could also come at the expense of their own privacy.
At least in my case, nobody really seemed to mind my presence. While hardly anyone spoke English, friendly villagers sometimes provided helpful hand gestures to point me in the direction of more art.
A lot of the murals depict scenes from local life, such as women selling fish and vegetables in the market. And there are plenty of colorful pieces which reflect Tam Than’s tropical seaside environment. If you’re looking for more of an urban graffiti style then you’ve come to the wrong place. You’re more likely to find paintings of Disney characters than your typical graffiti tags!
As I walked up and down the street with my camera, locals went about their daily chores and activities. A group of women sat and gossiped under some beautifully intricate portrait murals as I snuck in a few photos. While the town may have transformed itself into one big art gallery a few years back, traditional life seems to continue on as normal in Tam Thanh. And it will likely persist even long after the murals have eventually faded.
Just when I thought I’d see everything, I passed by another area full of painted bamboo hemispheres on the opposite end of town. While the colors are still vibrant now, they’re not going to last forever being exposed to the elements like this. It will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out over the next several years. Will Tam Thanh residents welcome the same artists to return and apply a fresh coat of paint?
All in all, the quality of the art around the Tam Thanh Mural Village is (mostly) excellent, and it’s definitely worth checking out for any street art lovers basing themselves in Hoi An. But opinions on the art aside for a moment, has the project itself been a success?
I was surprised to find myself as only one of three visitors to the village that afternoon. But even if there’d been a lot more people, I didn’t notice any shops or restaurants catering to visitors. While you can’t blame the townsfolk, most of whom can’t speak English, for not providing the same level of amenities as a place like Hoi An, it was unclear how the project is actually helping the local economy. Taking photos is free, and as far as I could tell, no souvenir shops were set up where visitors could spend their money.
Apparently, tour groups regularly visit the village, so perhaps the town gets a small cut from that, in addition to charging small fees for motorbike parking. But now that the artists have done their thing, it might be wise for townsfolk to consult with the local tourism industry. Perhaps together they can come up with more innovative ways to monetize the newfound attention that street art has garnered for Tam Thanh.
Tam Thanh is a little over an hour from Hoi An in the opposite direction of Da Nang, Despite being a straight shot down the coast, there don’t seem to be any public buses that go in that direction.
The most simple way to get there would be to rent a motorbike and ride there yourself. The route is easy and there’s not much traffic along the way. You can also hire a driver in town, but be sure to negotiate a price for round trip! There’s no way you’d be able to find a taxi in town to take you back to Hoi An. Expect to pay roughly the equivalent of $30 – 40 USD, including wait time.
There are also a number of tours that visit the village and that also stop at some other attractions around the area. Though I’d considered this option, most of the tours did not seem to be a good value, and a lot of them required reservations days in advance. But things are always changing, so you might want to look up possible tours online before your visit and see if you can find a good deal.
Tam Thanh does seem to have a few homestay options popping up, though it’s not going to be the most convenient place to base yourself if you have limited time.
The closer you are to Hoi An Ancient Town, the better. The Ancient Town is the specially designated zone where no cars are allowed and where all except a few locations mentioned in this list are located. The rest of Hoi An doesn’t have a whole lot to offer other than a few beaches. As mentioned above, I didn’t make it to any beaches due to the cold weather, but some people may prefer to stay closer to the coast.
I stayed at a hotel called Kiman Old Town Hotel, which was right in between the Ancient Town and the bus station. At just around a 10-minute walk from either, it was perfect for exploring Hoi An’s attractions as well as taking day trips to the Marble Mountains and Da Nang.
The Ancient Town area is easily accessible on foot, though some prefer to rent a bicycle.
You likely won’t have to worry about a taxi or Grabcar during your stay in the area, except to the beach or to different towns like My Son.