Handcrafted on the Mekong

by James

EmptyName 6

We concluded our excursion on the Mekong with visits to many hard-working families that use local materials to produce a variety of handicrafts and home essentials. Echoing Nina’s combination of focus and creativity, these often women-led businesses demonstrated a relaxed spirit of entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

In fact, I later learned why it was common to see so much self-starting industriousness throughout my travels in Vietnam—95% of Vietnamese support capitalism, by far more than any other country (including the USA) surveyed by the Pew Research Center. With careful planning by our guide, we took to the canals and paths of Tân Phong island and nearby areas to meet as many of these women as we could.

 

Starting by sampan (flat bottomed small wooden boat), we cut through a lush section of Tân Phong to see the first shops before switching to bikes to complete our tour. Among the reed hat makers, tapioca-derived lacework artisans, hanging basket weavers, and others, my favorite was the ease with which a woman could carry on a casual conversation with Nina while also swiftly thatching a roof panel from nipa palm and the comradery among those selling beautiful baskets made from water hyacinth. While I didn’t bring home any thatch roofing, my daughters do now delight in having a sampan-shaped hyacinth basket to display geodes and other little travel treasures.

 

We also passed by many of the larger businesses along the main tributary of the Mekong. Sunday morning activity was light, but the size and number of the operations displayed the productivity of the region. The most notable buildings to any river traveler are the beehive-shaped earthen kilns rising dozens of feet above the banks of the river. Fed by massive baskets of rice hulls, these ovens typically dry bricks but also the pottery commonly seen throughout Saigon and further afield.

 

As our guide directs our boat to Vinh Long for the shuttle back to Saigon, we take with us an increased appreciation for the favors, sights, and people of the Mekong Delta. Seeing Nina’s team produce her stunning vision of the Mekong collection reminds me that Saigon is reflection of its place in the Mekong Delta.

 

 

Flavors of the Mekong

By James

Gems must be on my mind because the colorful fruits along the Mekong provide subtle reminders of the multi-colored sapphires and diamonds embedded in gold bangles back at the studio.

IMG_1548 1

In this instance, I’m admiring a woven basket holding bright red dragon fruit and yellow mango aboard our boat rounding Tân Phong island. Nina breaks open the scaly, layered folds of the dragon fruit to reveal a delicate white flesh studded with black seeds. The texture and flavor is much less dramatic than its appearance, reminiscent of a kiwi fruit. This contrasts with the meaty flavor of yesterday’s jack fruit. Meaty, really? Surprisingly, jack fruit is a hearty carnitas substitute for the vegan taco-lover.

Of course, the Mekong Delta offers much more than just tropical fruit. An early morning walk to the market at Hoà Ninh reveals the raw bounty of the region, especially the seafood or I should say riverfood. Bags of dried shrimp sit alongside buckets of live fish, eels, snakes, and frogs at the waterfront. Avoiding a catfish leaping from a bucket, I move to wander through the less animated stalls of produce, baked goods, and household items.

Heading back to our homestay, we watch a busy couple deliver blocks of ice by boat, reminding me of ca phe sua da back at the homestay. A day on the Mekong (really, any day in Vietnam) is not complete until a delicious iced coffee with milk is at hand. Vietnamese coffee is very dark, strong, and bitter so the condensed milk and ice create the perfect balance.

Packed up and back on the river, we enjoy snacks of coconut-sweetened tapioca with sticky rice wrapped in green banana leaves and jasmine green tea as we head to the homes of artisans scattered throughout the region.

In the next post, I’ll share more about how the women we meet create both practical and beautiful items with local materials like water hyacinth and nipa palm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mekong: Mother of Water and More Than a River

DSC09561
by James

What starts with elephant ear fish and ends with jack fruit? Lunch on the Mekong Delta after a full week rolling out production of the latest collection. Nina invited a lucky few staff from the Saigon office to see her inspiration for the Mekong Collection this past weekend.

We left motorbike-happy Saigon for the motorboats of the Mekong at Cai Be early on Saturday morning. Shaded by droopy banyan trees, we boarded a slender wooden riverboat and puttered past a green carpet of water hyacinth into the silty brown Mekong with our guide Hoa.  For the rest of the weekend, she led us by boat, bike, and foot to not only see the river, but also the islands where skilled women produce most of the food and crafts of the region.

The Mekong River is a defining feature of southeast Asia. The river flows from the Tibetan Plateau through five countries before emptying into the sea south of Saigon. The meandering braids of the richly biodiverse delta literally shape the landscape. The name translates to Mother-of-Water because these waters bring life to the countless communities, farms, and ecosystems along its fabled path.

DSC09599

 

In the next post, I’ll share more about the memorable foods and flavors of the Mekong Delta, like bug-eyed elephant ear fish and the world’s largest tree-borne fruit. Inspiration didn’t happen on an empty stomach!

Nina Nguyen Designs - Pink Topaz Necklaces

October – Breast Cancer Awareness

Breast Cancer Awareness - Nina Nguyen Designs

October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month

 

October is breast cancer awareness month.  At first glance this might not be considered a positive topic of conversation, but we encourage you to think again. In the 1950s the New York Times refused to place a breast cancer awareness ad in the paper as they wouldn’t print the word ‘breast’ and wanted to stay away from negative words like ‘cancer’. It wasn’t until the 1970s where famous women like Shirley Temple and Betty Ford (the President’s wife) talked openly about their journey with this disease that the taboo and shame around this subject started to dissipate.

 

Betty Ford - Breast Cancer Awareness

Betty Ford – Breast Cancer Awareness Pioneer

 

Today you’ll most like see pink everywhere in support of this very important cause.  The National Breast Cancer Foundation provides free mammograms to those in need, provides funding for impactful research and even created a website for women with breast cancer.  Beyond The Shock is a website chock full of helpful information, answers questions and help women feel supported by their peers.

 

Breast Cancer Awareness - Nina Nguyen Designs

Cancer Society Breast Cancer Awareness Walk

 

There are tons of organizations that get involved with raising awareness for this noble cause and we’re so happy they do.  Breast cancer incidences have decreased steadily each year since 2000.  The number of deaths from this disease have decreased every year since 1989 as more and more women are saved by early detection found in a mammogram.

 

Nina Nguyen Designs - Pink Topaz Necklaces

October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month

 

What will you do this month to show your support?  At Nina Nguyen Designs we’ll be wearing pink all month long.  One in eight women in the United States is affected by breast cancer.  It’s a disease that affects us all.  Join us in the fight for a cure!

 

Breast Cancer Awareness - Celebrating Our Survivors

Avon Walk for Breast Cancer

Lapis – Pantone Color Spring 2017

Pantone chose lapis and so did Nina Nguyen Designs!

Pantone Spring 2017 – Lapis Blue

Pantone has selected their colors for Spring 2017 and I’m thrilled about the color palate, especially as one of them is named Lapis Blue. I’m crazy about Lapis and I’ve been incorporating it into my line for quite some time. I even tried some different shapes of this mesmerizing blue in my new fine jewelry Heritage Collection.

Lapis Earrings by Nina Nguyen Designs

Nina Nguyen Designs, Spirit Earrings, 14k yellow gold, lapis

Lapis lazuli has long been regarded as the stone of wisdom and truth. It is associated with the Greek Goddess Athena who was notorious for her keen intellect and strategic planning.

Nina Nguyen Designs - Spirit Necklace in Lapis

Lapis – The Stone of Wisdom

The history between humans and lapis dates back to 6,500 B.C. when enthusiasts would travel over treacherous mountain terrain to secure some of this deep dark blue. Back in the day Lapis was prized as much as turquoise and sapphire. Not only was it used in jewelry, but it was also crushed up and used for medicinal purposes. Additionally, it’s been known to be used as a cosmetic!

Lapis Necklace by Nina Nguyen Designs

Nina Nguyen Designs, Heritage Necklette, 14k yellow gold, lapis

Folklore also tells us that lapis lazuli was a powerful talisman that purified the soul.  The Egyptians were rumored to crush up lapis and gold to make a mask placed on the forehead said to remove demons as it dried. I find it so fascinating that gemstones had such significant meaning in ancient times.

Nina Nguyen Designs - Lapis Spirit Ring

Nina Nguyen Designs, Spirit Ring, sterling silver, lapis

This stunning stone is roughly associated with the astrological sign Sagittarius, but any sign can rock this stone. I’m not sure I believe the hype, so instead of crushing them for medicine or make-up I will wrap my harmony lapis necklette around my wrist on days I need a pick me up! Gemstones have a mystery and power all their own that we may never truly understand.

Lapis Bracelet by Nina Nguyen Designs

Nina Nguyen Designs, Heirloom Bracelet, 22k vermeil, lapis

Tourmaline – Love and Communication

watermelon-tourmaline

Watermelon Tourmaline

October brings sweater weather, fall foliage and most importantly tourmaline, one of my favorite gemstones. October’s birthstone claims my attention because of its vibrant hues, its variety and its powerful metaphysical properties.

6170ptm-by-72dpi-1

Nina Nguyen Designs, Adorn Bangle, 14k yellow gold, pink tourmaline

This stunning beauty was first discovered in the 1500s. The first one found had a deep green hue and was originally claimed as emerald. It’s no surprise that the word tourmaline actually means ‘mixed gems’ in Sinhalese (native tongue of Sri Lanka). Its striking colors often had miners confuse this beauty with a variety of gemstones before it was determined that this gorgeous gem belongs in a class all its own. I don’t think tourmaline gets enough credit for its beauty and versatility. I love using it in my work!
 tourmaline-pinnacle-pendant
Legend has it that tourmaline traveled to earth through the rainbow, hence the reason it comes in every hue imaginable. Tourmaline is attributed the powerful metaphysical properties of deep enlightenment, power over spiritual affairs and can quell opposition. According to alchemist folklore, this ‘philosopher’s stone’ is also said to have the power to turn base metal into gold! Do you believe the hype? Pink tourmaline, which you’ll find featured in my new Heritage collection, is believed to be the stone of love and communication.
6170ptm-ry7-300dpi-1

Nina Nguyen Designs, Adorn Ring, 14k yellow gold, pink tourmaline

Even if we can’t confirm the myths and magic around this stone, there is no denying its beauty. The metaphysical properties of gemstones used to be perceived as fact, just as it was accepted that the earth was flat. Perhaps we put more value on science than the spirits these days, but these properties were so widely accepted that they carried over to modern day. Birthstones are still given as gifts. This tradition has been passed along from ancient times when a birthstone was given to a baby’s parents to keep the child safe and sound. I like to believe they still bring a lot of that love and positive energy to any recipient. It’s my favorite gift to give.
tourmaline-wrap-bracelet

Nina Nguyen Designs, Heritage Necklette, 14k yellow gold, tourmaline

Nina’s Travels – Mui Ne

mui-ne_2

Mui Ne Sunset

As most of you already know, all of my work is hand-crafted in beautiful Vietnam, my birthplace.  I have an office in Denver, CO and all of my jewelry is hand-made in Saigon.  I split half of my year in the states and half of the year in Vietnam.  I absolutely love to travel and find myself creatively inspired on all of my journeys.  This recent excursion was no exception.  While in Saigon I decided to treat myself to a quick weekend getaway in the gorgeous beach town of Mui Ne.

SONY DSC

Mui Ne Sand Dunes

Fifteen years ago Mui Ne was just a small, sleepy fishy town that was barely a blip on the map with only 25,000 residents.  Today it is a bustling resort town where you can find tourists swimming, surfing, sun-bathing, or shopping.  Kite surfing has recently become an avid pastime as well.  It’s been on my bucket list for a while and I’m so happy I made the trek out there last month.  Three hours and $6 (USD) on the bus will bring you this gorgeous stretch of beach, only 10 kilometers long.

 

crystal-clear-water

Crystal clear waters of Mui Ne

I went with one of my dear friends and our hotel was $20 (USD) or only $10 each!  That is the part I love about traveling in my home country, the cost of living is a dream.  Our hotel was super cute, low key, yet posh and situated right on the beach.  We also made sure to hit up Joe’s, The Art Café, a surfside restaurant that is the only establishment in town that stays open all year.  They have live music every evening.  It’s a perfect ending to a magical day, sitting outside slowly sipping on a beer while the sounds of crashing waves can be heard softly in the background to some chill local tunes.

mui-ne_4

Kite surfing in Mui Ne

If you ever make it out this way, I highly recommend checking out The Fairy Stream.  This low water level stream has a soft current that allows for an adventure of discovery at any pace you choose.  You’ll find toddlers stop to stare and play in tidal pools, teenagers swimming, lovebirds sitting on a rock with their feet dangling in the water, but most of all you’ll find the peace and serenity you’ve been searching for.

 

mui-ne_5

Calm, peaceful beach of Mui Ne

During this last excursion I felt a tremendous amount of pride for my country.  While I’m a dual citizen, it’s the heartbeat of Vietnam that stirs me and always offers tons of creative ideas.  I’m extremely proud of my Heirloom Collection which is a celebration of my heritage and hopefully embraces the beauty and magic of all lands far away.

 

6390slb-by-72dpi

Nina Nguyen Designs, Heritage Collection