Plans to harness art and nature for the promotion of the nation

(No.12, Vol.2, Dec 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

In Ho Chi Minh City, I seldom travel outside my comfort zone-the downtown area. The other day, however, I had an assignment in District Two. As we crossed the Saigon Bridge and turned into the backstreets of this area, I became aware that this once ordinary, in parts even impoverished neighbourhood, has recently become favoured for the construction of mansions for the rich.
The taxi came to a halt outside a high-walled compound topped with the mouflon security railing I am more accustomed to seeing on embassy buildings. As I was ushered through the gate, a Doberman pinscher growled at me, looking ready to tear me to pieces. “Calm down ‘Hades’,” called my usher. With my heart pounding, I felt like James Bond being summoned to meet the head villain.

Olaf takes some test pictures inside the cave.
Photo: Damian White

We passed a swimming pool and entered a sumptuously furnished villa adorned with objets d'art. I had expected to be met by a bald-headed gentleman sporting an Eastern European accent and seated behind an expansive, intimidating desk. Instead, bounding down the stairs with more energy even than Hades, came a smiling affable fellow countryman of mine, welcoming me with the charm of a TV compere. This was my first encounter with Damian White, owner of a bespoke jewellery business, and a man with the extraordinary vision of mounting a fine art project inside the world's largest cave, situated in Quang Binh province.
I was treated to a presentation of the work of renowned surrealist photographer Olaf Mueller, who is to be the star of Damian’s mega-grotto extravaganza. Olaf, as I was shown, has already done sterling work against the backdrop of China’s Guilin karst rock scenery with photographs of huge bubbles floating over distorted colourful sunsets. Examples of his work were also on the walls, hermetically sealed in metal frames, which I was told cost ten thousand dollars each alone. The plan is sell the ‘Son Doong’ photos to raise money for The Kids with Cancer Foundation and Operation Smile Vietnam charities.
Next, come pictures of Quang Binh province and the areas around the cave. Damian waxes lyrical about the outstanding natural beauty of the area and its solitude. He is preaching to the converted as he fills me with nostalgia for a place I lived in for three years. I could not agree more with him as he says Vietnam needs to be presented in a new light. No more Vietnam synonymous with war and away with the stereotypes of conical hats and cyclos, he says. Damian envisions this project as a poster child announcing Vietnam as a stunningly beautiful land fit for true adventure holidays.
I came away in awe. Damian White is a man who does not do things by half. He has a Herculean task ahead of him; the logistical arrangements of getting heavy equipment and a team of climbers into a remote and difficult-to-access cave with all the inherent dangers one would expect. He and Olaf together with a large Vietnamese technical team will yoke art to God’s gift of a stunningly beautiful land. In a year or so’s time, when you view the fruits of all this labour on The National Geographic and/or Discovery channel, remember you heard about it for the first time in Vietnam Heritage Magazine.

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