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A Teacher of Beauty

Madame Ly, UNIS Hanoi’s first art teacher, lives in a sixth-floor apartment surrounded by beauty in art.

Madame Ly, UNIS Hanoi’s first art teacher, lives in a sixth-floor apartment surrounded by beauty in art.

Impressionist cityscapes of a bygone Hanoi, with women in traditional Vietnamese áo dài bicycling under flowering trees, decorate the walls. Lacquer paintings of women in colourful dresses—an artistic documentation of her country’s cultural minorities—lean against each other at the edges of rooms. 

A well-known artist, these paintings represent Ha My Ly’s life work. Her art has been well received at national and international exhibitions, and several of her paintings are housed in the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. She holds degrees from both the Hanoi Fine Arts College and the Hanoi Industrial Fine Arts College.

But equally treasured are the scrapbooks of photographs and cards from her time teaching art in the early days of UNIS Hanoi.

Working at the School from 1990 until her retirement in 2002, Mme Ly was a well-loved member of the community whose influence reached far outside her classroom. The annual exhibition of student work that she organised was a community highlight, and she took as much pride in student art as in her own.

The opportunity to study under an internationally-acclaimed artist was a unique one for UNIS Hanoi students. Their notes in her scrapbooks speak of a teacher who was a friend and mentor to them.

“Art is my favorite subject in school. I think that Mme Ly is a very good art teacher,” student Alex Brody penciled under a drawing of a red flower and an orange sun.

“Dear Mme Ly,” departing Grade 4 student Natalie wrote in a colorful scrawl on a pink piece of paper, “You are the best art teacher I met.” On the back is a quote, “If there is no art, there’s no life.”

Madame Ly agrees. “Painting is my passion,” she admits. Even in her present retirement, “I cannot stop it.”

Her students were privileged to benefit directly from Mme Ly sharing her passion and expertise with them. Field trips to local craft sites like the Dong Ho woodcut village helped students engage with Vietnamese culture as well as art. And they could learn how to make a woodcut from a master, since that was one of Mme Ly’s mediums.

She remembers a trip to the Bat Trang ceramic village outside Hanoi where even the parent chaperones were so absorbed in molding clay that she had to drag them away when it was time to go. Students visited her house, she recounts, to learn her most special technique, lacquer painting.

Photos show her working with recycled materials with her students long before the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enshrined the value of recycling and reusing. For her, that was simply a way of life. She studied art in Hanoi during war time, and fine art materials were scarce.

Mme Ly loved to teach students from different countries and cultures. “I enjoy working with children,” she says. “I teach them something, and they teach me something, too.”

She remembers that her own painting benefited from her teaching, as she learned from students how to more easily show feelings. Children, Mme Ly says, “Don’t think so much, they just show their sentiment.”

Mme Ly always tried hard to make her art class fun. “I felt happy when the students enjoyed it,” she says.

“My time at UNIS Hanoi was a happy time.”