• Inspiration
August 2, 2023

Local Café Outing: Saigon to Seattle

As an artist and a daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Art Toolkit Ambassador Sophia Trinh reflects upon the significance of carving out leisure time, not just as an escape from the daily grind but as a pathway to self-discovery and growth.

By Sophia Trinh

Art supplies and a watercolor painting of a map of Vietnam on a small round woven table with other woven furniture in the background.

Dear Art Toolkit Community,

As the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, I often grapple with feelings of guilt when it comes to taking leisure time for myself. However, with experience and age, I’ve come to realize the profound significance of carving out these moments for leisure, self-reflection, and creative expression, especially for immigrant children like me.

In my last blog post, “Local Café Outing: A Date with Myself and My Palette,” I shared how I make time for painting in my busy schedule, highlighting how local coffee shops can be a great sanctuary to paint in especially if you do not have the space at home and need a new change of scenery.

Today, I want to share another local café outing, this time to Hello Em, a charming café in Seattle’s Little Saigon. Additionally, I’m excited to introduce you to some of my favorite painting spots in Chinatown and Little Saigon in the hope you, too, will venture out and find a quiet space to paint there.

An urban street view of an intersection and long, straight road ahead, passing under an archway in traditional Chinese architecture with pedestrians and single-story shops.
Seattle Chinatown Gates, signifying the entrance into Chinatown.

Chinatown holds a special place in my heart because that’s where my parents and grandparents would shop at Viet-Wah for the ingredients to make traditional Vietnamese dishes never found in American grocery stores like Safeway and QFC.

To this day, I love exploring its colorful streets, adorned with traditional Chinese calligraphy, and savoring the enticing aroma of authentic cuisine, like the wonton noodles at Mike’s Noodle House. Hing Hay Park, right across from the restaurant, offers a wonderful outdoor painting spot, allowing me to immerse myself in the neighborhood’s energy.

A street-view perspective of a restaurant with a red banner saying Mike's Noodle House.
Entrance to Mike’s Noodle House on Maynard.
A view of a public water fountain in a red-bricked square, with a pagoda-style open air structure in the center.
Hing Hay Park across from Mike’s Noodle House on Maynard.
Double doors and vaulted, windowed side walls mark the entrance to Eastern Cafe, as written on the glass doors, framed in wood.
The entrance to Eastern Cafe—if you look closely, you can see a reflection of me on by bike in the glass!

Eastern Cafe is another great café to paint in next to the Seattle Pin Ball Museum on Maynard. They also display local artist work if you are looking for a place to showcase your artwork.

Venturing further east into Little Saigon, you can find Friends of Little Saigon and Little Saigon Creative, sharing its space with the cozy café, Hello Em.

A hand holds up a paint-filled Folio Palette in front of a wall with signs reading “Little Saigon Creative” and “Hello Em.”
I brought my art supplies and Folio Palette to do some painting at Hello Em.
A hand holds up a plastic cup of tea in front of a wall with signs reading “Little Saigon Creative” and “Hello Em.”
Opted for trà tắc (kumquat tea) instead of coffee.
An open sketchbook and palette on a cushion show a detailed list of paints and paint names.
Color swatches and my Folio Palette.

The atmosphere inside Hello Em exudes a sense of history and community, displaying the journey of Vietnamese migration to Seattle as well as a wall mapping where the coffee beans come from in Vietnam.

A white wall with a chart of decades and papers hanging in corresponding lines under a wooden-framed ceiling.
A timeline of Little Saigon starting in the 1970s and a map of Vietnam and where the coffee beans are grown—17% of the world’s coffee production comes from Vietnam.
Wooden shelves of various sizes covered in Vietnamese hats, bike helmets, and other items.
A wall with significant items to the Vietnamese people: nón lá (traditional leaf hats), Vespa helmets (motorcycle is the main transportation system in Vietnam), and phin filters for brewing coffee.

Accompanying this wall is local artwork, ceramics, and poetry. There is even a community library with books you can check out by AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) artists and authors.

For me, leisure time is not just a momentary escape but an opportunity to honor my heritage, embrace my identity, and find deeper meaning in my creative journey. It allows me to unravel my thoughts and feelings, providing a clearer understanding of who I am and my place in the world.

Below you can find photos of the two paintings I created while in this space. I experimented with ground coffee beans for my painting of cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk). The coffee grounds created a fun pigmentation seen in the first image of my sketchbook.

Art supplies and an open sketchbook of swatches and sketches of drip coffee on a small round woven table with other woven furniture in the background.
A watercolor painting of a phin filter, experimenting with painting with coffee grounds.

In middle school, I learned geography through painting the maps. Through carefully drawing the outlines, I visually imprint the geography in my mind.

Art supplies and a watercolor painting of a map of Vietnam on a small round woven table with other woven furniture in the background.
Watercolor map of Vietnam, my parents always said it looked like a seahorse.
A woman in a blue sweatshirt stands at the edge of a large body of water on a sunny day. She is holding a vertical sketchbook with a watercolor map of Vietnam.
Me and my map of Vietnam and Folio Palette.

As artists, it’s essential to recognize the significance of leisure time, not just as an escape from the daily grind but as a pathway to self-discovery and growth. The act of creating art allows us to unravel our thoughts and feelings, giving us a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

I encourage each of you to explore your local surroundings and their history, seek out places that resonate with your cultural heritage or personal identity, and use them as a canvas for your creative expressions. Whether it’s through sketching, painting, writing, or any other form of art, let this leisure time be a celebration of who you are and a testament to the progress you’ve made on your creative journey.

A woman and a man stand in a garden, dressed up and smiling, the man holding a small child in a long white dress, the woman holding onto a young child’s elbow in a red dress.
Me at age two with my mom, dad, and sister.
A small girl dressed in a long-sleeved pink dress smiles while gripping the bottom baluster of a banister inside.
Me at age four in a traditional Vietnamese dress called an áo dài.

Until then, may your brushes flow effortlessly and your creativity know no bounds.

With artistic love and gratitude,

An artist sites on a rock, dipping a paintbrush in a Pocket Palette.

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