Frenchman’s Vietnamese calligraphy skills wow onlookers

By Quynh Nguyen   January 19, 2023 | 11:29 pm PT
Among the 50 calligraphers sitting at the Temple of Literature, Jean Sébastien Grill was the most noticeable.

The 41-year-old French man, who also goes by his Vietnamese name Truong Giang, was dressed in traditional attire as he hung his Tet (Lunar New Year) calligraphy.

No one else showcasing their art that day looked like him.

Grill has spent seven years studying Vietnamese calligraphy, and this year’s Tet festival is the first time he presents his calligraphy publicly.

He was given the opportunity to write his traditional calligraphy at the temple after coming in second place at the 2023 Spring Calligraphy Writing Competition earlier this month.

Jean Sébastien trò chuyện với một vị khách đến xin chữ tại Hội chữ Xuân Quý Mão, sáng 16/1. Ảnh:Quỳnh Nguyễn

Jean Sébastien Grill talks to a visitor at the Hanoi Temple of Literature’s spring calligraphy festival on January 16, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Grill said he hoped that by displaying his calligraphy in Vietnam January 15-26 he would be able to help promote Vietnamese culture to foreign tourists.

On Monday morning, a French tourist visiting the Temple of Literature was taken aback when he saw his fellow countryman creating Tet calligraphy in Vietnamese like a native.

"He filled us in on the history and significance of his calligraphy, illuminating for us its Vietnamese roots," the French tourist said.

"It was an interesting and fascinating experience."

Grill's talents not only wowed foreign tourists, but also locals.

"I wrote Tet calligraphy for 15 visitors at the opening ceremony last Sunday, most of whom were Vietnamese," he said.

"I'm glad that a foreign calligrapher's work is being well received."

Son Quynh and Nhu Y, two 22-year-old friends from Ho Chi Minh City, were astounded when they saw a foreigner doing Vietnamese Tet calligraphy with ease during their visit to Hanoi.

"His strokes are a bit thicker than a Vietnamese calligrapher," Quynh said, "however, just by looking at the text, I wouldn't guess that it was written by a foreigner."


During his time in France, Grill was a graphic designer. He also studied traditional Vietnamese medicine such as acupuncture and massage. He found it particularly effective to treat patients for whom Western medicine hadn’t helped with joint and spinal cord pain.

Grill went to Hanoi for the first time in 2006 after marrying a Vietnamese-French woman. The kindness he received from Vietnamese people during the trip left a lasting impression on him.

"Everyone is friendly. There is a genuine expression of joy that can be seen on everyone's face, which is not often seen in France due to the fast pace of life. On top of that, there are many delicious foods here in Vietnam," he said.

Even when he got back to France, thoughts about Vietnam continued dancing in his head, so he started coming back once a year.

While in Vietnam, he enrolled in traditional medicine courses at the Hanoi Medical University to enhance his skills.

He continued to fall in love with Vietnam and eventually decided to make it his permanent home.

A New Life

Grill, his wife and two kids moved to Hanoi in 2015.

While working as a graphic designer for a Vietnamese fashion company, the new transplant was introduced to calligraphy by a Korean friend.

Grill write the letter Duc, meaning morals and righteousness, at the spring calligraphy exhibition on January 16, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

Grill writes the letter "Duc," meaning moral, at the spring calligraphy festival on January 16, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Nguyen

The new subject fascinated him so much that he decided to study calligraphy with two great masters in Hanoi. He said he wanted to gain a better understanding of how thoughts are conveyed on paper and how text is organized.

Grill struggled at first since he wasn't sure how to hold the brush properly. Most of his first works were ruined because of his sloppy handwriting and inconsistent composition.

But he didn’t give up. Instead, he spent nights, weekends, and time alone in his study honing his Vietnamese vocabulary before grinding his ink and practicing calligraphy.

Gradually, his writing improved and began to reflect his own style.

"Both the Chinese characters and the Vietnamese idioms are now easy for me to remember and use after 32 classes and thousands of hours of practice," said Grill confidently.

"I also entered national writing contests in an effort to hone my craft and win recognition for my work."

Kieu Quoc Khanh, one of the Frenchman’s calligraphy professors, was amazed by the Frenchman's rapid assimilation of Eastern culture and heritage.

"Jean Sébastien is admired by many for his tenacious determination and loyalty," said Khanh.

The professor had no lack of kind words for his student.

"I, along with many others, admire him [Grill] for following his passion. After his education, he has created his own unique style of calligraphy," he continued.

Khanh also emphasized Grill was the only non-native Vietnamese invited to participate in the spring calligraphy festival this year at the Temple of Literature.

From Home to Home

Grill and his family had been in Vietnam for six years when the Covid pandemic forced them to return to their home country in 2021.

Outside of his full-time job, he continued to practice and write calligraphy to give as gifts to family and friends on special occasions.

"On the first day of the new year, my Vietnamese friends and family in France were happy to get red calligraphy gifts because it’s a good luck message," he said.

"This makes me so happy and makes me want to continue spreading Vietnamese culture."

Grill said that the calligraphy festival this year wasn’t the only reason he wanted to visit Vietnam. He said a major motivating factor was his desire to celebrate the Lunar New Year in the country he’s been calling home for a long time.

"If I were in France for Tet, I would go to the Vietnamese temple with my wife and children to pray and write calligraphy to bring luck for the new year," he said.

"But this year is even more special as I have the opportunity to give the gift of calligraphy at the Temple of Literature...although I'm not sure when I’ll return to live Vietnam, this country will always be my second homeland."

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