Viewing and engaging with the art of any destination adds an extra dimension and texture to your experience of that place. And Sophie’s Art Tour in HCMC is the perfect way to come to terms with Vietnamese art and to gain an overall understanding of the history of Vietnam.
On each of our previous trips to Vietnam, we’ve gone out of our way to seek out the art museums and contemporary galleries. However, with little background knowledge of the history of art in Vietnam, we always felt we were missing an understanding of some of what we were seeing. In the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum, for instance, there is only very brief signage regarding the works….and without a more detailed context to place the works in, you can start to wander by amazing works of art with eyes glazed over.
This trip, we heard about Sophie’s Art Tour, and eagerly signed up.
Sophie’s Art Tour is a half-day tour (9am – 1pm Tuesday to Saturday) which visits private collections, museums and contemporary art spaces in HCMC, led by the extremely knowledgeable Sophie Hughes.
Prior to moving to Vietnam, Sophie worked in arts management and development in the North East of England and London. She has lived in Vietnam since 2009, and has previously worked as a manager of the Saigon contemporary art gallery Galerie Quynh.
As Sophie became more familiar with the Vietnamese art scene, she felt that her knowledge of Vietnamese art history was fragmented, so in 2011 she set herself a 30 day challenge to gather as much information as she could about Vietnamese art history from the internet, private libraries, old exhibition catalogues, books, magazines and by talking to artists, gallerists, curators, writers and researchers.
Over the course of that 30 days, she realised how much the study of the country’s art also deepened her understanding of Vietnamese history. And as she researched in the HCMC Fine Art Museum she noticed the glazed-over eyes of the few tourists (like us) that did visit, spoke to many of them, and realised that there was a real desire to know more about the art and the artists, but no easily accessible way for tourists to do so.
And thus Sophie’s Art Tour was born.
The tour began in a cafe in District 3 where, while we drank Vietnamese coffee that packs the punch of rocket fuel, Sophie explained the overall structure of the tour. She uses an iPad to illustrate details of her talk. With about 12 of us on the tour that day, it was easy to see the iPad, and we passed it around for a closer look at times.
The tour focuses on the major chapters in 20th and 21st century Vietnamese history, as seen through the works and lives of the artists.
The chapters are roughly divided into:
- colonialism and its effect on the development of a fine art tradition in Vietnam
- the Indochina wars of the 20th century and the role of combat artists
- the post-1975 period including the Doi Moi (or renovation) period and the role of propaganda art during that time
- the contemporary art scene in Vietnam.
While the tour focuses on the personal experiences of artists and their works, it also provides an incredibly detailed understanding of Vietnam’s history over that period. For this reason, it should be on the itinerary of anyone with an interest in gaining a greater understanding of the place, not just art lovers.
While we sat sipping on our rocket fuel, Sophie told us about the French colonisation of Vietnam and how the French government set up the “Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine” in Hanoi in 1925. She had some fascinating photos of the artists who studied at the school.
We then walked a short distance to a small private gallery called Duc Minh Art Gallery, where we were able to see the work of some of these students. The influence of French art fashion of the time was clearly evident, but the most fascinating part for us, was how some of these artists took a traditional decorative art form (egg-shell laquer) and turned it into a beautiful fine art medium.
Then we piled into a couple of mini-vans and were driven to the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Museum. On the way, Sophie provided cold drinks and snacks for anyone who wanted them.
The Museum itself is a spectacular piece of architecture which marries French colonial style with traditional Chinese elements. It was built as a private home and business, but has housed the Fine Arts Museum since 1987. It’s also reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a daughter of the family who, for some reason, was locked into a room in the roof. Sophie pointed out the window of the room.
Inside, the gallery we moved from room to room, with Sophie seeking out specific pieces to illustrate the stories she told. Over the course of her research, Sophie has met and spoken with many of the artists whose works hang on these walls, so she is able to add a particularly personal perspective to the artworks.
I found the propaganda art in the gallery fascinating, especially in light of the role of the Soviet Union in Vietnam in the post-1975 period. The influence of Soviet styles of poster art is unmistakable.
Our final stop was San Art in District 2. San Art is a non-profit contemporary art organization which aims to showcase contemporary art through “production, exhibition, discourse and education”. San Art commissions new work through residency programs which include both local and international artists. We viewed an exhibition of the works of the three latest residency artists. It was interesting to hear how even today, all the exhibitions must be given government approval before they can be displayed. Approval is not always forthcoming.
We finished up the tour at San Art, and went by mini-van back to District 1, dropping people off at their preferred locations along the way.
The Poolboy and I did this tour on our own. The girls were happy to stay at the hotel. As seasoned art museum go-ers, they probably would have coped with the tour, but they wouldn’t have loved it. There is a lot of standing in front of artworks listening to Sophie, while she explains about them. Absolutely fine for interested adults, but I think most kids’ attention would wane. And Sophie herself doesn’t recommend the tour for kids, but she is happy to tailor a specific family tour if you would like to do a tour with children.
The DetailsSophie’s Art Tour
Telephone: +84(0)121 830 3742 Cost: we paid $55 USD (1,150,000vnd) per person which included Sophie’s tour, drinks and snacks, airconditioned mini-van transport, and entrance fees.