Written by root. Posted in FEATURES


Published on April 27, 2016 with No Comments

Vietnam’s past comes alive in a leisurely art exploration.


In pursuit of the sublime, expert-led trips on themes of art have gained popularity with travellers looking to appreciate culture and add more variety to their vacation itinerary. The advantage of this is you don’t have to stray from the well-worn tourist track to discover new experiences. A visit to the local museum, with an expert as guide, can bring a painting – and history of a country – to life, like no audio or museum guide could ever do.

Vietnam makes for a great case study where art lends fresh eyes to the country’s history. While the world is all too familiar with the Vietnam War, it is rare to be able to peel back and see the lives underneath. Ultimately, Vietnam’s people are the best to narrate its journey and today, the country’s emerging artists become the storytellers.

“The lives of artists are always fascinating because they approach the world in a different way and they use their work to communicate their experiences,” says Sophie Hughes, founder of Sophie’s Art Tour. Sophie has had her finger on the pulse of HCMC arts scene since 2009 and, what began as a personal research project eventually led her to discover that like her, there were visitors to Vietnam who were also seeking a deeper understanding of the country’s history through art.

Sophie’s Art Tour introduces visitors to some of the places Sophie herself finds intriguing. In HCMC’s San Art, this non profit arts organisation supports artists and arts professionals, helping them to shape contemporary art practice in Vietnam by opening up more opportunities for local artists as well as from South East Asia. One of their major projects, the Laboratory programme, is a residency programme that takes on three artists every six months in a self-described artists ‘boot camp’. Rising stars that have emerged from this programme include Phan Thao Nguyen, a multimedia artist who uses painting, installation, video and performance to depict historical and contemporary concepts; and Le Phi Long, whose intricate drawings of mangrove forests explore man’s relationship with nature and the destruction of it.

The tour itself has been fashioned to focus on the lives of artists who studied, fought, witnessed and documented major changes in 20th and 21st century Vietnam. It brings guests through private collections and homes of artists, and of course the grand halls of the National Fine Art Museum and leading contemporary art galleries. “It is not just for art lovers, but also for those who want to gain a deeper understanding of Vietnam’s history and meet some of the experts who have made it their life’s work to document and preserve this part of history.” As long as anyone is interested in Vietnam, they will discover a great deal through the tour – surprising those who have a lot of knowledge and lighting the way for those who are arriving with none.

More recently, she and her team of experts have expanded the tour to include Hanoi, where guests are introduced to Manzi, a fantastic art cafe that also offers many works for sale. There are Le Thuy who paints beautiful works on silk; Nguyễn Hoàng Giang who illustrates the hopes, dreams and fears of young Vietnam; and Le Giang whose work creates imaginary utopias. Another stop on the tour is Nha San Collective, offering a pioneering platform for contemporary art with a programme of exhibitions, performances and screenings, working with young performance artists like Nguyễn Thủy Tiên, whose work heavily questions women’s roles in contemporary Vietnam.

“Hanoi was made possible thanks to Artist/Curator and Founder of Manzi Art Café, Bill Nguyen; and Culture Journalist and Founder of And of Other Things, Fabiola Buchele,” Sophie explained. Together, they spent an incredible seven months gathering materials, visiting artists studios and galleries where they talked and shared stories about life, art and history, and what it means to be an artist in Vietnam. “It was illuminating, hilarious, sometimes sad; but all of it shed a light on this incredible country and its culture. It was a beautiful journey and we heard so many amazing stories,” she recalled.

The tours in both cities complement each other and respectively offer an insight into the development of the cities’ distinct art scenes as well as give an overview of Vietnam’s history as a whole. Tours are limited to a maximum of 10 people, but larger groups and smaller private group arrangements are also possible.

Royal Brunei Airlines flies Ho Chi Minh City 4x weekly.

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