Our city guide series continues with tips and suggestions to sample contemporary art and culture in Ho Chi Minh City.
In our latest City Art Guide, we look at Ho Chi Minh City – one of Southeast Asia’s emerging art hubs and home to some of the top internationally recognised Vietnamese artists. The guide contains everything you need to know for a successful visit.
In the past five years, the art scene in Ho Chi Minh City has experienced a growth that has placed it amongst some of the most active emerging art scenes in the region. An increasing number of local artists are now participating in exhibitions in important institutions and events around the world.
Although the number of contemporary art spaces is still modest, their operations reach out to a greater audience. These art spaces are contributing to a better understanding of contemporary art in the country, nurturing local talent, cooperating with foreign institutions and attracting important art professionals from around the world.
Ho Chi Minh City is also home to internationally recognised artists such as Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba (part-time), Dinh Q. Lê, Tiffany Chung, The Propeller Group, Richard Streitmatter-Tran, Bui Cong Khanh, UuDam Tran Nguyen and Nguyen Manh Hung.
Art Radar shares useful information on the best time to visit the city and where to go to experience its diverse, eclectic and vibrant contemporary art scene.
When to visit and how to get around
Ho Chi Minh City has quite a homogenous temperature all year round, always warm enough to wear short sleeves, shorts and sandals. The winter months, roughly from November to the end of March, are the best period to visit to avoid suffering the effects of heat and humidity. Days are mostly sunny, with an average temperature of between 28 to 30 degrees Celsius and lower humidity, while evenings and nights can become chilly enough to wear a light jacket or long-sleeved top.
Beginning from early to mid-April, temperatures and humidity rise exponentially due to the approaching rainy season that can last from the end of May to September or October.
As Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t yet have a regular festival or event for contemporary art, the only criteria that determines when to visit the city is your weather preference.
To get around, there are plenty of buses with regular time schedules, but if you prefer not to travel in a crowded, non-air conditioned means of transportation, there are taxis everywhere. Just be careful to not take one of the fake company cars, as the drivers will try to rip you off. Stick to the best known ones – Mai Linh and Vinasun – and make sure that they are the real thing by checking the metre, the uniform and the ID of the drivers.
It is also possible to rent a car and a driver for a day or get a motorcycle rental, either with a driver (xe om) or without. Ask your hotel reception for information. With xe om, make sure that you are given a fair price. If you prefer, you can also get around the central district (District 1) on a bicycle, although the traffic might become overwhelming.
Where to see contemporary art
Museums and galleries
Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t have a contemporary art museum yet as government sponsorship for culture is, unfortunately, not a top priority for the country’s development. There are plenty of galleries around town, but you should be careful to not get distracted by the commercial entities that mushroom around the central district. These usually sell highly commercial, decorative art that is often mass produced and is not representative of the contemporary art scene of the country.
- Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum – The Fine Arts Museum is worth a visit for its beautiful French colonial architecture. Although a bit run down, the exhibition rooms have a range of art that can give you a good look at the development of art through the ages in Vietnam. The museum also has a new wing that is rented out for privately organised exhibitions, so check if they have an exhibition on when you visit. Address: 97A Pho Duc Chinh, District 1.
- Galerie Quynh – The most professionally recognised, international standard gallery in the city, Galerie Quynh was founded in 2004 by Vietnamese-American Quynh Pham. The gallery represents Vietnamese emerging and established artists, as well as foreign artists. In addition to its regular exhibitions programme in its two spaces in District 1, the gallery also holds talks and lectures. Address: main gallery, 65 De Tham, District 1; downtown gallery, Level 2, 151/3 Dong Khoi, District 1.
- Craig Thomas Gallery – Founded in 2009 by American Craig Thomas who has been involved in Vietnam’s art scene for over a decade, the gallery is tucked away in a small villa in District 1. The gallery exclusively shows local talent, from emerging to more established artists working with a range of media and styles. Address: 27i Tran Nhat Duat Street, Tan Dinh Ward, District 1. Bonus tip: Be sure to not miss having a meal at the nearby Cuc Gach restaurant, with its artsy décor, to top off your art day in the area.
- Tu Do Gallery – One of the oldest standing galleries in the city, Tu Do also boasts a collection of important modern and contemporary artists. More on the ‘classical’ side of the scene, Tu Do also holds regular exhibitions throughout the year. Like many local Vietnamese entities, Tu Do is not great at publicity, so swing by to see what’s on or contact them before your trip. Address: 53 Ho Tung Mau, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1.
- Eight Gallery – Owned and run by a collector of Vietnamese modern and contemporary art, the small gallery holds exhibitions of contemporary artists throughout the year. It doesn’t have a strong marketing network, so it is not easy to find out when an exhibition is on but visit their website and contact them for information. Address: 8 Phung Khac Khoan, District 1.
- Vin Gallery – With two spaces – in District 1 and 2 – this small gallery run by an Indonesian also holds workshops and art classes. The small exhibition space in District 2 holds exhibitions of Indonesian and foreign artists. Contact them to see what is on when you visit and to arrange to attend a class. Address: 6, Le Van Mien, Thao Dien, District 2; 95, Pasteur, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1.
Non-profit and experimental art spaces
- Sàn Art – The most active nonprofit, artist-run initiative in Vietnam, San Art was founded by some of the most well known Vietnamese artists: Dinh Q. Lê, Tiffany Chung and members of The Propeller Group. Housed in a small villa in Binh Thanh district, the space shares its home with The Propeller Group and their production studio. Regular exhibitions and educational programmes, a library room and the San Art Laboratory artist-in-residence are a must see. Arrange to speak with Curator and Director Zoe Butt and local curator Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran to have a better understanding of the space’s role and the state of contemporary art in Vietnam today. Address: 3 Me Linh, Binh Thanh District.
- Zero Station – An experimental art space founded by artist-curator Nguyen Nhu Huy, the space holds workshops, talks and lectures, as well as art projects with exhibitions, screenings and performances. Contact them to get more information on what is going on when you visit and to arrange a chat with the founder.
- Dia Projects – Founded by artist and art lecturer Richard Streitmatter-Tran as a space for interaction, research and discussion about contemporary art practice, the space is now mainly the artist’s personal studio. It still does support researchers who come to Ho Chi Minh City through its extensive library, but make sure that you contact the artist to arrange a visit as it now functions on an appointment only basis.
- Goethe Institut – The Goethe Institut is very involved in the development of the contemporary art scene and supports and organises contemporary art exhibitions by local artists, screenings of video and film, lectures and interactions between local and foreign artists. Check if they have anything going on when you visit the city.
- Sao La – A nonprofit art initiative supported and founded by Galerie Quynh, Sao La is based on the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Museum’s grounds. A new addition to the art scene, officially opening at the end of May 2014, the space will also have a library room with art books and will support emerging local talent, running a regular programme of workshops, lectures and talks, screenings and exhibitions. Address: on the grounds of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum.
Private collections and galleries
- Post-ViDai – The largest collection of contemporary Vietnamese art, with homes in Switzerland and Vietnam, also has an exhibition space. The collection’s manager organises exhibitions, but as they are not publicly advertised, contact her to see if anything is going on when you visit or to arrange a visit to the collection.
- Duc Minh Gallery – The gallery is a private collection of 1,000 pieces of modern and contemporary art. It houses masterful works by some of the top artists in Vietnamese art history. Sophie’s Art Tour (below) starts here and gives a great overview of art history and the best works in the collection. Address: 31c Le Quy Don, District 3.
- Dogma Gallery – The small gallery space is run by British-Italian Richard Di San Marzano, an expert and collector of Vietnamese propaganda art as well as Archivist and Curator of the Dogma Collection. The gallery shows and sells propaganda artworks, offering both originals and prints. Address: 8A/9C1 Thai Van Lung, District 1.
Art cafés, bars, restaurants and districts
- 3A Station (Alternative Art Area) – Another new addition to the art scene in Saigon, the small warehouse district in the heart of the city is a conglomerate of small art and design studios and a private gallery, Mai Gallery, which runs experimental art events from time to time. The grounds are also home to the growing creative graffiti art scene, with works by local and foreign artists alike. The three warehouses will house more art, music and performance events in the near future. Email: email@example.com. Address: 3A Ton Duc Thang, District 1.
- The Observatory – Less than a year old and run by a Vietnamese-Swiss DJ and a British artist, the bar has a gallery space dedicated to curated exhibitions of local and foreign artists and other art events. They also hold film screenings with discussion sessions, alongside their regular music events with local and international talents. Address: on the corner of Le Lai and Ton That Tung, District 1.
- [a] café – A good relaxing space for a homemade coffee at the home of one of the best artists in town, Nguyen Thanh Truc (the son of one of the ‘fathers’ of abstract art in Vietnam, Nguyen Trung). The artist is also part of a collective called XEM (see below, under Publications). It is possible to meet some artists by chance by popping in for a coffee. Contact the XEM artists to arrange a meeting with them, view their magazines and have a chat about the art scene at the café.
- DeciBel – A restaurant/bar and cultural venue, the space offers young local and foreign artists the opportunity to show their work and hold personal exhibitions at no cost. They also have weekly film screening, live music and DJs and will soon hold the first iteration of “IMPRESSIONS”, a new film festival showcasing local talents (28 May and 4 June 2014). Address: 79/2/5 Phan Ke Binh, Da Kao Ward, District 1.
- Monsoon – Offering a mouth-watering range of creative and traditional dishes from Southeast Asian countries, the restaurant is housed in a French colonial-style villa, with an elegant exotic décor. The restaurant holds a programme of exhibitions throughout the year with both local and foreign artists and a diversity of disciplines. Address: 1 Cao Ba Nhạ, Nguyen Cu Trinh Ward, District 1.
- Saigon Outcast – An alternative venue, with a skateboard ramp, a large open space and murals and graffiti covering the walls, Saigon Outcast holds relaxed and fun alternative art events, film screenings such as FutureShorts, performances, live music and parties with an ever-present artsy element. Address: 188/1 Nguyen Van Huong, Thao Dien, District 2.
And for even more art…
- XEM – XEM is a collective originally founded by five Vietnamese artists: Nguyen Thanh Truc, UuDam Tran Nguyen, Hoang Duong Cam, Quang Lam and Phan Quang. The artists publish a limited edition art magazine with their own photographic artwork four times a year. For each issue, which is themed differently, they invite an additional artist to participate. The collective launches each issue with an exhibition.
- Saigon Artbook – Designed to make art accessible to a greater audience, especially the youth, the Artbook invites three artists living in Ho Chi Minh City (local or foreign) to create and submit work for publication and for an accompanying exhibition. A new issue is published every four months.
Artist studio visits
Simply contact the galleries and art spaces that represent the artists and ask for the possibility to arrange a studio visit with the artists.
Visiting art schools
Ho Chi Minh City has its own Fine Arts University (5 Phan Dang Luu, Binh Thanh District), which can be visited by contacting the Department of Foreign Relations, but you might have a better chance by trying to go through an art space and arrange a visit through their network. The university holds graduation shows and the Biennale of Young Artists. Check if any of those are on and can be visited at the time of your travels.
RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, 702 Nguyen Van Linh, District 7) also holds art courses, and among its professors are practicing artists. You might want to try contacting the university and ask for the possibility to sit in some of the classes, or contact Dia Projects as Richard Sreitmatter-Tran is one of the art lecturers there.
The local art tour
Sophie’s Art Tour is an unmissable experience when visiting Ho Chi Minh City to discover and learn more about art in Vietnam. The tour, run by art expert Sophie Hughes from Britain, is a four-hour journey through the history of modern and contemporary Vietnamese art with interesting anecdotes about artists, political and social history, and a tour of some important art venues including private collections, the museum and art galleries.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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