Understanding Vietnam through art

1109 HCMC Fine Arts Museum painting by Nguyen Gia Tri photographer Sophie Hughes copy

After travelling to Vietnam and becoming fascinated by the art in museums and small galleries, Sophie moved to Vietnam, and now runs art tours in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Getting to the heart of Vietnam through art

Sophies Art Tour, Vietnam

© Quinn Ryan Mattingly

I upped sticks and moved to Ho Chi Minh City from the UK in 2009 to manage a contemporary art space, before deciding to start leading art history tours. It was a huge research project, but Vietnam is an extremely welcoming country, and through the few artists I met at the beginning, I was able to forge wonderful friendships within the wider community.

Just last week I was having lunch with an 86-year-old combat artist who told me about his life through both Indochina wars. Halfway through, he remembered a sketchbook that he had made during his time in the army. It contained some of the most fascinating sketches of everyday life in a little village, right on the frontline of the conflict during the Vietnam-American war.

Vietnam’s history is complicated and it can be hard to get your head around. But with tales from individuals, it all starts to become clear. My research is based on spending time with artists in their homes to talk about their work, their lives and their experiences. With these connections, I am able to weave incredible stories from people, like this man, into the historical narrative of the tour; taking people on a journey from late 19th century right up to the present day.

Bill and Hoa Cuci Gallery2

Bill and Hoa at the Cuci Gallery in Hanoi

Expanding to Hanoi

After a year and a half of gathering information and establishing friendships, the first Ho Chi Minh City art tour was launched. It was another 8 months working with Vietnamese artist and curator, Bill Nguyen from 2014, and Austrian writer and journalist, Fabiola Buchele, to research the Hanoi art scene before we could launch the art tour there. I still travel back and forth continuing to research and archive all of our materials to feed into the the tour.

Evolving art in Vietnam

Bill Nguyen and Truong Cong Tung

Bill Nguyen and Truong Cong Tung

Art reflects not only history, but the enormous changes in present-day Vietnam. To really understand the challenges that contemporary Vietnam faces, I would recommend looking at the work of its young artists.

Since I moved here, a new generation of artists has evolved and come to prominence. Independent organisations have grown, launching innovative and bold programs. The audience has changed, too; young Vietnamese people now make up the majority of attendees at exhibitions and events.

Running tours

1510 Sophie's Art Tour Hanoi - guide Fabiola Buchele. Photo by Sophie Hughes4

© Guide Fabiola Buchele. Photo by Sophie Hughes

Vietnam is a fascinating place, and I am surprised every day - the journey of setting up these two tours and our continuing research project never has a dull moment. It’s times like drinking tea (or rice wine) with an artist while talking about their view on the world, that I realise just how extraordinarily lucky I am.

Join Sophie for a day exploring galleries, museums and art cafes in Vietnam on our Insider Experience: Unveiling Vietnam’s history through art.

1510 Sophie's Art Tour Hanoi - guide Bill Nguyen. Photo by Sophie Hughes2

© Guide Bill Nguyen. Photo by Sophie Hughes

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