Strolling around the HCMC museum of fine arts can be like stepping back into history.

on May 15,2017 11:24 AM


Photos: TRON LE

It was a beautiful evening when I recently met up with a dear old friend at the HCMC Museum of Fine Arts. Unlike other museums, with crowds of visitors, proper lighting, and cooling air conditioning, the fine arts museum is dark, dusty and silent, with an ancient, rundown elevator that’s likely to give you goosebumps when you first step in.

But such things are actually part of the museum’s eerie and somewhat mythical charm. Originally a mansion of Société Immobilière Hui Bon Hoa, bearing an address of 97 Rue Alsace Lorraine (now Pho Duc Chinh), the elegant colonial mansion, painted in yellow and white and featuring stained glass windows, is an artistic and historic masterpiece in itself, with a touch of French, Chinese, and Vietnamese architecture and a flamboyant art deco touch reflecting local decorative motifs and spatial principles, evidenced best by its marble floors. At the back of the first building of the mansion remains a plaque marking the apartments occupied by members of the Hui Bon Hoa family, written in French.


The museum is home to some of Vietnam’s most important art collections, in sculpture, oil, silk, ceramic and lacquer from leading Vietnamese artist such as Trinh Cung, Do Quang Em, Diep Minh Chau, and Nguyen Gia Tri. One of my favourites, the lacquer painting ‘Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac’ (Spring Garden of the Centre, South and North), took artist Nguyen Gia Tri a period of 20 years to complete, from 1969, and reveals his desire for a peaceful, prosperous and united life by depicting Vietnamese women and children.

While I was more deeply into displays of ancient works from southern Vietnam, pieces from the ancient Cham, Khmer and Oc Eo cultures, and other objects that narrated temporal and spatial histories from the 7th century, my friend was more fascinated with the contemporary independent art platforms located near the entrance. Inside the museum, you can see Vietnamese art throughout different historic periods, from the Champa - Oc Eo archaeological site in the Mekong Delta to French colonial times, the propaganda campaigns linked to the Cold War, post-1975 and the nationalist victory, and the 1986 reforms known ‘doi moi’.


The national art-historical building narrates more than just the movement of art; it carries symbolic value, where local rituals can have a touch of modern aesthetic and historical appreciation. You can perhaps gain a better understanding of the forbidden art of pre-1975 Saigon artists. At the same time, you may also see yourself admiring contemporary artistic practices combining music, videos, installations, and performances, which may still create some controversy among the public and authorities.

HCMC Museum of Fine Arts

97A Pho Duc Chinh, D.1, HCMC


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