Travels, Visual Arts


Last November I visited Vietnam for the first time. The occasion of my trip was the book launch of Don’t call it art! Contemporary Art in Vietnam, 1993–1999, edited by my German artist friend Veronika Radulovic and the current director of Museum Rietberg in Zürich, Annette Bhagwati (published by Kerber Verlag, 2021) who introduce us to a number of ground-breaking contemporary artists in Vietnam, such as Truong Tan, Nguyen Quang Huy, and others. To the best of my knowledge, I had organized the first exhibition of Vietnamese art in Germany back in 1996, featuring the then young artist Truong Tan at Kunsthalle Bielefeld

Truong Tan, in the middle

Obviously, a lot has happened since then in the Vietnamese art scene, which I wanted to take a closer look at in Hanoi, Huế, and Saigon. That turned out not so easy, because officially, so-called contemporary art does not really exist. Beneath the surface and with the right connections to state authorities, it is nevertheless possible to make a good deal happen. Art(ists) spaces in Vietnam look pretty much like anywhere else in the world, however, they usually have no official opening hours and tend to guard their privacy as a protection against potential censorship measures. 

Rather bright and witty, the artistic community apparently produces what the market demands, adapting to circumstances without much ado and over-romantic or orthodox theories on art. The occasional work may contain social criticism, but only in easily digestible quantiles and never cutting too close to the bone. The artists switch effortlessly and with virtuosity back and forth between the various genres of so-called contemporary art. They know their bearings rather well and are not only acquainted with the world through the Internet, but also based on firsthand, personal experience. Not least, they benefit from a domestic and regional market that has steadily evolved over the years. 

A very enjoyable trait that is also evinced elsewhere in Asia is the utter lack of respect for certain codes common in the Western art world. Nevertheless, there is no getting around the fact that the idea of contemporary art as such is of Western origin. As a result, Vietnamese artists of course play the Western gamut, but also serve up to it without inventing a new scale.

I found Hanoi to be a very livable and lively city with a thriving, colorful mix of old and new, which meanwhile attracts a good number of young urban professionals from all over the world.

The nightlife district around the French St. Joseph’s Cathedral swarms with young Vietnamese people in the evenings. This always goes on until shortly before midnight, when the police, equipped with megaphones, declares a sudden end to the party and sends everyone home.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, with the founder of modern Vietnam staged in a fairytale tomb, strikes foreigners as rather folkloric. 

As shocking as a visit to a Nazi concentration camp and emotionally absolutely devastating is the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. The damage and suffering inflicted on this country by the USA during the Vietnam War is simply indescribable

The scope of capitalism in the booming – and also corrupt – state is meanwhile considerable. Universities and entire urban quarters in Hanoi are being built by oligarchs

Louboutin in Saigon makes for splendid shopping…

Care for a RR?

The times when everything was transported by bike have already become part of the heritage proudly documented in museums…

… where well-behaved schoolchildren still obey their teachers.

But Vietnam also offers a number of first-class culture treasures, such as the ruins of the My Son Hindu temples. Situated in the middle of the country, the site dates back to the Cham culture at the beginning of our era…

… and is a must-see for every visitor.

And if you feel like relaxing, you can enjoy the pleasant beach near Hoi An…

… or tour the tombs of the Vietnamese emperors of the Nguyen dynasty (19th century) in the nearby city of Hue.

No doubt, the unrivaled, quintessential Vietnam highlight is a boat trip of at least two days to Lan Ha Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin in the north of the country, near the Chinese border:

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