Most travellers visit Hanoi for the fantastic food. That was the main reason we went. After motorbikes, visitors to Vietnam’s capital find themselves dodging street food stalls. The footpaths are littered with locals perched on tiny plastic stools slurping pho, the legendary Vietnamese soup. Yet Hanoi’s contemporary art scene is doing well to compete for attention with the food scene.
In just one weekend when we were in the city last year there were exhibition openings at three different art galleries, where Hanoi’s creative crowd sipped cocktails and Vietnamese wine as they took in the art on the walls. Each night that weekend there were art-themed talks at arty bar-cum-café Tadioto and art space Manzi that had just opened.
Art in Vietnam has a long history dating to the 3rd millennia BC when stone tools were intricately decorated. Coinciding with the birth of the capital Thang Long (today’s Hanoi) and a boom in Imperial and Buddhist architecture, the 11th to the 14th centuries were notable for their artistic works including beautiful sculptures and paintings created for pagodas.
After a period in which the Vietnamese occupied their time fighting foreign invaders, the 15th to 18th centuries produced skilled artisans who created wooden carvings, ornate statuary, lacquer art, glazed pottery and ceramics, and paintings on paper.
However, it was the 19th to 20th centuries that marked a major transformation after French colonisers introduced European painting and Vietnamese artists began to work in oils as well as wood cuts, silk and lacquer to produce landscapes, portraits, and scenes from everyday life.
Hanoi’s superb Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, in a handsome former girl’s school dating to 1937, provides a fantastic introduction to Vietnam’s art history, from the earliest periods through to modern 20th century movements when Vietnamese art exploded with artists working in every style and medium available: realism, impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, and abstract art; drawings, oils, woodcuts, and lacquer.
On display there also are some pieces from the most progressive period, the 1990s, when a group of contemporary artists labelled the ‘gang of five’ – Dang Xuan Hoa, Ha Tri Hieu, Tran Luan, Hong Viet Dung, and Pham Quang Vinh – grabbed the international art world’s attention. I didn’t visit the museum until the end of our three-month stay and I was regretting I hadn’t gone earlier.
For a firsthand perspective on Hanoi’s art history from 1990, when Russian art lover Natasha Kraevskaia and her late husband artist Vu Dan Tan opened Hanoi’s first private gallery, drop into Salon Natasha.
Most days you’ll find the door open to the pink house at 30 Hang Bong Street in the Old Quarter, its walls decorated with the artist’s work, and the inimitable Natasha at her desk writing essays on Vietnamese art for international publications – and ready for a chat.
Spaces such as Tadioto and Manzi, which opened just over a year ago, also operate as café-bars and hold art talks, as well as film screenings, live music, and performances, and are fantastic places to meet artists and art lovers.
For a more organized introduction to the contemporary art scene, book an art experience through Backyard Travel. We did our tour with Do Tuong Linh – described as Hanoi’s art ‘It girl’ by artist Bill Nguyen, one of three self-proclaimed ‘art activists’ (along with Giang Dang and Tram Vu) who opened Manzi.
During a day out with Linh, we visit the home of art patron and collector Nguyen Manh Duc known as Nha San Duc or the Stilted House, a site of art happenings shut down by authorities for a particularly radical performance.
We met his daughter Nguyen Phuong Linh, an emerging artist and curator, hanging a show at the Japan Foundation, and we visited the studio-home of influential artist Truong Tan, where he and artist Duoong Zoi showed us their work.
Some of the best places to see contemporary Vietnamese art exhibitions are foreign cultural institutes like the Japan Foundation, French L’Espace and the German Goethe Institut (also home to experimental film centre Doc-Lab), and locally-owned galleries like Nguyen Art Gallery near the Museum, and Mai Gallery and Apricot Gallery on Hang Bong Street.
The night we went to Nguyen Art Gallery’s Colours of Nature exhibition opening, the whole of Hanoi seemed to have crammed into the gallery. Art lovers were posing for photos with artists Dang Hiep, Duy Hoa, Trinh Lien, Duy Tung, and Le Thuy as if they were a K-Pop boy band.
It was a sociable crowd and we met lots of local artists, art writers, academics, and art-loving foreign tourists at the exhibition. And not once did the talk turn to food.
Where and how to enjoy art in Hanoi
Hanoi’s Vietnam Fine Arts Museum
66 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Ba Dinh
Open daily 8.30am-5pm
Nguyen Art Gallery
31 Van Mieu Street, Dong Da
14 Phan Huy Ich, Truc Bach
++84 4 3716 3397
12 Truong Han Sieu, Hoan Kiem
++84 4 6680 9124
Backyard Travel Art Tours
Tours with local art specialists to museums, galleries and artist ateliers
Best source of information on art exhibitions and openings
Pictured above: Artist Trinh Lien at Nguyen Art Gallery