Vietnamese Art and History

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam on the Vietnamese Art trail

On my first morning in Hanoi I was woken by church bells from the nearby French Gothic Cathedral of St Joseph. The sensation of having awoken in France was heightened by a breakfast of strong, dark coffee made with a little French aluminium filter, croissants and baguette, and a pot of yoghurt marked yaourt. But the impression disappeared the moment I stepped out on to the street where a market was in full swing. It was the start of my trip to the country to discover Vietnamese art.

Vendors, wearing traditional conical hats and crouched or seated cross-legged on the ground, were surrounded by produce ranging from papaya and jackfruit to duck eggs and live chickens, fastened together by their claws and squawking with indignation. Across the street, on the shores of the Hoan Kiem, the largest of the city’s 20 lakes, people, young and old, were doing t’ai chi. Hanoi may be a French city superficially, but it is completely Asian.

The City of Hanoi

Surprisingly intact after the Vietnam-American War, Hanoi was created during the years of the French protectorate (1885-1954), with wide tree-lined boulevards and gracious belle époque villas that look as though they have been lifted straight out of Paris or Nice. It became known as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and the ‘Paris of Asia’ as architects, including Gustave Eiffel who, after shocking Parisians with his tower, decamped to Indochina, planned elegant offices and villas with yellow stucco, wrought iron balconies and green louvred shutters, around the Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old City. Although some are collapsing from neglect or under threat from developers, others have been magnificently restored.

The Hanoi Opera House

One of the finest, the Opera House, dates from 1911, a replica of French architect Charles Garnier’s 19th-century Paris Opéra. Theatres became the centre of urban life in France in the 19th century, grand places to see and be seen, with elaborate gilt and stucco interiors, frescoed ceilings and marble staircases. Hanoi’s Opera, at the axis of the city’s main boulevards like its French counterpart, embodied the architectural development of a whole era, a monument to France’s colonial ambitions.

When it succumbed to faded grandeur, France funded the restoration in 1997 and the façade gleams with ornate yellow balconies, corinthian columns, shutters and tiled friezes, all part of the design by François Lagisquet in Garnier’s spirit, with details picked out in brilliant white. It adheres to the Palladian concept of mathematical balance with five main entrances at ground level, a grand balcony on the principal floor, the piano nobile, with five long windows, and pavilions with architraves harmoniously placed on either side, a neo-classical masterpiece. Inside, its proscenium stage lit by chandeliers has been graced by singers, dancers and musicians from the all over the world.

The first time I ventured in, in 1992, its then dilapidated stage was occupied by a Vietnamese pop group, with long hair and jeans, belting out their songs. This year the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet is showing Giselle, danced by exquisite Vietnamese ballerinas whose diaphanous silk costumes prompted me to head off in search of Vietnamese silk the next day.

Silk Street in the Old City

Silk Street is at the heart of Hanoi’s Old City of 36 Streets, a vibrant warren of alleys dating back 2,000 years, long before the French arrived, one of the oldest, continuously inhabited areas of Vietnam. Each street is named after the trade and produce sold there, from flowers to furniture, from coffee to coffins. The symbolism of  ‘36’ is debated, but could have been 36 guilds, as the Old City originated when villagers came from the countryside to sell their wares, especially crafts, and stayed in groups to trade.

Gradually homes evolved from market stalls, built with narrow frontage since the width of the façade was taxed, and proper shops were established. In Silk Street – officially Hang Gai Street – boutiques such as Khai Silk and Lê Minh Silks are crammed with bolts of shimmering shantung silk and crêpe de chine, which are piled high. Autographed pictures of their most famous customer, Catherine Deneuve, who visited in 1993 while making the film Indochine, stared out amid shelves of pyjamas, dressing gowns, shirts, elegant ao dais, the traditional Vietnamese costume with trousers, and even sleeping bags in the softest ivory silk. I bought scarves in vivid colours and a chic mandarin-style tunic, the height of fashion when I got home.

Halong Bay

Indochine also immortalised Halong Bay, a place of transcendent natural wonder, a day trip from Hanoi. Here 3,000 steep limestone outcrops rise sheer from the translucent blue water. Frequently swathed in mists, for the weather in north Vietnam is like ours, overcast and grey, and conversation, like ours, revolves around it, this bay has an ethereal atmosphere.

We rowed silently in a small boat around the outcrops, covered with twisted vegetation, and into echoing caves and rocky islets, re-emerging into mists where passing junks with their distinctive sails appeared and then vanished like ghosts. An important area of biodiversity, the Bay has 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic faunal species. Ha Long means ‘descending dragon,’ a reference to Chinese mythology, borne of its proximity to China.

The long, thin geographical form of Vietnam, reminiscent of the mythical dragon of legend, is referred to as Land of the Ascending Dragon. Extolled by poets and painters and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, Halong Bay was where the French first arrived in 1872, altering the course of history. But when I asked Thu, my guide, about the recent past, she said emphatically: ‘It is just that: the past. I was born after the war ended. Now we are all making our future’.

That future appears to be booming as Vietnam’s cities have once more become centres of art and the height of chic and the awareness of Vietnamese art has its role to play in spreading the word. Although much of the country is rural, with lush green rice paddies, evocatively named rivers such as the Perfume and the Red, with the drama of the vast Mekong, all shaped by a 1,650 kilometre coastline of white sand beaches, it is urban art galleries, fashion boutiques and restaurants opening in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) that are transforming the country in the 21st century.

A Visit to Danang

But it is steeped in ancient history and a visit to Danang, while travelling south to Ho Chi Minh City, enriches visitors’ understanding as the ruins of the Hinduised kingdoms of Champa reveal the legacy of such a rich artistic civilisation. During the kingdom’s apogee, from the 5 to 15th centuries, the Chams built temples of brick, dedicated to the god Shiva, adorned with finely carved decorative sandstone lintels, architraves, pillars and sculptures, with a variety of motifs and script based on ancient Sanskrit.

At My Son, close to Danang, at the foot of the verdant Hon Quap mountains which were considered sacred, temples were composed of a sanctuary, with the sikhara, a series of four storeys one above the other, surrounded by smaller towers and encircled by a wall. The style emulated the Indian prototype of the temple-mountain representing the sacred Mount Meru of Hindu cosmology, abode of the gods, and surrounded by moats, the cosmic ocean, and stupas for the gods at the cardinal points.

The temples were probably funerary monuments, like those of Angkor, dedicated to kings identified with divinities, of whom Shiva was regarded as the origin of the kingdom of Champa. Tragically, during the Vietnam War the area was a Vietcong field headquarters and a free fire zone for American B 52 bombers, and many of My Son’s 70 architectural monuments were destroyed. Today only 20 remain.

However, during the French protectorate, thanks to the vision of Henri Parmentier (1871-1945), a French archaeologist and scholar of the art of Indochina, the Cham Museum was created in Danang to display Vietnamese art. In 1919 the elegant, one-storey, pale yellow building, based on a Cham design, with open-sided, colonnaded galleries around a garden of frangipani trees, situated on a hill overlooking the Han river, was inaugurated.

Danang Museum – Cham Sculpture

After it was enlarged in 1936 the collection grew and now contains more than 300 pieces, namely sculptures, altars, icons and ornamental bas-reliefs, ranging from the 7th-15th centuries, exhibited in accordance with the three principal sites after which the various styles of sculpture are named. Among my favourite is the 10th-century sandstone haut-relief from an alter in Tra Kieu of two divinities, on magnificent horses, brandishing polo sticks, alive with animation and energy.

Polo was even played during the Tang dynasty (618-907), by men and women, a sport brought possibly from central Asia. Here, the minutely carved details are intriguing, especially the stirrups and bridles. This collection of Cham art, the most important in the world, reveals an outstanding but almost forgotten culture. To mark the museum’s centenary in 2019 it has been superbly renovated and a new book, Vibrancy in Stone, by Director Vo Van Thang and SOAS scholar Peter Sharrock, a definitive study of the collection, is being published early next year.

The contrast with Ho Chi Minh City could not be greater as one leaves the contemplative for the chaotic, with the swirling traffic and boundless energy of its 8.5 million inhabitants. Weaving among the honking cars are motor scooters bearing slender women in white opera gloves and flowing silk trousers, two apiece. Wiry men pressed against motor bike handlebars carry huge potted kumquat trees roped to the pillion.

Whole families astride single machines wave cheerfully as they breeze down Dong Khoi street, formerly Rue Catinat, the setting for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Today Dong Khoi is a shopper’s paradise with commercial art galleries and boutiques which effortlessly blend French style with Asian exoticism.

Fine Arts Museum, Danang

But to experience the true Asian soul, and to learn about Vietnamese art, I headed for the Fine Arts Museum, the Bao Tang My Thuat, opened in 1991. A quiet haven close to the hectic Benh Thanh market and the city’s busiest traffic roundabout, it is housed in a four-storey restored yellow-painted French colonial 1920s mansion, incorporating Art Deco features and built around a courtyard.

A second graceful colonial building alongside it has recently been restored to house more pieces. An original wrought iron cage lift bears art-lovers up through an ornate staircase to three floors of exhibits including Vietnamese painters, from the evocative early lacquer and silk work of Le Pho (1907-2001) to the Impressionistic style of Bui Xuan Phai (1920-1988) dubbed the country’s Van Gogh, influenced by his French teachers at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Hanoi yet uniquely Vietnamese, to war artists of the American-Vietnam War.

Other Museums of Vietnamese Art

The most comprehensive collection of any museum in the country – and there are more in London’s British Museum – these are a tribute to the many artists who became soldiers and soldiers who became artists, patriots who fought for their country, including Thai Ha, Nguyen Khai, and Pham Do Dong. Just to see the tiny battered paint box with brushes and charcoal pencils that they would carry in a bag with their rice provisions is moving.

Nearby is the Revolutionary Museum, another French neo-classical building dating from 1886, which documents the country’s struggles up to 1975. But it was closed during my visit, with a hand-written sign at the gate: ‘Allowed the Ministry of Culture and Information the Vietnamese Revolution Museum has no operation for correcting the displaying system. Please by sympathised!’ Currently there are some 120 museums in Vietnam containing about 4 million artefacts of Vietnamese art.

But the work of more modest artists displayed in the markets and on street corners is captivating. There are lots of decorative works on sale, including a favourite motif in Vietnam – dragons. I bought pretty hand-painted postcards of rickshaws and farmers and children on waterbuffalo, on mulberry paper, subjects typical of the countryside, and wrote them over a café creme at the charming Paris Deli nearby before heading to La Poste.

The Colonial Post Office

The colonial Post Office, designed by Auguste-Henri Vildieu and Gustave Eiffel in 1891, is one of the city’s main tourist attractions. Reminiscent in style of the great railway stations of France, such as the Gare d’Orsay which became the Musée d’Orsay, the distinguished structure, all white cornices and arched windows with green shutters, has a spectacular vaulted interior made possible by the revolutionary use of iron. Even the old signs for timbres postes are still there, but presided over by a large portrait of Uncle Ho.

Notre Dame Cathedral

The feeling of déja vue continued at nearby Notre Dame Cathedral, a neo- Gothic church with two bell towers, built by Jules Bourard in 1880. Its red bricks came from Toulouse, the rose red city, the tiles from Marseilles and the statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception from Rome. Stained glass from Chartres once adorned the façade’s circular window.

Restoration is underway, to include the six bronze bells in the two towers that have rung out for almost 135 years. Nowadays modern brides in Western-style white gowns do not wait for the bells, but swoop by on motor scooters, seated side saddle, to have their photos taken in front of the cathedral. Like Saigon’s own Opera House nearby, the cathedral is a place to see and be seen, to take a pre-nuptial bridal photo to show off at the actual event which will be later on – another Vietnamese twist to Western traditions. The blushing bride showing her wedding dress only as she walks down the aisle has been superceded by a provocative advertising trailer, to the delight of parties of tourists and groups of schoolchildren who all gather to watch an advance celebration.

Celebration is part of the atmosphere here in the 21st century, as ancient ruins are restored and new artists emerge. Impressions of a beguiling fusion of West and East, of French and Vietnamese, of old and new Vietnamese art, are being reinforced and reinvented by the creative spirit of Vietnam’s people who are making their future with a soul that is absolutely Asian.


Vibrancy in Stone: Masterpieces of the Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture by Vo Van Thang and Peter Sharrock, River Books, Bangkok,, March 2018