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City Pass Guide




IN Ho Chi Minh City 🇻🇳 Since 2008



The art scene in Ho Chi Minh City has evolved greatly over the last ten years, from only commercial galleries, copying Western artworks, to real representatives of the contemporary Vietnamese creation, with curators, private spaces, and regularly organised exhibitions, in an attempt to reach the public while also managing to create overseas binds which will also benefit the artists.

The Vietnamese art scene initially lacked regular programs, exhibitions, art events and talks, residency programs, research, and network building. Vietnamese people didn’t really take stock in art production throughout the country for quite some time, as they had other matters to deal with, especially thriving after the war.

Galleries now play an active role in promoting the development of a vibrant domestic art scene in Vietnam through ongoing efforts to support talented young Vietnamese artists and via hosting regular exhibitions. This new interest is also about making a difference in the local art scene by expanding activities beyond gallery exhibitions and also encouraging the flow of information in and out of the country (more and more artists have the opportunity to exhibit their works abroad, mainly in Singapore, Hong Kong, and the United States, thanks to sponsorships and exchange programs).


In the mid-2000s, there was a high level of traffic in and out of the country, but little information was reaching a majority of the artists living in the city. Now, talks and gatherings work to bring the community together in a context of artistic challenge and engagement, from both artists and the public (all of which is still in need of further development).


The main actors have managed to develop stronger relationships with artists, curators, and mid-career Vietnamese artists to provide them with a platform to present their work to a wider audience. They also intend to show and explain the role of visual art and creative practices in contemporary life, through platforms (San Art can be considered the leader of this medium) for the development of visual art and creative practices through a range of art-related activities that are much needed in the context of Vietnam.


To name a few, the most active and recognized, we advise art amateurs to visit Galerie Quynh, San Art, Craig Thomas Gallery, Zen Collection, Saigon Outcast, Decibel, the Fine Arts Museum, or even small exhibitions happening in well-known local restaurants. The aforementioned are the main centers in which art is initially set, allowing the public to easily appreciate past and present creations, whilst also discovering its evolution in Ho Chi Minh City. adv



Severely affected by dioxin contamination, Le Minh Chau has never been able to stand upright, walk on his own two feet or lift his arms above his head.


As an artist who reached international success thanks to the Oscar-nominated short documentary about his life, Chau, Beyond the Lines (2015), Chau’s oil-based, realistic artwork, painted entirely holding a paintbrush in his mouth, represents much more than just a way to make money. For Chau, it was a way to independence.


Bordering on Obsession

Sitting in his small studio in District 2, Chau told #iAMHCMC through a translator that he became interested in art when he was nine. Living in Tu Du Peace Village in District 1 with other dioxin-affected children since he was six months old, Courtney Marsh, the director of Chau, Beyond the Lines, told us by telephone that the nurses at the facility meant well, and thought they were doing Chau a service by telling him to be realistic.


“The nurses thought, ‘Being an artist is hard enough,’” Marsh said. “‘You need to stop daydreaming.’”


But what marked Chau, above all, was his determination, which at times bordered on obsession.


The ultimate goal of Tu Du Peace Village was to enable the children to graduate and attend a vocational school, most often with a career in computers in mind.


Instead, Chau continued to enter an annual children’s drawing competition put on by the War Remnants Museum centered around the theme of world peace and has come a long way since then. At 17, he left Tu Du Peace Village to return to his parents in his hometown in Dong Nai, though didn’t stay for long. “I don’t have a lot of affection for my family,” he said in his studio. “It was not until I was 11 or 12 that I met my parents.”

The Lightbulb Moment

Chau returned to Saigon, where what Marsh calls the “lightbulb moment” occurred: after seeing the fame a dioxin victim garnered after learning to paint with her feet, Chau developed his own technique, painting with his mouth, partly because it gave him more control over his technique, and partly to show up his artistic adversary.


With the help of a friend, he was hired by an interior design company to paint pictures for staged rooms. And when Marsh’s film received international recognition, Chau was able to support himself entirely based off commissions he received from around the world. “Most of my clients are from America. They heard about me from the movie,” he said.


Today, Chau says that he works around 12 hours per day, often throughout the night so he can chat with fellow artists in America as he works. (“I can type quite well in English,” he said. “But I’m not good at speaking it.”)


Though Chau enjoys his work, he’s ready for a new challenge.


“I’m moving forward to… becoming a fashion designer,” he said. “I’ll start with a collection of clothes for women. I plan to register to launch the collection at New York Fashion Week next year.” adv



On the third floor of Ga Muoi Chin, a District 2 coffee shop, sits NoirFoto, a seven-month-old photography business operated by film aficionado, photographer, and instructor Pham Tuan Ngoc.


It’s there he does much of his work, photography that’s particularly strong in portraiture, but he has also worked at weddings and even with children (sometimes his own five-year-old daughter). He not only works his private art practices but also trains other aspiring film photographers. He has trained 10 new Saigon film photographers since he opened in April.


“I believe film has a unique characteristic,” Pham said.


A master’s degree holder in e-commerce, Pham started shooting film photography in Sweden in 2006. A few years before that, the film had begun its inevitable decline in popularity with the rise of more user-friendly digital cameras and photo-ready cell phones. Pham said the slide has been marginal but consistent, a decline of about two percent each year since the early noughties.


Then, something happened.


Bringing Back the Old

Reliable sales numbers are hard to come by, but film manufacturers claim they’ve enjoyed a 5 percent growth in sales in the past few years. One film group claims a third of film photographers are under 35, and that 60 percent of users started within the past five years. This year, the Consumer Electronics show, an annual US tech showcase that is usually the place to find out about the newest televisions and video game consoles, was taken by surprise with a new product, the return of a color film from Kodak which was discontinued in 2012.


Why is anyone’s guess, but Pham might answer that it’s due to the film’s inimitable style, a way of seeing the world that’s hard to capture on an iPhone. When the elephant in the room is addressed with clients or students, how the film compares to digital photography, Pham said he doesn’t try to proselytize. Instead, he lets the work speak for itself.


“One thing I do is encourage my client to see me working in the darkroom and even take part in making their own portrait,” taking the steps to bring the image to life in the multi-step development process, Pham said.


“If I have to explain, I will say that it is different, not better or worse. They will either love or hate it,” he said.


Picture Perfect Community

Saigon is home to an active group of film photography enthusiasts, artists who hang out at Darkroom Coffee in District 3 on Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street, or Crop Lab in Phu Nhuan District on Huynh Van Banh Street. Both offer their darkroom services for photographers who need a place to take their finished roll. Pham said the film photographers he knows are working in either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.

Pham is different in that he focuses exclusively on black-and-white films. The classes he teaches are for shooting monochromatically. His client work is also done in black-and-white. There’s a freedom in the black and white film that isn’t there for color photography, specifically in the development process, Pham said. Colour photography is mostly developed by a standardized machine process. Pham and the photographers he trains personally handle everything that happens between the film leaving the camera to the freshly made wet image pinned and drying.


Pham hopes to grow his business into a resource center offering both knowledge and materials to other film photographers. The black-and-white emphasis will remain the focus of his services. “I am trying to make and keep NoirFoto the best place for [a black-and-white] photo lover,” he said. “And it will be the one-stop solution for everything [related to black and white] photography: studio, equipment, chemical, material, model, class, tutorial…”


Pham will offer another group photo class in the near future but invites anyone interested to contact him directly to arrange private, one-on-one instruction. adv