Down The Back Alley: 3 Places to Find Contemporary Art in Saigon

The search for contemporary art

When you tell people you are going to Ho Chi Minh City, what you hear about most is shopping, shopping, shopping. And it is true that it is a great place to shop. You can get supposedly “legit” North Face gear for a fraction of the price, fake Nikes that can pass for real ones, and a wide variety of other goodies, for very cheap. But I went there in search of something different. I was looking for contemporary Vietnamese art.

I started my trip to Vietnam in Hanoi, and I began searching for museums or galleries exhibiting art by modern Vietnamese artists. But up north, I kept finding history museums. And what they call the “fine art museum” in Hanoi is really more like an anthropology museum. While these things also interest me, I knew that somewhere, there must be modern Vietnamese people making art about being Vietnamese today. I just needed to find it.

Why did I care so much?

I needed to find it because, while I love sightseeing and learning about the history of the places I visit, I also like to learn about how that history has influenced the culture of today. Looking at the subject matter people are exploring creatively, is incredibly telling about the paradigm of a place. It is where you get to learn about some of the unspoken things. The things that are not in the history museums or the tourist destinations. The undercurrents of modern society.

So I searched and searched, and though I am still convinced it exists somewhere in Hanoi, I was unable to find it. BUT I did keep finding things in Saigon that excited me. I had not originally planned to go there, but one specific art show drew me. A show called Fading Memories by an artist (ironically based out of Hanoi),  named Nguyen Minh Namâs. The exhibit was at a place called Craig Thomas Gallery.

1. Craig Thomas Gallery

Craig Thomas Gallery hides down a back alley in a part of town that lies “off the map” they give you at your hostel. It is tucked in a garden, and partially obscured by vines, but it is so worth finding. I went there for Fading Memories, but I got more than an art show. I also found a gallery that is well curated and constantly changing their content. They were even hanging a new show when I got there. You can find information about their latest exhibits here.

I was so excited about this show in particular, because it explores the roles of women in Vietnamese society, as they move from old traditions and roles into the modern world. In the gallery’s words Fading Memories,

Is a further stanza in Nguyen Minh Namâ’s on-going paean to the inevitable losses suffered by traditional Vietnamese culture in the country’s headlong rush into the modern world. While there is clearly regret at the fading of culture-defining traditions, Namâ’s paintings also portray an intriguing future-present where a new class of liberated women are freed from antiquated notions of their chastity and roles as mere appendages of men.

His paintings are two fold. They depict the modern and the ancient at the same time. He paints ancestral figures in black and white, and the modern figures in color. The black and white figures appear in the background. We see both their fading relevance, and the fact that they are in a way, holding up the young people, and supporting them from the shadows, as they create the future. I found his painting to be both dynamic to look at, and quite poignant. There is a deep melancholy and respect for the old, married with an excitement for the new. Especially for the liberation of women. One of my favorite paintings from the show is the one below.

Always Together Craig Thomas Gallery

Always Together

The gallery owner, Craig himself is a very nice man. He not only welcomed me into his space, but he also gave me some prints of the work because he could tell I loved it so much. I highly recommend going here! He also pointed me in the direction of another interesting gallery called Galerie Quynh.

2. Galerie Quynh

This gallery also lies down a back alley, and up a winding flight of stairs. But this one is located in the fancy part of town, next to all the designer shops and higher end tourist treats. The exhibit they were having is called Hopscotch. It is,

A duo exhibition featuring new paintings by emerging artists Do Than Lang and Hoan Nam Viet. Belonging to the generation of young Vietnamese born at the turn of Doi Moi and coming of age into a brave new open market economy… the two bodies of work are markedly different from each other, and yet complementary in their shared themes of freedom and transgression.

Do Than Lang’s paintings are bright and flashy. On the surface they seem to be almost children’s style. But, when one looks closer, there are undertones of violence, bondage, and people fighting to free themselves. I found them to be extremely unsettling and fun at the same time. 

Do Than Lang at Galerie Quynh

Untitled By Do Than Lang

Hoan Nam Viet’s paintings on the other hand, are somber and intimate. He paints earth tone portraits of those close to him. On the surface they look like just that, but when you look closer, they also contain a feeling of unrest and yearning. One of my favorites is the one below which is titled “The Porcelain Vase With Blue Flowers.” At first it seems to be a simple image of a sleeping girl, but once you focus your attention on the vase in the title, you notice that she is pulling it off the table to let it smash on the floor.

The Porcelain Vase With Blue Flowers by Hoan Nam Viet

The Porcelain Vase With Blue Flowers

I really liked this exhibit, and highly recommend checking out Galerie Quynh. You can find out about their upcoming exhibits here

3. Mayhem Saigon

This one is not an art gallery, but it is so well curated it might as well be. Shoved at the end of a market alley (there seems to be a location theme here,) lies what may be the only thrift shop in Vietnam. In the land where cheap clothes are manufactured, second hand shops seem almost ludicrous. But this store is so much more than a second hand shop. It elevates thrifting to an art form.

Mayhem Saigon Sign

I found their own description of themselves in an article from 2013. This in itself was enough to make me want to go there:

No, we don’t simply sell clothes in here. We are a cartel, a small squad who just come to deliver what your soul really needs. We got the crack to get you fly as hell walking the streets of Saigon. They call us hipsters, misfits, weirdos, fashion freak… What do they mean anyway? We got the DeLorean to take you where true party is. Mayhem Saigon is where you can find the missing piece of puzzle of your closet.

We supply used clothing (and sometimes vintage) from mostly Japan and bit of everywhere else. What you are getting are some unique, original clothes that no one else could match, not the fake China epidemic spreading everywhere in town.

Welcome to the Force.

Each rack is organised not only by clothing item, but also by color, shape and size. Walking in there is like walking into a fashion museum. I was breathless and felt as though I could have spent the rest of my life there; simply searching through racks, serenaded by the swish of fabric, and their melancholy indie playlist.

Clothes at Mayhem Saigon

Mayhem Saigon

The only downside if you are what is politely called “western sized,” is that Asian sizes tend to run small. So if you have a little extra in the hip or boob area, many of the things may not fit you. Still I managed to find some fantastic things that did. If I ever make it back to Saigon, this will be at the top of the “repeat stops list.” You can check out their facebook page here.

Shopping is fun. And going to the big tourist markets is definitely part of the Vietnam experience. Learning about traditional Vietnamese culture is interesting, beautiful, and inspiring, but there is so much more to Vietnam. They also have an extremely rich and fast developing modern culture, that I barely started to get a taste of in these places. It is a world of excitement and struggle, a bit of melancholy, and some great aesthetic flare. I’m certainly going to keep searching for more of it. And you can find it too. You just need to venture down some back alleys first.

Want to know more about Vietnam? Have a look at some of my other writing about it:

Why Everyone Should Go to Sapa Vietnam
My First Solo Travel Adventure : A Study on Bravery

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