Boasting an elegant colonial-era yellow-and-white design, the building was first established by the French architect Rivera in 1929. It was first constructed as the Saigon headquarters of the Societe Immobiliere Hui Bon Hoa, owned by the Chinese-born businessman affectionately known as Uncle Hoa.
Located near the Ben Thanh Market, it served as the family’s residence and place of business. The building’s greatest appeal comes from its cross-cultural inheritance of both Chinese and French structural elements. It exemplifies the French colonial design, moulding elements of Art Deco with local decorative motifs and spatial principles.
After the fall of Saigon to northern Viet Minh forces in 1975, Vietnam was unified as a communist nation and little is known about what happened to the family. It is rumoured that the ghost of Hoa’s daughter haunts the building, an urban myth that inspired the subject of a 1973 film, Con Ma Nha Ho Hua (The Ghost of the Hua House).
In 1987, the building was established as an art museum by the Ho Chi Minh City’s People Committee in an effort to revive the building’s significance. It was considered a vital cultural necessity for the city that served as Vietnam’s economic centre, responding to the needs of the community by serving as a place to engage with regional and national art history.
As you enter the building, a grand marble staircase leads you to the first floor – the domestic and international art display. The first thing you may notice upon entering is an ancient lift, Saigon’s oldest. I thought it was out of use, its only purpose being of historic and decorative value. However, as I exited the building at the end of my visit an old man, who looked as decrepit as the lift itself, rolled out in a wheelchair.
Beautiful ceramic tiles in blue, grey and mahogany spread in a continuous and repetitive pattern across the floor. French doors opened up to the chaotic city outside – creating a stark contrast between the traffic, pollution and construction sites outside and the beautiful interior. These doors also contain stained glass windows with floral decoration.
The first room contained a number of paintings from the Vietnamese war, an ongoing motif throughout the museum. Some promoted peace for the country, others documented the suffering of the people and others displayed soldiers at war.
Some of my personal favourites were The Battlefield by Mat Tron Sau Nam (2000), Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way by Le Thanh Tru (1999) and Chau Yen People by Ngo Minh Cau (1982).
As you walk around the museum the ceramics differ slightly. The blue, grey and mahogany floor soon turned to blue with peach and then later to red, grey and yellow. A number of sketches documenting army cooks, army runners, air defence teams and surgery teams filled the walls of an entire corridor.
A huge-scale painting named Central, South and North Spring Garden by Nguyen Gia Tri (1969-1989) took up the space of an entire wall in a room further along. In 2013 it was recognised as a precious national object. Its importance is instantly recognisable by its monumental scale and, despite the not-so-busy atmosphere of the museum, the small crowds that gathered around the painting. It was like the Mona Lisa of Saigon.
The framework, wood with intricately carved detailing, is as impressive as the artwork itself. The lacquer-on-wood piece is made predominantly in pink and red tones in a sort of dot work. The themes are immediately obvious; women, landscapes and the relationships between them. It reminded me of a Vietnamese version of Rococo – women frollocking around outdoors in a frivolous dance-like frenzy.
Further on, in the modern arts section, although paintings of women were common, war themes still dominated the zone. Some of my favourites included Truong Son Mountain Road by Neo Buong Truang (2000) and The Poor Life by Nhung Manh Don Bat Hanh (1998). In the modern arts section the pieces were more decorative such as Thunderstorm by Nguyen Khong (1965) and Ha Long Bay by Uvan An (1969).
On the second floor, paintings and sculptures of both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese artists are stored. Mainly the works of leading Vietnamese artists of the past 50 years such as Trinh Cung, Do Quang Em, Diep Minh Chau and Nguyen Gia Tri. On the third floor, a collection of historic arts ranging from the 7th century to the early 20th century can be found. It features Champa and earlier civilisations such as Oc Eo archaeological site in Mekong Delta.
In essence, Saigon’s Fine Arts Museum is a must see for all art enthusiasts – with its longstanding history and multi-cultural eclecticism there no surprise in how this museum came to be one of the Cities main attractions.