Art is everywhere in Vietnam – not only in museums and galleries, but also in hotels, restaurants and bars, in private homes and on the street. If that isn’t enough, there are hundreds of shops with canvases stacked to the ceiling waiting for buyers.
Traditionally, Vietnamese artists worked for a particular patron, who needless to say had to be wealthy, and their works were used to adorn the palaces and houses of their sponsors. Subject matter tended to be portraits of nobles and idyllic landscapes. After the arrival of the French in the 19th century, Western influences began to creep in to Vietnamese art and suddenly the scope of subject matter expanded to include everyday scenes.
During the conflicts of the 20th century, art became a political tool and the only paintings allowed were those that espoused the communist ideal of global brotherhood. This was the era of propaganda art, of which there are plenty of examples on display in the country’s major art museums.
The economic liberalisation of the 1980s was followed by a general easing of restrictions on aspects of life such as religious practice and choosing subjects of art. This has led to an explosion of experimentation in artistic expression, and the work of younger artists displays a broad range of emotions, from sadness for those lost in war to joy of living in a country free of conflicts.
Vietnamese have always been innovative with their media and make use of silk in ways unknown in other lands. When used as a canvas, it gives depth and a mystical aura to paintings, and when woven into portraits, the subject shimmers with life.
Lacquer painting is another medium in which Vietnamese artists excel. The painstaking process involves applying many layers of lacquer on wood and waiting for it to dry before applying another. The images is built up one colour at a time, and often other materials such as ash or crushed eggshells are implanted into the lacquer to create a distinctive image.
Vietnamese literature also has a long and proud history, though little is known about it by Westerners. While several Westerners have written best-sellers about the country, such as Graham Greene with The Quiet American, few Vietnamese authors have been translated into English and thus do not reach an international readership. The few Vietnamese writers whose names are familiar to Westerners are mostly now living in the USA. One example is Le Ly Hayslip, whose When Heaven and Earth Changed Places brings to life the traumas and distrust among Vietnamese villagers during the American War.
Another writer, Bao Ninh, has received widespread acclaim for his candid recollections of the stresses he experienced fighting for the Viet Cong in the American War. Such works help to balance the impression of the war that most Westerners have, derived from Hollywood movies that show a purely American perspective of the conflict.