Through the centuries, Vietnam has received strong cultural influences from its neighbours, China and Cambodia, as well as from the Chams who still inhabit the coast near Phan Thiet. Because of its location in the south of the country, Saigon was more strongly influenced by Khmer (Cambodian) and Cham culture, although these days Vietnamese culture has evolved as a distinctive and impressive expression of the country’s character.
As well as being influenced by its neighbours, during the 20th century, the country fell under the sway of the French, the Americans and the Russians as its political path led it down the road to communism. Interestingly, little remains of the French and American influence apart from a taste for coffee, baguettes and burgers.
And so the Soviet school of art became the only medium of expression for Vietnamese artists during half a century. Saigon’s museums are full of such ‘inspirational’ art, urging the people to fight and make any sacrifice necessary for their country.
Fortunately, since Vietnam attained independence, this patriotic approach has been unnecessary, and modern artists are free to explore new avenues of expression. For an overview of Vietnam’s art history, a visit to the Fine Arts Museum is very instructive, especially the ground floor which hosts temporary exhibitions by up-and-coming artists.
If you’re in the market to buy a painting or sculpture, there are a few small galleries in the basement of the Fine Arts Museum, and others along Dong Khoi. Many artists make a living from painting reproductions of famous paintings, and these are on display around the city, particularly along Bui Ven in the budget district.
Traditional Vietnamese music employs some very unusual instruments, of which the dong bau is perhaps the best known. This single-stringed instrument has a fantastic range of notes and often sounds like a human voice. Many of the city’s top restaurants, such as Vietnam House and Lemongrass, employ traditional musicians to serenade diners, so it is easy to take in a performance while in the city.
If you’re looking for more of a show, featuring traditional dancing and singing as well as musicians, book an evening at the Binh Quoi tourist village, where you will be entertained while enjoying a traditional Vietnamese meal.