Research on the historical background of the mansion gave it some substance. It was built by Mr Hui Bon Hoa, who was the richest businessman in Saigon in the early 20th century. It is an impressive building with many distinctive features which are apparent as soon as the visitor enters through the large entry doors enhanced by mirrored windows and with the initials of Mr Hoa over them. There are wrought iron balustrades on the marble staircases, large windows incorporating stained glass and the distinctive blue glazed pillars and decorative art nouveau balconies evoke the elegance of this era. Mr Hoa, built the mansion for his son and the two of them would stand on an upper level balcony watching their merchandise arrive along the river. As the boat reached the City wharf it was off-loaded, and brought into their warehouses for distribution.
His daughter is rumored to be the resident ghost who has been seen drifting along the upper levels of the grand halls along the beautifully tiled floors where she was locked in a room as punishment for defying her father in the matter of her marriage. Her mental health was alleged to be delicate but whether that was prior to her punishment or afterwards is not known.
The museum is on three levels and the collection incorporates sculptures, oils, silk and lacquer painting. The artworks illustrate the evolution of Vietnamese artists through the turmoil and struggle of the last 100 years. There is a wonderful collection of original Combat Art which has been cultivated by one enthusiastic curator. Sketches of very young soldiers depicting their daily life were accomplished using very basic materials fashioned from whatever materials the artist could find in the surrounding landscape. Brushes made from twigs, lumps of brightly colored stone, which were crushed for pigment and mixed with gum oil and cooking fat. These portraits were commissioned to honor heroic deeds and were a powerful morale booster.
In another room there are original Propaganda Posters depicting emasculated Americans and the U.S. President, Lyndon Johnson, sporting a very large nose as his cartoon character rages and falls victim to the superior forces he is opposed to.
There are some fine pieces of artwork in the collection but it is very difficult to interpret what you are seeing as there is little information available about the artists and their work and the climate in which the art was made. One way around this is to join a knowledgeable tour group and Sophie’s Art Tour www.sophiesarttour.com is a great way to find out about Vietnam’s leading artists of the last 50 years.
HCMC Fine Arts Museum, 97A Pho Duc Chinh Street, District 1, HCMC.
Open: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Entrance fee: VND100,000