Like many expats, I enjoy getting out and about in Ho Chi Minh City to explore lesser-known districts and their neighbourhoods. On one of these recent explorations I was wondering to myself which part of town most reflects, in terms of loss of character and number of new developments, the dizzying changes that are underfoot. Downtown Saigon probably lays claim to ‘most altered area’ but District 2’s Thảo Điền is giving it a good run for its money and comes in a close second in my view.

Along the Hanoi Highway the avenue of high-rise residential blocks and shopping malls continues to spread further out from the city. The wider area is linked with newly extended multi-lane roads, partly to help parents ferry their children to the new campuses of the international schools. A reminder – if needed – that the developers’ work impacts on all age groups. All of this before we get to the biggest and most impactful change – the impending arrival of a metro line.

As the area changes, so Thao Dien metamorphoses from a sleepy residential ‘village’ into a neighbourhood that reflects the burgeoning community around it. Eateries, cafes and watering holes pop up seemingly by the hour; new retail outlets arrive to serve necessities and frivolities; entrepreneurs with dollar-signs in their eyes lineup to offer their services.

This is all well and good, you might be thinking, but what has it got to do with the art scene in Saigon? Well, as Thao Dien develops, the community needs more than just consumerist escapism. Everyone needs an outlet for creativity. Whether it’s a place to release your artistic talents, somewhere to just let the mind wander or a quiet venue to appreciate the work of others, we surely all need time and a place to broaden our minds, no?

Thankfully, this side of Thao Dien is developing too. Some venues are long established and rightfully successful, such as the hugely popular Saigon Outcast, while others are more recent arrivals but nonetheless making an impact. The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre on Nguyen U Di, with its mission to showcase Vietnam’s hottest emerging talent as well as offering workshops and lectures, has rapidly become a shining light in Saigon’s creative scene.

Another large-scale space is Mix & Paint, a multi-room venue with a street-art vibe and varied spaces for exhibitions that is making a name for itself in the art and music community.

Smaller venues though are no less committed to adding something to the area. Grado Art Studio at River Garden on Nguyen Van Hưong has been offering art classes for sometime now, while a more recent addition is inpages, a boutique art and photo book shop housed in the same building as the ever-popular Vin Gallery on Le Van Mien. The newest space, however, is something a little different – a gallery and café with a focus on watercolours. 

ArtSpace on Xuan Thuy is a single-floor space elegantly refurbished with wooden floorboards and window shutters giving it an air of tranquillity that is rapidly disappearing from the streets outside. Opened a couple of months ago by watercolour enthusiast Ho Long, the gallery provides a platform for Vietnam’s up-and-coming artists who are moving away from the traditional sketch style of watercolours and creating contemporary, abstract pieces.

I met with Long recently and he talked me through the current exhibit of work from Ke Hung and Truong Van Ngọc. The styles of these artists complement each other beautifully, with Ke’s detailed, multi-layered pieces – full of energy and vitality – sitting alongside Truơng’s approach of combining abstract with more traditional work.

Together the pieces create a collection that encourages the viewer to re-appraise their understanding and appreciation of watercolour. As a budding artist himself, Long is a big fan of Truong’s work. “He has great technique and he manages to bring a modern style to traditional scenes”, he tells me. Of Ke’s work on display, Long says Battle of the Brave is a standout piece. “I love the details, the layers, that Ke brings to watercolours”, Long adds.

Long is a keen advocate for community involvement in art, as seen in ArtSpace’s programme of workshops and classes for young and old, Vietnamese and foreigners. “Everyone’s welcome”, says Long. “Recently we had life-drawing sessions that had a mix of westerners and Saigonese, including a group of Vietnamese ladies in their sixties!” he added with a sense of pride and mild astonishment. “It’s great that opportunities are open to locals that perhaps weren’t a few years ago”, he continues.

Looking ahead, Long talks about hosting more exhibitions for local artists, and not just of watercolours. “Watercolour is my favourite medium”, says Long, “so that’s going to be our focus here but, of course, we want to promote painting in all its forms so I’d like to see a variety of styles for visitors to appreciate, and hopefully give them a reason to return. If we can help develop people’s interest in art, whether through the gallery space or our workshops, we’re adding something both to the local community and Saigon’s art scene.”

Amongst the noise, dust and traffic congestion it’s easy to focus on the negatives of the city’s growth – and I’m as guilty of that as anyone – but we should perhaps look towards Thao Dien, and its art venues, and remind ourselves that under the towering cranes there’s so many more venues now than there were just a few years ago at where we can get our creative kicks.

Let’s support them, cherish them, use them!

Visit ArtSpace in person at 104 Xuan Thuy, Thao Dien, or online at www.facebook.com/artspace. You can also follow their Instagram feed @artspacesaigon.