Expat Artists in Vietnam

Blogs - Vietnam: Jan. 19, 2018


“I never wanted to be an artist,” de Grado, 44, said in his art studio in District 2. High ceilings, walls decked with paintings, an abundance of natural light and miniature easels to suit his young students all belie how de Grado now spends his days.

artistsImage source: oivietnam.com

Originally an industrial engineer in Madrid, de Grado moved to London to attend graduate school and later moved to Vietnam to work in VinGallery, where he stayed for two years. Three years ago, de Grado set off on his own, opening his studio where he works on his paintings and teaches children and adults.

Not Here

Never one to self-market, de Grado is adamant that his main role in Saigon is that of a teacher, not a professional artist. Although he does work on his own projects, which he occasionally exhibits abroad and will hang for sale in his studio. Vietnam’s tepid art market has made substantial sales all but impossible.

artistsImage source: ignaciodegrado.com

“People get used to this place when they arrive. In a Western country, if I tell you a painting is US$3,000, you would probably believe me. But here, the problem is that even foreigners after some time get used to the cheap prices,” he said. “I have had some incredible offers here… like, almost close to the cost of the materials I have in the painting.”

In the five years de Grado has lived in Saigon, he asserts that he hasn’t seen any change in the art market, even as the economy has been growing steadily. One reason might be the priorities of the emerging middle class.

“The Vietnamese, they don’t have such an interest in art,” he said. “Probably they would choose to spend that money on good furniture, or on a good floor, instead of a painting.” He considers a moment.

“There’s probably a percentage of wealthy people that buy art, but they probably buy it as an investment. The real art market is probably in Singapore, Hong Kong, Jakarta, maybe Kuala Lumpur. But not here.”

And the tourist market? He just shakes his head. As soon as he displays his latest paintings, large canvases that would require complicated shipping to get them home, it’s clear they’re not meant to be simple souvenirs.

The Progress of Time

As he flips through a series of large canvases some 1.5 metres tall, these are statement pieces, not whimsical city scenes or bike riders clad in áo dái and nón lá to hang in the bathroom. Each painting follows a theme: close-up, almost abstract portions of wall, textured by peeling paint and worn down by Saigon’s tempestuous weather cycles.

artistsImage source: ignaciodegrado.com

These are paintings de Grado could never have produced in Madrid, where a wall is painted every two to three years. It’s Saigon’s grittiness, not its more picturesque sites, that draws the artist in. “What attracts me in these kinds of walls is not Vietnamese culture,” he said. “It’s how does it happen, it’s looking at the process.”


Ignacio’s story began with the financial crisis; Bridget March’s begins with a red lacquer tray.

As she gives a talk about her adventures in Vietnam to an audience in Co-Space in District 2, she puts up a projected image of a simply furnished room’s interior, a small red lacquer tray sitting atop a wooden table in the middle of the room. March was captivated by the image when she was in her neighbour’s house, taken after the funeral of her local mì quảng vendor in Hoi An. She recalls ushering the vendor’s daughter into her gallery to show her the painting, and the woman’s shock and awe, exclaiming that her house was now famous. The official name of the painting became Red Lacquer Tray: After He Was Gone.

artistsImage source: ngaymoisaigon.com

The painting marks a shift in March’s approach to painting in Vietnam. She’s trading the picturesque for the provincial, in the vein of John Constable and the Impressionists.

“I want people to see the beauty in a gate post,” she said.

Listening to Opportunity

March laments that at 24, an opportunity could have knocked her on the head and she wouldn’t have recognised it. As she grew older, she became attuned to the signals, the whispers behind the ear.

A product designer for 20 years, March became a senior art lecturer at Leeds College of Art for nine years but couldn’t make the jump from lecturer to penniless artist. Only after visiting a friend in Saigon did she hear the knocks at the door of opportunity: after a night of drinking. Her friend asked why she didn’t just move to Vietnam to do her art here. March said, “Yes, I’ll do that!”

artistsImage source: static.wixstatic.com

The next five years were a series of adventures, including a short stay in Sapa painting in a hotel run by a man who single-handedly spurred the education of 160 ethnic minority children; exploring Ha Long Bay with a tour company to create interactive treasure maps for guests; and rescuing her gallery paintings via longboat through the flooded streets of Hoi An, delivering them to the nearest 5-star hotel for safe keeping.

Despite her travels, March still considers Saigon the most productive and energising city in Vietnam.

“It’s a very stimulating environment; I find the energy here really good. I opened [March Gallery] in Hoi An six months ago, and now I go back to Saigon every month for a sanity check.”

Different Strokes

As March travelled Vietnam, she discovered the country through her paintbrush. For each region, she used different materials to produce different aesthetics, each catering to the feeling, the soul of each region and city. “I want a viewer to look at a building they’ve never seen, and be able to tell if it’s in Hanoi, Hoi An or Saigon. And I think I can do that,” March said.

artistsImage source: static.wixstatic.com

For Hoi An, only bright, cheery watercolours would do; for Sapa, a mountainous region—“It’s all green and grey and hard”—she made sure to apply the right amount of pen ink to capture the grit; and for Saigon? “Watercolour doesn’t suit Saigon terribly well,” March said. “I use pencil and watercolour, and for whatever scene I do, I have ghost riders going across the bottom of the painting. So, all the motorbikes and the pedestrians and trucks and buses are transparent, and move through the space.” What would the city be without its chaos?

March said the majority of her sales come from tourists looking for something unique to take home, though occasionally she’ll cater to expats from Hanoi and Saigon as well. Vietnamese? “Not yet,” March said. “Maybe the odd wealthy Vietnamese family who has a vacation home in Hoi An.”

Banner Image source: bridgetmarch.co.uk