Launched in Ho Chi Minh City in 2011, Sophie’s Art Tour offers a different tourist experience to the typical city tours in which visitors attempt to piece together Vietnamese history through the narrow selection of historic buildings and museums. Instead, Sophie Hughes chose to create a product that, according to the website, “looks at Vietnam’s fascinating history through the works and lives of its artists.”

Unlike Hanoi, Hoi An and Hue, Ho Chi Minh City is not known for the arts, nor is it as rich in cultural attractions. The city’s lacklustre attitude towards heritage preservation, demonstrated by the levelling of many historic buildings in favor of high-rise apartment blocks and office buildings, has only cemented the city’s reputation for prizing commerce over culture.

The Ho Chi Minh City of today may be unrecognizable from the Saigon of last century, but this resilient city is significant in a historical context and remains a tourist hotspot. The city’s historical importance is communicated in Sophie’s Art Tour, which has become popular with the discerning traveler in search of a deeper tourist experience.

The half-day tours have an adaptable structure that takes visitors to museums, private collections, and contemporary art spaces. Flexibility allows for tours to take advantage of guest speakers and temporary exhibitions, ensuring that each tour is fresh and unique.

“On the tour we offer an opportunity to engage with Vietnam on lots of levels and I think people have really valued that,” says Sophie, who still runs the Ho Chi Minh City tours with her partner, Stuart Palmer. “I think when we started, a lot of people thought the tour was only about art but it is about Vietnamese history, culture and so much more.”

“As more people heard about this, we have started to take on a much wider range of folk, many of which openly admit at the beginning that art is not their thing and then by the end say that it has offered them a whole new way of looking at history.”

“I think when we started, a lot of people thought the tour was only about art but it is about Vietnamese history, culture and so much more.”

With a humble but informative website, limited social media activity, and virtually no paid advertisements, Sophie’s Art Tour also reflects the value of a product built on a strong reputation and positive customer referrals.

With a humble but informative website, limited social media activity, and virtually no paid advertisements, Sophie’s Art Tour also reflects the value of a product built on a strong reputation and positive customer referrals.

“People hear about us through many different channels,” explains Sophie. “I always think that word of mouth is the strongest channel but we have also been listed in most of the guidebooks, online websites and blogs and featured in international press.”

Last October, Sophie’s Art Tour expanded with a new tour opening in Hanoi and run by Fabiola Buchele and Bill Nguyen. Although there is some overlap, the two tours have been carefully designed to complement one another while capitalizing on the different yet interconnected histories of Vietnam’s two largest cities.

Sophie’s Art Tour has become popular with the discerning traveler
in search of a deeper tourist experience. 
(Photo credit: Sophie’s Art Tour)

“We are starting to get more and more people doing both tours,” explains Fabiola. “As there is a lot of information to digest, people who do go on both tours often appreciate getting a revision of the parts they already heard but accompanied by different images.”

“The feedback has been overwhelmingly gracious and positive. The most incredible thing is that even though the tours are four hours and we cover a lot of information, most tour goers hang back afterwards to ask more questions.”

Sophie’s Art Tour’s success demonstrates that there is an interest in Vietnamese art and history for a sizeable number of visitors to Vietnam. The country’s vibrant art history is still mostly untapped by the tourism industry and the concept of understanding history through art is inspired, even in a global context.

“We have plans to expand further and have already begun making connections in various other cities around the world because we can genuinely see the value of art as a tool to bring the history of a country alive.” Sophie asserts.