Art flowers in Vietnam's new freedom

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AS HIS unit rested in a jungle camp during the Quang Tri campaign of 1972, at the height of the Vietnam war, a young North Vietnamese scout, Le Duy Ung, fashioned a statue of Ho Chi Minh out of a piece of teak. It was much admired by his comrades, and became a kind of mascot for them. Three years later, during the fall of Saigon, Le Duy Ung was one of the first Northern troops to enter the city, riding on a tank. It was hit by rocket fire and he was blinded.

Both Le Duy Ung and his sculpture survived - and tomorrow the Ho statue goes on display at the first major exhibition of Vietnamese art in the UK. Its British owner recently turned down an offer of pounds 10,000. Le Duy Ung, now 45, is working again as a sculptor after having his sight restored four years ago.

The exhibition, to 15 July, at the Royal College of Art, Kensington, features 140 works by 20 contemporary Vietnamese artists. Many have similarly extraordinary stories. Le Dai Chuc, 51, once a labourer in Haiphong, survived the American bombing of the Northern port. His paintings now sell for thousands of dollars in the US and Hong Kong. He is in Britain for the exhibition with fellow artist Nguyen Duy Linh and is looking forward to meeting Damien Hirst, Tony Blair and Sir Edward Heath, who are among the celebrities expected at the opening night.

Trinh Cung, 56, from South Vietnam, spent years in a Communist "re-education" camp after the war and worked as a cycle rickshaw driver until finding artistic success in the late 1980s. He has traded an income of a few pounds a week for the opportunity to sell his paintings for thousands - his abstracts Return to Autumn and The Last Day of War are on sale at the exhibition for pounds 4,000 and pounds 5,500. This is big money in Vietnam and has enabled the former "cyclo" driver to buy a large house in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and - his pride and joy - a secondhand VW Beetle in a country where private cars are still very rare.

The highest-priced picture in the RCA show, at pounds 22,000, is Self Portrait by Do Quang Em, a former photographer. He is one of Vietnam's most commercially successful new artists, having sold paintings in the US for up to $70,000 (pounds 47,000).

This sudden flowering of artistic talent has been made possible by Doi Moi - the Vietnamese equivalent of perestroika - which since the late 1980s has freed artists to paint whatever they wish and has brought increasing numbers of foreign visitors, eager to buy, into Vietnam. President Clinton's abandonment of the US trade embargo on Vietnam in February last year opened up the American market which, with Japan, France, Hong Kong and South Korea, is one of the biggest for Vietnamese artists.

The show has been organised by British collector Anabel Loyd, who intends to put any profits from sales back into community projects in Vietnam. She said: "The point of this is to focus on Vietnam now and get away from the idea people have of it simply as a war zone.

"Doi Moi opened everything up. Before that it was very difficult, because art was seen as having no point unless it was for the glory of the revolution. One of the most celebrated paintings was titled The Rise of the Farmers Against Tax. After the war people in the north were struggling to make ends meet, while many artists from the south were in re-education camps. The two groups emerged at about the same time. Now everyone wants to have a go. There's a terrific diversity. Some artists have discovered, however, that if they dash off landscapes in a 'French' style they are very easy to sell to tourists, so there's a problem of maintaining the integrity of the serious artist."

Le Dai Chuc, who has some 15 paintings in the show, ranging in price from pounds 1,750 to pounds 4,000, said: "Until a few years ago abstract painting and nudes were strictly forbidden. The government insisted the artists took political subjects. Now we can paint what we like. Previously the state wanted to own everything, even your private life. Now they don't interfere. Artists are looking to the future, and this is reflected in the work."

The paintings in the show reveal little bitterness or obsession with Vietnam's bloody past. British artist Andrew Hewkin, whose own paintings of Vietnamese subjects have been shown at the Hamilton Gallery, London, said: "I was amazed at the high quality of Vietnamese art. It's typical of the Vietnamese to push aside the past and say 'That's not all we are'. They are very tenacious people and it shows in their work."

l'Feathers of the Phoenix', RCA, Kensington Gore, London SW7, 10 July- 15 July, 10am to 6pm.