The nude model in Vietnam is often hunched over, hiding her face and even parts of her figure. Many people equate nude art with erotica or pornography, and while artists steadfastly defend their craft against accusations of smut-peddling, it would be hard to discount the sensuality and sexuality of the art.
Artist Le Thiet Cuong, who began painting nudes in 1991, said there are many factors that contribute to the success or failure of a piece of nude art. But he said sexual desire always played a key role. He said an artist portraying a beautiful naked woman must transform his desire into a "more pure sense of beauty" that goes beyond lust.
But he also said it was this same sexual element that made Vietnamese people "flinch." He said the public often disapproved of art related to sex or erotic issues, even though he pointed out that traditional folk art in Vietnam was full of naked bodies and sexual references.
Tran Huy Hoan, who has been making nude art since 1975, said Vietnamese often shied away from nude art in the same way they shied away from sex education. He said people were somewhat curious and "inquisitive" about the subject, but neglected to talk about it in a deep or meaningful way.
However, Hoan said he could not help himself.
"In 1975-1976, nude paintings were considered illegal or criminal. But it enchanted both me and other young artists."
Hoan said he asked his wife to become his "exclusive nude model" to "satisfy my passion." For Hoan, the allure of nude paintings and photos was not just in the bare skin and naked flesh.
"Nude art is seductive but artistic, strange but familiar, half concrete, half abstract," he said.
But artist Do Son said many people in Vietnam did not appreciate the art form's transcendent properties.
"They can sell it, buy it, but they don't look up to it or revere it as one of the highest creations of human culture and civilization"
Underneath it all
Nude modeling, painting and photographing is often a thankless job. The pay is low, and it brings no fame. In fact, some artists are even considered scandalous for partaking in the craft.
Painter Nguyen Thi Bao Ngoc said nude models are often poor and are just struggling to get by. Some hire their services out at art schools and others happen to be acquaintances of other artists.
But those who make a living off it often find they are tired and without savings or other work to turn to once their too old to get consistent work posing naked.
"Except for a few people, who are so curious and want to show off their beautiful body, most models only go into nude posing because they're short on money... All the nude models I know can not live off only this job and must take on other jobs.
Artist Nguyen Quang Vinh said the embarrassment that comes with nude modeling actually trapped many models in a career of nonrecognition. "Not revealing the models' name is meant to protect them, but it is also a wall preventing them from becoming well-known. Being anonymous can not help them earn more money."
A-typical calendar girl
Most nude photographers or painters said that it is difficult to find the nude models, not just because people are shy or afraid of controversy, but also because the profession is much harder than catwalking like a normal model.
Those in the field said it is difficult for a model to perform solely with her own body, without the help of fashion pieces or accessories like other modeling professionals.
"Modeling for nude photos is a dozen times more difficult than shooting fashion photos," said top model Bang Lang, who has been in the profession for over 10 years.
Photographer-designer Truong Thanh Hai, who took a nude photo collection Lang commissioned personally to commemorate her pregnancy, said that it often takes only five minutes to shot a series of fashion photos, but it took three hours to capture Lang's photos.
"We took thousands of pictures, but then selected only six photos."
Lang said standing in front of the lens of the photographer without her clothes was difficult because she found it very hard to put on a happy face. Hai teased her: "What? A pregnant woman with an evil face!?"
To body painter and visual artist Ngo Luc, the hardest part of nude art is when models feel guilty for bearing it all.
"Many people who do not understand will say that nude models are girls who just like to show off their body and do nothing but take off their clothes."
So, Luc said he had to work around what he considered unreasonable stigma.
"Before painting, I always have to spend lot of time to convince them to trust me. Nakedness is just like sex, it is an indispensable part of human life, so we have no reason to deny or condemn it," said Luc.