The statues, on display at a holiday resort in the city of Hai Phong, have had their "offending parts" modestly covered up with bikinis and other swim wear — but that has only increased public interest in them.

"We actually didn't want to cover the statues because it's art, but we wanted to show that we listen," Nguyen Trung Thanh, vice director of the statues' owner the Hon Dau International Tourism Company, said.

Despite sweeping economic reforms and increasing openness toward social change and ubiquitous internet fare, Communist-ruled Vietnam has maintained a conservative attitude towards sex and nudity.

The cover-up of the "offending bits" of the statues attracted even more attention, as pictures of the more modest displays went viral online.

One male statue with a horse's head was dressed in what appeared to be a red miniskirt, while another, with a goat's head, had a tight pair of green swimming briefs on.

"We covered them up, but only the parts of the body people find offensive," Mr Thanh said.

"They're supposed to be naked."

Mr Thanh's company later swapped the sculpture swim wear for plastic leaves and fruit.

"Their fashion changes even faster than the weather," Facebook user Le Tam joked.

But the Culture Ministry was not amused.

" The recent construction and display of statues and symbols have had contents and forms that are inappropriate to Vietnamese culture," the Ministry said in its directive, published on its website.

The Ministry did not single out the Hai Phong statues in the text of its directive but posted a picture of the 12 statues.

The statues had a negative impact on the "cultural environment" and "aesthetic taste" of society, the Ministry said.

Mr Thanh said his company had monitored visitors' responses to the statues when they were first put up some five years ago but had seen no objections.

"Some were taking pictures, some were laughing, some were shy and turned away but no one was responding harshly," Mr Thanh said.

He also said there were no plans to remove them — though they had been designated as an "18+" attraction.

Reuters - April 6, 2018