Capital gains in Vietnam
Hanoi's new generation is shrugging off the nation's turbulent past and creating a vibrant arts scene for this romantically archaic city
Saturday 10 September 2011
The Green Cross Code wasn't going to get me very far. That mantra of "Stop! Look! Listen!" hardwired into my psyche since I was old enough to walk, was about as useful as a zebra crossing on this belt of manic traffic.
"Come!" Linh, my heavily pregnant guide, turned on her heel only to see that I was still where she had left me on the other side of the road. If I didn't step off the pavement, I'd be there all day. Linh had somehow made it across in one deft move, so with muscles tensed, I stepped out into the traffic flow. And still it didn't stop; the onslaught of scooters and motorbikes came at me, just as before. However, like water, the bikes flowed around me and I kept going until I arrived safely by Linh's side.
Stopping to look around you could be the most dangerous thing a pedestrian can do in Hanoi; in Vietnam's capital, you need determination and more than a little fearlessness. In this city of nearly six million souls, it's said that there are almost half as many motorbikes. Like Road Runner with the volume turned up, it operates to a near-constant soundtrack of "meep-meeps" – the modern face of a city that nevertheless celebrated its status as the 1,000-year-old capital of Vietnam last year.
After this minor personal triumph, Linh and I headed from the busy city centre into Hoan Kiem, the old town. Here, the road names suddenly shifted from the tongue-twisters of Nguyen Luong Bang and Ngo Cho Kham Thien to snappier two-worders: Hang Quat, Hang Bac, Hang Gai, Hang Luoc. These are Hanoi's 36 "guild streets", the history of which stretches back to the 13th century. There are those that deal exclusively in funereal flags and religious objects, silver, silk... even combs. Over-arching boughs and dangling creepers render the narrow roads almost tunnel-like, while the traffic continues, relentlessly, to plough through the middle. On either side, narrow-fronted French colonial buildings in faded pinks, blues and yellows line up like antiquated books on a shelf while men and women squat on tiny plastic stools on the pavement slurping pho, a dish of noodles and beef in chilli- and spring onion-infused broth that bubbles aromatically in huge vats among them. Birds chirrup in cages that hang in the doorways, contributing to the quotidian clamour.
This romantically archaic picture sets Hanoi apart from the high-rise modernity of so many other South-east Asian capitals. And yet the population of these ancient streets is surprisingly youthful. Vietnam's median age is just 27. This generation, born after the conflict they call the "American War", is shaping the future of the nation.
As we weaved our way among the parked bikes, I asked Linh – herself in her early twenties – if there had been more bicycles on the streets before motorbikes had become commonplace in the city. Her answer was accompanied by a furrowed brow: "Yes, perhaps in the old days, but not that I remember."
The "old days" were no more than 15 years ago, but they seem to be slipping from memory already. To understand how Linh and her contemporaries were shaking up the here and now, she took me to the Goethe Institut to see the work of a young local artist. While many cultural enterprises in Hanoi are at risk of having their premises shut by paranoid authorities that would prefer the population to toe the Communist Party line, foreign organisations such as Germany's Goethe Institut and British Council are unconstrained and able to host what might otherwise be considered controversial shows.
The Americans abandoned their Indo-Chinese adventure in 1975, after two decades of backing the South in a bloody conflict against the communist North. Thirty-six years on, the division is still tangible, with the south more liberal, westernised and capitalist than Hanoi and the north. And while the government places high value in the arts, it does so as a means of propagating the party ideals, with artists encouraged to join state-run organisations for support.
As we stepped inside the elegant white colonial villa – a relic of Vietnam's seven decades of French rule – my eyes had to adjust to the darkness. In front of me, a model of a towering, higgledy-piggledy apartment block rose out a carpet of fluffy white clouds, tiny lights glowing inside the rooms and a fighter plane soaring through the sky beside it. It was the creation of Nguyen Manh Hung, a Hanoi-born artist in his early thirties. Entitled Living Together in Paradise, the diorama was apparently inspired by Hung's childhood.
As I looked more closely at the model, staggeringly complex in its construction, the picture looked less like an urban apartment block, and more as if a series of rural villages had been stacked on top of one another. It suggested a lack of privacy, of communities being forced to share what little space they had. Linh explained that Hung's work was proposing that people should have more rights for space and creativity.
In spite of government monitoring, this subtle humour is also finding its way out on to the streets via the increasingly spirited youth. Indeed, at Bo Sua, a young entrepreneur is making it his raison d'etre. This burgeoning chain of streetwear stores is popping up all over Hanoi, its eye-catching symbol of a cartoon udder displayed on half a dozen streets.
I met owner Viet Anh, whose formative years were spent during the free-market political and economic reforms of the 1980s, in one of his first shops. He explained how he had set up a skatewear outlet, Boo, in 2003, which stocked foreign labels to satisfy young Hanoians' demand for Western culture. Its instant success gave him the opportunity to start designing his own T-shirts. By 2009 he had opened his first standalone shop, stocking his own work under the Bo Sua label – meaning "milk the cow".
Bo Sua's designs subvert traditional Vietnamese culture. There are high-quality screen prints of Buddha on a lotus with milk seeping from his mouth, of the red rabbit balloons that well-behaved children are presented with on Sundays, of cartoon dogs wearing traditional conical hats and of the national motto "Independence, Liberty, Happiness" with all but "happiness" scrawled out. The doors had just opened for the day and the shop was already buzzing with browsers.
The nearby Bui Gallery occupies another gracious white French colonial building. It is partly concealed by leafy trees, their branches strung with red paper lanterns. By contrast, the wall in front was covered with graffiti bearing the gallery's name, which had been sprayed on at an opening party. Bui Gallery specialises in contemporary Vietnamese art. Its 33-year-old director is a wealthy French-Vietnamese woman,Betty Thuy Bui. She nurtures emerging local artists, as well as exhibiting established artists.
My next stop was Factory, a newcomer to Hanoi's arts scene that displays its owner's work in the setting of a lounge bar on "Pub Street", a more modern variation of the guild streets. Its vaguely moddy signage reads "Factory Art House: a resting place for rare individuals". Upstairs, the bar is arranged on two levels, its colourful curios splashed against a background of exposed brick walls and concrete flooring.
The renegade owner of Factory is Le Quang Ha, an uncompromising artist whose work here has a loose theme of man and the machine, ranging from military-inspired oil paintings to giant cans containing trapped obese figures (representing the limitations of freedom) and a chandelier of fluorescent dinosaurs and ducks, whose message is... harder to fathom. He has been questioned by police about Factory's intentions, but so far the worst that his new venue has experienced is noise complaints from the neighbours and an official ticking off.
I sat beneath one of his paintings with a small cup of pungent, syrupy Vietnamese coffee, while Linh explained how Quang Ha wants Factory to be a place for budding artists. He invites them to display their art, as well as providing them somewhere to hang out, watch films and live music. It's a bold step– particularly since I had to strike off another venue on my itinerary, Tadioto, after I discovered that police had recently shut it down. Its owner, Duc, has since taken Tadioto's avant-garde art to a new venue.
Strict as this system of repression is, it's routine too. One artist who has had to take a step back as a result of his work is Hoai Linh, a 29-year-old graphic artist by name – and graffiti artist at heart. After several police encounters while creating his fantasy-inspired freestyle street art (although he told me they're never quite sure what to charge him with) he decided to make an honest living, hoping that eventually he will be wealthy enough to support younger artists.
We met in Puku. This is an old villa-turned-café where a mix of young Hanoians, travellers and Western expatriates lounge within art-adorned walls and on the peaceful roof terrace at large wooden tables. Puku and its canteen neighbours benefit from a location on Food Street that grants them the city's only 24-hour licence, giving Puku the opportunity to promote the arts scene night and day – albeit a more anodyne version than I had seen at Factory – in tandem with delicious food. Over a lunch of succulent bun cha (griddled pork belly slices, vegetables, herbs and vermicelli noodles dipped into a vinegary broth) Hoai Linh explained how he was able to nurture his passion through events such as Translate. For this, he was invited by Tiger Beer to create a temporary wall of graffiti, along with fellow artists, at a one-day festival in the old town. Otherwise, his work remains a hobby. His eyes lit up when the conversation turned to music, another of his passions. He told me how he wanted to be in a punk band, but couldn't find anyone willing to join him, afraid as they were of its controversy. It hardly seemed surprising in a country where Facebook was banned last year.
From punk to rock. That night my destination was Hanoi Rock City, a recently opened venue on the northern shores of Tay Ho – the enormous lake lying north-west of the old town.
The urban buzz dwindled as my taxi sped alongside the eastern shoulder of the lake, past karaoke bars, tailors and pho stalls. Soon we were navigating peaceful residential streets, trying to find its location. We doubled back twice, being pointed in various directions by bystanders until we eventually pulled up outside its discreet entrance.
The freshly painted white wall displayed its name cinema-style, with a huge ramp leading me down the sub-street level bar, its roof open to the sky. Acts from Vietnam and beyond have been invited to perform inside its sleek white and red walls, decorated with all kinds of street art, a huge mural of Hokusai's The Wave and potted plants. All was quiet on my Sunday visit, the bar staff subdued after a lively party the previous night. It made for an oddly peaceful spot in which to sink a cold Ha Noi beer under the stars, listening to the muted rock soundtrack in the background.
It was the kind of bar that wouldn't look out of place in the hipster-frenzy of east London, rather than a city where people are fearful of being in a punk band. And in a way, it summed up the resilience of young Hanoians and their seemingly irrepressible desire for freedom of expression. Hoai Linh had explained to me that art was more radical in the north of Vietnam because young people were more suppressed than in the Western-influenced south.
Here, the city's youth will need determination and fearlessness not just for navigating the traffic, but also to ensure the future of the fascinating cultural identity that they have started to form.
* The writer travelled with Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels (0844 573 2460; vhiphotels.co.uk), which offers 10 nights in Vietnam from £2,499 per person. The price includes Malaysia Airlines flights from Heathrow to Hanoi via Kuala Lumpur, transfers, three nights' B&B at the Mövenpick Hanoi, internal flights to Danang and a week's B&B at the Nam Hai resort.
* Vietnam Airlines is launching non-stop Gatwick-Hanoi flights in December. Connecting flights are available with carriers such as Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur, Singapore Airlines via Singapore, Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, Lot Polish Airlines via Warsaw and Aeroflot via Moscow.
* Exotissimo Travel (00 84 43 828 2150; exotissimo.com) offers tailor-made tours of Hanoi; US$55 (£37) per person for half a day.
* Bui Gallery (00 84 43 944 8595; thebuigallery.com).
* Bo Sua (bosua.vn).
* Factory Lounge, 11a Ngo Bao Khanh (00 84 43 938 1756).
Puku Cafe, 16 Tong Duy Tan (00 84 43 928 1745).
* Hanoi Rock City, 27/52 Duong To Ngoc Van (hanoirockcity.com).
Red tape and more information
* Visas (£44) can be obtained from the Vietnam Embassy, 12 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD (020-7937 1912; vietnamembassy.org.uk).
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