Brave arts in Hanoi

The Viet­namese cap­i­tal’s creative new gen­er­a­tion is shrug­ging off the na­tion’s tur­bu­lent past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - SO­PHIE LAM

‘‘COME!’’ Linh, my heav­ily preg­nant guide, turns on her heel only to see that I am still where she has left me on the other side of the road. If I don’t step off the pave­ment, I’ll be there all day.

Linh has some­how made it across in one deft move, so with mus­cles tensed, I step out into the traf­fic flow. And still it doesn’t stop; the on­slaught of scoot­ers and mo­tor­bikes comes at me, just as be­fore. How­ever, like water, the bikes flow around me and I keep go­ing un­til I ar­rive safely by Linh’s side.

Stop­ping to look around 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, 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 last year cel­e­brated its sta­tus as the 1000-year-old cap­i­tal of Viet­nam.

Af­ter this mi­nor per­sonal tri­umph, Linh and I head from the busy city cen­tre into Hoan Kiem, the old town.

Here, the road names sud­denly shift from the tongue-twisters of Nguyen Luong Bang and Ngo Cho Kham Thien to snap­pier twoworders: 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. Over­ar­ch­ing 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 onion­in­fused broth that bub­bles aro­mat­i­cally in huge vats. 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 South­east 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 weave our way among the parked bikes, I ask Linh, who’s in her early 20s, if there had been more bi­cy­cles on the streets be­fore mo­tor­bikes had be­come com­mon­place in the city.

Her an­swer is 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 are shak­ing up the here and now, she takes 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 the Bri­tish Coun­cil are un­con­strained and able to host what might other­wise be con­sid­ered con­tro­ver­sial shows.

The Amer­i­cans aban­doned their In­dochi­nese ad­ven­ture in 1975, af­ter two decades of back­ing South Viet­nam in a bloody con­flict against com­mu­nist North Viet­nam. 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 on the arts, it does so as a means of prop­a­gat­ing the party ideals, with artists en­cour­aged to j oin state- run or­gan­i­sa­tions for sup­port.

As we step in­side the el­e­gant white colo­nial villa — a relic of Viet­nam’s seven decades of French rule — my eyes have to ad­just to the dark­ness. In front of me, a model of a tow­er­ing, hig­gledy- pig­gledy apart­ment block rises out of a car­pet of fluffy white clouds, tiny lights glow­ing in­side and a fighter plane soar­ing through the sky be­side it. It’s the cre­ation of Nguyen Manh Hung, a Hanoi-born artist in his early 30s. En­ti­tled Liv­ing To­gether in Par­adise, the dio­rama was ap­par­ently in­spired by Hung’s child­hood.

As I look more closely at the model, stag­ger­ingly com­plex in its con­struc­tion, the pic­ture looks less like an ur­ban apart­ment block and more as if a se­ries of ru­ral vil­lages have been stacked on top of one an­other. It sug­gests a lack of pri­vacy, of com­mu­ni­ties be­ing forced to share what lit­tle space they have. Linh ex­plains that what Hung’s work is propos­ing is that peo­ple should have more rights in terms of space and cre­ativ­ity.

De­spite 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 en­tre- preneur 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 a half dozen streets.

I meet 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 ex­plains how he 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 stand-alone shop, stock­ing his own work un­der the Bo Sua (‘‘milk the cow’’) la­bel.

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 have just opened for the day and the shop is 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 is cov­ered with graf­fiti bear­ing the gallery’s name, which has 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 is 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 lanes.

Its vaguely mod 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 mil­i­taryin­spired 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 some­what 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 sit be­neath one of his paint­ings with a small cup of pun­gent, syrupy Viet­namese cof­fee while Linh ex­plains how Quang Ha wants Fac­tory to be a place for bud­ding artists.

It’s a bold step, par­tic­u­larly since I have to strike off an­other venue on my itin­er­ary, Ta­dioto, af­ter I dis­cover po­lice have 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 tells me they’re never quite sure what to charge him with), he has de­cided to make an hon­est liv­ing, hop­ing that even­tu­ally he will be wealthy enough to sup­port younger artists.

We meet in Puku. This is an old villa turned cafe 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 re­lent­less traf­fic in Hanoi poses a haz­ard for pedes­tri­ans; it con­sists mainly of mo­tor­bikes, which are be­lieved to num­ber about three mil­lion


Cafe Lam in the Old Quar­ter at­tracts Hanoi’s hip crowd

Bui Gallery spe­cialises in con­tem­po­rary Viet­namese art

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