Brave arts in Hanoi
The Vietnamese capital’s creative new generation is shrugging off the nation’s turbulent past
‘‘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