A vital art beat
Hanoi’s cultural scene is flourishing
When I first visited Hanoi in 1995, the art scene mostly consisted of Old Quarter shops selling kitsch watercolours of women in rice fields. For all the hype Vietnamese art had received internationally after the reforms known as Doi Moi, there was very little in the way of independent galleries or exhibition spaces showcasing the city’s wealth of contemporary creative talent.
For many years, the only way to gain any understanding of Hanoi’s artistic landscape was to visit the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, a former girls’ school transformed into a space housing more than 2000 artefacts. After Doi Moi, the communist government’s decision in 1986 to allow foreign trade and private ownership, artists seized opportunities to reconnect with the global art scene and to create more than just pictures of heroic workers and peasants.
The Gang of Five — Hanoi artists Hong Viet Dung, Ha Tri Hieu, Dang Xuan Hoa, Tran Luong and Pham Quang Vinh — led the charge and rose to international fame in the 1990s for their neo-classical expressionist work. Others followed and are credited with laying the foundation for the country’s alternative art movement.
A handful of pioneers used this momentum to open spaces nurturing increasingly experimental art forms, encouraging dialogue and the sharing of ideas. Iran Phuong Mai, the daughter of poet and art critic Duong Tuong, was one. Her namesake Mai Gallery is credited as Hanoi’s first privately owned exhibition space open to the public. Before it, non-state-approved art events were mostly underground affairs in homes and cafes.
It inspired the launch of other niche establishments, such as the Apricot Gallery, which is still operating as a showcase for minimalist artists such as Le Thiet Cuong, whose family fled Hanoi for the countryside from 1964 to 1973 to escape American bombings. About the same time, American art consultant Suzanne Lecht recognised the potential and converted a French villa into a creative salon. Lecht, who escorted then US president Bill Clinton around the city’s galleries in 2000, launched Art Vietnam Gallery in 2002, offering a survey of the avant-garde scene. She moved locations a number of times, then finally closed earlier this year to return to her original 1994 home-based gallery, now open by appointment.
When it launched, in 1998, Nha San Studio was controversial and groundbreaking in equal measure. The first artist-led and non-profit contemporary art project in Vietnam, the studio was a space for founders Nguyen Manh Duc and Tran Luong to nurture some of the most imaginative and daring artists. They were forced to close in 2011 under pressure from authorities, who were alleg- edly unhappy with a theatrical performance featuring a naked actor. But Duc and Luong persisted, and went on to organise a series of mobile exhibitions in the years that followed before starting the Nha San Collective in 2013 to support and challenge artists through public exhibitions, education and exchange.
They set up their headquarters in art precinct Zone 9, which was short-lived but much-loved. Home to more than 60 studios, galleries, restaurants and bars, the hub was initially destined to become Hanoi’s version of Beijing’s 798 Art District, providing a safe space for a new generation of experimental artists. Authorities closed it after 10 months — officially for violating safety regulations, unofficially for political and financial reasons.
The collective has moved multiple times since and is now based at Hanoi Creative City, a multi-storey building that is developing into Zone 9, Mark II. The graffitisplashed space is slowly filling with live-music venues, independent design boutiques and an outlet of Creative Lab by UP, offering arty workshops and classes. It has been open two years, but in a city where galleries come and go in a matter of months, HCC might finally have the support to develop into the integrated creative hub Hanoi really needs.
“We’re pushing the boundaries, but not stepping over them,” says Vincent Nguyen, one of Hanoi’s new generation of artists making the most of changing government sentiment. I meet him at DocLab, an incubator for film and video art. It’s a “small centre for big ideas”, says Nguyen, one of many students making the most of Doc- Lab’s facilities, such as workshops, courses, equipment and discussion groups for independent filmmakers and media artists. It opened in 2009 and has experienced considerable resistance, primarily because many Vietnamese films are still produced by order of the government. But DocLab’s founders, the Goethe-Institut, Germany’s global not-for-profit cultural institute, and the present managers are adamant it will thrive, and “push open a door to the world for Vietnamese documentary films”.
The owner of art-filled bar Tadioto, VietnameseAmerican journalist Nguyen Qui Duc, was another of the tenants forced out of Zone 9 when it closed. His new base in the city’s Old Quarter is also a place for creatives to find inspiration and share ideas. Duc hosts experimental live music and spoken-word performances, which visitors enjoy in rooms filled with original artworks, antiques and whimsical tchotchkes (trinkets). Located in a French villa nearby, Manzi is a cafe cum gallery with an exhibition space dedicated to up-and-coming artists such as Nguyen Manh Hung, who sees the comical side of the country’s rapid urbanisation and modernisation.
Even the city’s hotels provide opportunities for the scene to flourish. In the century-old Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, travellers can check out contemporary art in the lobby before heading to the terrace bar overlooking the pool. And on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake, the boutique Apricot Hotel (also behind Apricot Gallery) has more than 600 artworks, including pieces by Mai Thu, a master of silk painting, and Phan Ke An, whose political paintings caused a stir during the Vietnam war. There are a number of paintings by Bui Xuan Phai, whose work was banned for decades.
One of the best ways to understand Hanoi’s creative evolution is through the lives and works of its artists on a Sophie’s Art Tour. Launched by British expat Sophie Hughes, who has worked in the arts in Asia for almost 10 years, the excursions include private collections, museums, studios and contemporary galleries, with insightful commentary on those who have studied, fought and documented significant changes in 20th and 21st-century Vietnam. “I could see an interesting scene developing,” says Hughes, who first visited the country in 2004. “There are artists who have had incredible lives.” • apricotgallery.com.vn • apricothotels.com • sofitel-legend-metropole-hanoi.com • sophiesarttour.com
Sophie Hughes leads an art tour, top; Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, above centre; art-filled Taidoto bar, above