Vietnam’s Tale of Two Cities
Street Art in Hanoi
Image Credit: Flickr/ Mike Hauser

Vietnam’s Tale of Two Cities

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The first time she visited Ho Chi Minh City, Le Thuan Uyen wanted to move there. For the UK-educated arts manager, whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents grew up in Hanoi, the southern city offered an easier alternative to life in the capital.

“Everything was structured. It wasn’t as chaotic. I wouldn’t have to worry too much about money,” Uyen told me. “But once I got more deeply involved with the arts scene in Hanoi, I decided to stay.”

Ho Chi Minh City has been Vietnam’s commercial center since the 1800s, when the French-built port made the city a regional trading hub. In recent years, its soaring GDP and friendly environment for foreign investment convinced many that the city was Vietnam’s success story. A recent Bloomberg article crowed that Ho Chi Minh City had “turned the tables on Hanoi” for economic growth.

But many in the north argue that the thousand-year-old capital, where foreign retail and fast food chains have been slow to make inroads and government bureaucracy is often impenetrable, has a unique spirit that fosters creativity.

“I find Hanoi more artisanal. You can sustain a business model by developing a local product in your own way rather than selling out to industrial brands,” said Dan Dockery, co-owner of bar CAMA and restaurant Highway 4. “You could look at the lack of Western chains as conservative and backwards, or you can see it in a more positive way. We have good coffee. Why do we need some low-quality foreign brand that’s three times the price?”

To outsiders, the Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh City divide may seem to reflect the structural tension between communism and capitalism, with the southern city’s more developed economy indicating more openness to individual enterprise. But in fact, Vietnam’s tale of two cities  — like the age-old differences between Beijing and Shanghai or Kyoto and Tokyo — has more to do with history and culture than with ideology. Hanoians don’t dispute Ho Chi Minh City’s economic success. What they take issue with is the notion that such success is necessary or desirable, or that the forms that success takes make a city attractive. “Saigon feels a bit like Bangkok,” said art dealer Minh Nguyet Bui, whose family has lived in Hanoi for generations. “It’s not real Vietnam.”

“Real” Hanoians like Bui are fiercely proud of the city’s long cultural history. Hanoi has held the reputation of being the country’s “cultural capital” since the 11th century, when aspiring mandarins first studied at the Temple of Literature. Today, the city’s creative community is thriving, particularly when it comes to the arts. Explaining why she decided to stay in Hanoi, Uyen told me: “The creative energy in Hanoi is more intense.”

While Ho Chi Minh City also has a developed arts scene, its polished shows and market-oriented artists contrast sharply with Hanoi’s more experimental brand of creativity. “Saigon people tend to prefer pretty-looking, easy-to-digest art,” said Ho Chi Minh City-based artist Thao Nguyen. “The art in Hanoi can be more critical and conceptual.”

Something about Hanoians’ attachment to the city seems to defy economic rationality.

“Most Hanoians will acknowledge that life in Ho Chi Minh City is probably more comfortable, with relatively higher wages and lower prices. But they stay in Hanoi because of the spirit of the place. There is an energy here that in part stems from this choice of putting spirit and meaning above material comfort,” said Mathias Rossignol, co-owner of Ham Hanh, a cafe and art space in Hanoi.

Ham Hanh came about as a side project of The Onion Cellar, an alternative culture collective that organizes offbeat film screenings, concerts and other events. Onion Cellar co-founder Hung Tran said that for “most Vietnamese people,” the difference between the cities was “obvious”: “Saigon is more commercial. Hanoi is more creative.”

Tran’s blunt distinction highlights the strong belief among Hanoians that commercial and creative success are mutually exclusive.

“The commercial ethos is clearly more developed in the south. In some ways, Hanoi’s artistic integrity is a rally against this. For Hanoi to maintain its uniqueness, it almost has to rebuff the concept of business and art being bedfellows,” said artist and designer Dorian Gibb, one of the founders of creative workspace Work Room Four.

Bill Nguyen, co-founder of Manzi, a well-known art space and cafe, contrasted the “almost too developed” arts scene in the south with Hanoi’s more “down-to-earth” culture. “Everything feels safe there because it’s so structured and institutionalized. But that doesn’t leave room for the imagination,” he said. “Here there’s still room for experimentation.”

However, Nguyen made clear that the lack of a business mindset also had its drawbacks.

“Friends from Saigon say that creative people here don’t know how to make money using their creativity,” he said.

The gap between Hanoi’s creative achievements and Ho Chi Minh City’s commercial success is pervasive in all of Vietnam’s cultural industries. Most of the Vietnamese movies screened at international film festivals are made in Hanoi, such as “Dap Canh Giua Khong Trung” (Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere), which won an award at the Venice Film Festival in September for best director’s debut, and “Bi, Dung So!” (Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!) which won prizes at the Cannes and Stockholm film festivals in 2010. Yet domestic cinemas are dominated by Hollywood-style action flicks and romantic comedies produced in Ho Chi Minh City.

“In the south, they want to make films that Vietnamese people will pay to see. I don’t think that any film made in the north has ever made a profit.  In fact, most films made in Hanoi never even play in the cinemas,” said Gerry Herman, director of Hanoi Cinematheque.

What the film sector really needs, Herman said, is a “middle ground” that would combine Hanoi’s artistic aspirations with the southern city’s commercial acumen — something you could say for all of Vietnam’s cultural industries.

“A lot of Vietnam’s economy is based on either outsourcing or copycat products. That’s a very fragile model which cannot sustain long-term growth,” Ham Hanh owner Rossignol said. “No really new ideas can be born without an environment of creativity and originality.”

Yet Hanoi has a growing number of innovators who combine creativity and tradition with commercial know-how, like designer Vu Thao, who won the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur Award last month. Her designs, which she produces under the label Kilomet 109, draw inspiration from the colorful garments handmade by ethnic minority tribes in rural northern villages.

“Economically, Saigon is more exciting. People there are easy to work with and more open, and so are the authorities. But even as my business grows internationally, the things that make my work stand out are the things that are from the north,” Thao said.

Many of the city’s newest creative endeavors are both determinedly non-commercial and local collaborations. Last year, a group of Hanoi DJs and musicians launched Quest, a music festival without a single sponsor. Rather than inviting international headliners, the festival featured local talent; tickets sold out within weeks. Co-organizer Luke Poulson, who teaches English while moonlighting as a DJ, drew a sharp contrast between Hanoi’s “experimental evenings” with the “huge club nights” taking place in Ho Chi Minh City.

“The fact that we could create a full lineup for an entire festival by using mostly people from Hanoi just shows how much creative output the city has,” Poulson said.

An even better example would be Zone 9, a creative space in a former pharmaceutical complex that signaled a new era for the arts scene when it opened in 2013. Although Zone 9 was closed after a fire burned down a bar that was under construction, many of the venues that set up shop there have re-opened elsewhere, including Work Room Four.

The creation of Quest and Zone 9 suggests that a city’s success is not only defined by skyscrapers and foreign investment — something that has often been overlooked in the quest to build modern Asian urban superpowers.

“The benefit of creativity and the arts has nothing to do with money,” said John Kis, who owns Hanoi Social Club cafe. “A city without performances or music or galleries is not a city I want to live in.”

Elisabeth Rosen is a journalist based in Hanoi. 

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