Vietnam Comes of Age

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Vietnam Comes of Age

A new arts complex in Hanoi reveals a generational shift.

When artists wanted to paint in 1980s Vietnam, they had to submit a sketch to the authorities. If it was approved, they got three tubes of paint: two red, one blue.

By the time Nguyen Qui Duc returned to Hanoi in 1989 from more than a decade in the U.S., those times seemed to be over. The Vietnamese government had recently introduced the Doi Moi (“Renovation”) policy and the strict state-controlled economy was slowly loosening up. “There was an openness,” the cultural entrepreneur tells me. “Writers were able to write about the war and the circumstances of society. People were talking about the bonds that tie artists together.”

Still, despite these major social shifts, the arts scene remained nascent and underground. Even with the introduction of the Internet in the early 2000s, which opened up the country to global trends, Vietnam itself lacked cultural innovation.

Until this year, when several artists and creative entrepreneurs, led by Duc and interior designer Tran Vu Hai, turned a Soviet-era pharmaceutical factory in Hanoi into an arts complex. Like Beijing's 798 Arts District, the industrial setting provides a space for experimental galleries, cafes and bars. It’s also the first signal that Vietnam is moving away from the blatant consumerism that characterized the years since Doi Moi towards a more internationally aware “post-materialist” culture.

“There were so many people looking for a place like this,” says Hai, who owns Bar Betta Republic, one of the first venues to open in the complex along with Duc’s bar and creative space Tadioto. “Before Zone 9, all the different arts spaces were spread around the city. Now this zone has become a center for art — and as a byproduct of that, it’s also become an entertainment center.”

Hai had been looking for “a big old factory” for several years when he found this complex. At the time, it was being used for storage. But when the owners moved away, he, Duc and other cultural entrepreneurs secured rights to the space. Within a matter of months, they transformed the derelict factory complex into what local arts and culture blog Hanoi Grapevine has called “one of the hottest spots in town.”

After Hai opened Bar Betta and Duc moved Tadioto into the empty buildings, they encouraged others to do the same. When British artist Dorian Gibb was looking for a studio (“He couldn't find anywhere to rent that he could make a mess in,” his partner Claire Driscoll recalls), Duc suggested Zone 9.  Driscoll and Gibb turned the top floor of one of the old factory buildings into Workroom Four, a creative space that hosts exhibitions and workshops as well as studio space. Nha San Collective, an experimental arts venue forced to close in 2008 after a nude performance attracted attention from the authorities, also reopened in Zone 9.

“Here in the factory, we can make things from zero and do whatever we want to do,” says Nguyen Quoc Thanh, the conceptual photographer who runs Nha San.

Painter Nguyen Xuan Dam opened his own gallery, Kenke Art Space, for the same reason. “When I came here four months ago it was all a mess, very dirty. There were a lot of rats,” Dam says. “But there was something new and exciting about it. I think it's really interesting that artists made a place to come together.”

As in cities from Berlin to Beijing, the industrial architecture and cheap rents that initially attracted artists also appealed to entrepreneurs. Pham Duc Thang opened Hiker Coffee Shop, the complex’s first cafe, after seeing pictures of Zone 9 on Facebook.

“It’s very different for Hanoi,” he says. “Many artists come here. I think it’s cool.”

On my first visit in June, Zone 9 was still mostly deserted. A car wash took up almost as much space as the studios. Six months later, the car wash remains, but it’s surrounded by boutiques, cafes and facilities offering Zumba classes and wedding photography. In the gap between two buildings sits one of Hanoi’s first waffle shops.

“When I first set foot in Bar Betta, I knew I wanted to have a shop in Zone 9,” Wunder Waffel owner Duong Anh Minh recalls. “There’s a sense of freedom here. It’s so creative. It’s a unique thing for Vietnam.”

That “uniqueness” has brought together insiders and outsiders, Vietnamese and expats, like no other space in the city.

“Westerners come here as well as locals. There's no border. The people coming to Zone 9 are 50 percent foreigners and 50 percent Vietnamese. That doesn’t happen anywhere else,” Hai says.

In barely two months, news of the complex spread far beyond the art community. Zone 9’s Facebook page currently boasts more than 22,000 likes; for comparison, the Vietnam National Museum of History page has barely scraped 2,000. Hai estimates that more than 1,000 visitors come to Zone 9 on a weekday, and double that number on a Saturday or Sunday. In October, the government-run English-language newspaper referred to the complex as the city's "new art hub" – the ultimate sign of mainstream acceptance.

“It happened really fast,” Driscoll says, still sounding a bit dazed. “We were just thinking about what we were going to do with the space. We didn’t think it was going to develop so fast.”

The Zone 9 story parallels Vietnam’s own rapid development. The Doi Moi reforms that loosened restrictions on artists and entrepreneurs also catapulted Vietnam from one of the world’s poorest countries, with per capita income below $100, to lower middle income status in less than three decades. In what the World Bank terms a “development success story,” the poverty level declined from nearly 60 percent in 1993 to barely one-fifth in 2010.

Members of the rapidly expanding middle class – seven million households in 2010 – are aspirational consumers. They generally buy things based on concerns about social status, rather than material needs. Middle class incomes surged from $560 in 1988 to about $3,354 in 2012, and many Vietnamese jumped at the chance to display their new spending power with brand-name goods. As a 2012 report by auditing firm KPMG observed, Vietnam’s young middle-class consumers are “particular about product quality, trendiness and user experience” and “only stick to trusted and widely recognised brands.”

But Zone 9 contradicts that trend. The small boutiques there don’t sell designer goods; the galleries show experimental work, not traditional landscape paintings. Zone 9 is considered cool precisely because it’s an escape from the conspicuous consumption pervasive in the rest of Vietnamese society. “Girls dress for the cinema like they’re going to a club,” Minh tells me. “Here, you don’t have to look fancy.”

Driscoll makes the same observation: “It’s the first place in Hanoi that’s not brand-oriented. It’s a new concept: people are buying into a lifestyle.”

Zone 9’s success confirms that Vietnam has reached the next stage of development. After the postwar period of deprivation, everyone wanted to spend money; now, Vietnamese are “realizing that things don't have to be luxurious to be serious,” says Tracey Lister, the Australian founder of KOTO and the Hanoi Cooking Centre.

Asked how Hanoi had changed since she moved here in 2000, Lister immediately singles out Zone 9: “It wouldn't have been possible a few years ago.” So why is it happening now?

There are two major factors. The first generation that studied abroad en masse is now returning to start their own businesses, from tech startups to cafes, bringing with them an international sensibility. Many of the artists and venue owners at Zone 9 spent years overseas. Thanh at Nha San lived in Poland, where he became familiar with factory sites transformed into cultural and entertainment complexes; Minh grew up in Berlin and after returning to Hanoi, he missed the “industrial underground style” of venues in that city.

Zone 9’s stunning popularity also points to a generational shift. The average Vietnamese person is 25 and 56 percent of the population is under 30. While their parents and grandparents grew up during wartime and the harsh conditions that followed, the millennials are materially comfortable and eager for innovation.

“Our population is young, so they’re much more attracted by new things,” Minh says. “Everything develops so quickly. In 2006 you couldn’t even go out [to a bar] in Hanoi. Now there’s Zone 9.”

The facade of Bar Betta Republic suggests how momentous this generational change is. On one side of the building, Hai painted the Ho Chi Minh quote "Khong co gi quy hon doc lap tu do (Nothing is greater than independence)!" and peeled away layers of the facade to make it look old. On the other side, he painted an enormous mural that deliberately evokes the style of a wartime propaganda poster. Instead of denouncing the American invaders, it screams WE WANT BEER!

Hai designed the retro murals as historically appropriate for the Soviet-era structures of the factory complex. But they reveal how different the millennial generation is from its parents and grandparents. Vietnam’s founding father came up with “Nothing is greater than independence!” as a nationalistic rallying cry. Today’s youth take this as a different kind of directive.

“A lot of young people are still living with their parents, but this is changing,” Minh notes. “The next generation is developing a kind of independent thinking.”

While the government touts new buildings, roads and industrial parks as evidence of modernization, successful development also requires cultural industries. Other Asian countries, like China and Korea, have been doing this for years. Vietnam has finally caught on. In September, Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong made a widely publicized statement that the government would "help writers and artists harness their creativity to the fullest.” However, Zone 9 is the first convincing evidence that Vietnam is moving to that next level.

That doesn’t mean the government should control such spaces. Zone 9 works because it grows out of the artists’ own needs. As Driscoll puts it, “something like this doesn’t work if you try to engineer it.”

But how long Zone 9 can survive is unclear. A real estate developer has a contract to demolish the site in 2016 and replace it with a luxury apartment complex. When 798 Arts District was slated to be demolished in Beijing, international media pressure and the upcoming 2008 Olympics convinced the Chinese government that supporting this kind of creativity can pay off. Is the Vietnamese government ready to reach the same conclusion?

Elisabeth Rosen is based in Hanoi, where she is an editor at Word Vietnam, a national culture and lifestyle magazine. She has previously written for The Atlantic and DestinAsian, among other publications.