On the shores of Hanoi’s Sword Lake, I reread Waves, penned by the celebrated poet Xuan Quynh: ‘Fierce and gentle, loud and silent, the river doesn’t understand itself. The wave doesn’t find itself, until it reaches the sea.’ Xuan’s words still aptly describe the contemporary capital, a place where the multifarious colours of Vietnam fill the scooter-jammed streets. But look a little closer, and a scene of cool, carefully considered back-street haunts – including galleries, craft beer spots and music venues – is rising, as Hanoi’s art and culture scene flourishes.
Wandering by the mass-produced junk of the street markets, the massage parlours and the karaoke bars, I consistently come upon these hidden surprises, such as Manzi, an independent art gallery and cafe on Phan Nuy Ich housed in a stunning colonial villa and exhibiting some of the finest and most provocative work in Hanoi.
‘If you could have seen this place when I arrived in the ’90s,’ says American art dealer Suzanne Lecht, who runs another gallery, Salon Art Vietnam. ‘The electricity went out at 9pm, and hunger, well, that was commonplace.’
Lecht came to Vietnam after several years living in Japan, lured by the work of artists known collectively as the Gang of Five. The quintet emerged in the 1980s seeking to steer Vietnamese art away from classical styles and political propaganda. The result was contemporary art that contextualised the progressive climate of a changing Vietnam. As Lecht puts it, ‘They painted what they felt, what they saw’.
At a recent retrospective of the Gang’s work initiated by Lecht, she wore a black dress tailor-made by designer Diego Cortizas, which bore the names of the famous five artists within a silhouette of the numeral ‘5’. Cortizas, who hails from Spain, is another long-time Hanoi resident. He settled in the city to establish Chula Fashion in 2004 with his wife, Laura. Here, the couple sell their custom dresses, which he says blend ‘Vietnamese traditions and Western visions’.
‘Vietnam is an endless source of inspiration,’ says Cortizas. ‘The street life, the food, the people, the landscape. Every day is an adventure, especially in Hanoi. The city is like a mirror: if you have fresh ideas and good feelings, Hanoi will reflect them.’
His boutique is on Naha Chieu, a zesty strip right in the heart of the old city where innovative small businesses are busy wresting sales from tourist shops hawking bamboo hats and ‘Good morning Vietnam’ T-shirts. Next door to Chula, for instance, local writer Nga Hoang and her photographer partner Liem Tram recently established Collective Memory, a veritable bazaar of curios displayed artfully against exposed brick walls, appealing to more discerning visitors than the average boozy backpacker.
‘I worked as a journalist and would often interview people who created these lovely handicrafts,’ says Nga, as we explore shelves stocked with artisanal products such as Saigon Charlie’s hot sauce, Kuo cooperative coffee and Le Mai soaps. ‘When I said I’d like to open a shop, they agreed I’d be perfect for it. Basically I look for things that have a story to tell.’
In addition to managing her shop, Nga is a well of information on all that is happening in Hanoi’s art and culture scene. After I explain my interest in the city’s nascent music scene she recommends Hanoi Rock City, a short motorbike ride away in Quang An.
A few hours later I’m speeding around the West Lake just as the amber sun dips into the water near the ancient Tran Quoc Pagoda. We’re soon careering through a congested neighbourhood of half-constructed apartment blocks, our path flanked by chaotic electrical wiring suspended from crooked pillars, until I’m deposited unceremoniously on a dusty roadside.
While I try to regain some bearings I come upon Furbrew, a charming Danish-Vietnamese operation marketing craft beer with the motto ‘Imported ideas, locally brewed’. Finding a bar stool, I enjoy some lemongrass-infused ale and tamarind-infused lager before heading down the road to take in a show at Hanoi Rock City. The music venue claims it was established with the aim of ‘cultural development and artistic exchange’. As if to encapsulate this ethos, an Afrobeat band is entertaining a full house when I stumble in. After swilling a few Bia Hanoi, I’m persuaded to join in the dancing.
That evening I meet Dong Thai Mai Phuong, a 23-year-old local graphic designer. We agree to meet for breakfast for a look at – and taste of – the Hanoi morning.
Phuong picks me up on her moped early the next day and steals me away from the tourist traps of the old town, eventually landing us at her favourite street-side stall, where she orders beef in crayfish and tomato sauce, while I chew on a baguette packed with fried eggs and garnished with chilli peppers. Hanoi is a city of early risers and it’s a fine thing just to watch the city wake up. Our meal is washed down with Hanoi’s beverage of choice: iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk. With caffeine in my bloodstream and some carbs to burn, I feel more than ready to continue exploring Hanoi’s art and culture, whose charms, I feel, I’m only beginning to uncover.
This story was originally published in June 2018 and updated in September 2020