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View of Hanoi in 2014. Copyright and courtesy Flickr user Guerretto.

Hanoi

Also available in:  Chinese

Hanoi prides itself on its 1,000-year history and diverse mix of Chinese, French and Soviet cultural influences. It is much like a living theater, with all aspects of life played out in the streets, including eating, drinking, talking, singing, driving, dancing and fighting. 

The city is full of national museums, such as the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, and the Vietnam National Museum of History. However, these sites seem to only attract foreign visitors. Internationally, there is curiosity and demand for arts and culture from Vietnam and historical information around the Vietnam War, but the local people, especially the younger generations, are generally more interested in the latest Korean fashion trends or the next Hollywood blockbuster. The exception to this is the new, private Vincom Center for Contemporary Art (VCCA), situated inside a huge luxury shopping mall in the Royal City residence complex, which since its debut last year has attracted massive crowds of young people. The popularity of the VCCA has contributed to the mainstream appeal of contemporary art, which was once considered underground and alternative.

Despite this shift in perception, other nonprofit or independent key players in the contemporary art scene remain quiet, possibly due to the lack of commercial galleries and external funding from foreign art foundations and institutions, or a financially viable art market. In December of last year, the city saw the closure of the temporary physical space of Nha San Collective, one of the most prominent arts organizations in Hanoi and a second-generation offshoot of the historic Nha San Studio, which opened in 1998 and closed in 2011 due to government pressure over its staging of a nude performance piece. Nha San, which means “stilt house” in Vietnamese, was founded in the private home of artist Nguyen Manh Duc, who had converted two traditional wooden houses built by the ethnic tribes of Northwest Vietnam. The very first art happenings there in the late 1990s manifested out of the founding members’ personal desire to create an alternative and open space for young artists—efforts that helped pave the way for contemporary practitioners today. 

Other major nonprofit spaces include the alternative Manzi café and art gallery, whose annual public art project “Into Thin Air,” initiated in 2016 to encourage interaction and intervention of public spaces, was presented for the first time in September as a virtual exhibition, a move by the organizers to avoid the burden of having to deal with the authorities and censorship. The audience can download an app and view different locations as “occupied” by various new artistic creations. The nine-year-old independent space for film and moving image, DocLab, formerly funded by the Goethe-Institut, moved from its enclave in the Goethe-Institut building and declared its independence by relocating to a space in a less busy location. Newer, smaller initiatives operate below the radar, like Puppets Café, founded in 2017 and run by a group of young artists and curators, and A Space, which opened in 2018 and is run by artist Tuan Mami, who has been active in mentoring young artists and offering a truly playful space for experimentation.

Although local, independent art spaces are lowkey, some in more deliberate ways than others, public government-funded projects are on the rise, aiming to inject new life into the arts and cultural heritage of Hanoi and to foster cross-cultural relations. An initiative supporting the creative industry, established this year by the Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Arts Studies and the British Council, has launched a project focused on the revival of the Vietnamese film archive and traditional musical heritage. This joins the efforts of two existing exchange-program organizations: Heritage Space, in Nam Tu Liem district, and Six Space, located in Hoan Kiem District. Heritage Space runs MAP – Month of Arts Practice, an annual residency program that invites local and international artists to collaborate on a group show over a period of one month. Six Space collaborates with Barim, an arts venue in Gwangju, to foster relationships between South Korean and Hanoi artists, which resulted in a series of public events at this year’s Gwangju Biennale. And to highlight the little-known connection between Hanoi and the Eastern Bloc, artist and curator Tran Luong (also a co-founder of Nha San Studio) recently invited a group of local performance artists, including the Appendix Group, for a series of public performances across different Polish cities. 

While international relations are strong, local organizations are struggling. Many artists from the capital, as well as from the nearby city, Hue, are now moving to Ho Chi Minh City where they can connect with international curators, gallerists and collectors, and be supported by local patrons and its burgeoning art market. Whether this is for better or worse, only time will tell.

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