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Hanoi's Newfound Sense of Cool


Pulsating with music festivals and modern art, awash in craft beer and coffee, traditional Hanoi has become cool. CONNLA STOKES ignores the concierges and instead pursues plugged-in locals to their favorite haunts.

Published on Jan 26, 2018

 

Photographer: MORGAN OMMER
Stylist: HOANG ANH TRAN | Makeup & hair: LY HUYNH
Model: THOAI TIEN | Photographer's assistant: BAO KHANH
Makeup & hair assistant: DUONG PHUONG LINH

 

A SPACE FOR DRINKERS AND THINKERS.

That's what the sign inside the door reads, and after a day riding headlong through the feral traffic of Hanoi, I am happy to satisfy both categories, and decompress in louche, serene Tadioto, the watering hole of choice for many of the city's artsy and literaryminded creatives.

Moving from table to table, dropping in and out of conversation as he pleases, is the dapper owner, Nguyen Qui Duc, a Vietnamese-American writer, and, when at Tadioto, a man of introductions. When I explain that I'm curious to learn more about this historic capital's more contemporary elements, he wastes no time in seating me beside the singer-songwriter Mai Khoi, who made international headlines in 2016 when she declared her intention to run for election as an independent candidate in a single party state (her application was, to no one's surprise, rejected by the local apparatchiks).

Nguyen Qui Duc
Nguyen Qui Duc, owner of Tadioto and godfather of Hanoi's creative community.

Soon, we're discussing her adopted hometown's reputation as a destination of fixed traditions and age-old crafts, a place where, guidebooks continue to insist, ancient customs prevail, and so I ask her if this description still applies to such a rapidly modernizing metropolis, where two-thirds of the population are below the age of 40.

"Hanoi is a city of contradictions and cross-sections—we cannot describe it using one label," she says. More than most, Mai Khoi understands the concept of a multilayered identity, having morphed from a pink-haired pop star once dubbed 'Vietnam's Lady Gaga' into an avant garde folk artist and political activist. Due to her outspoken views on human rights and other social issues, she, along with her band The Dissidents, can only perform at invitation-only shows... or on Facebook Live. But nonetheless she senses an increasing openness toward the arts. "In the last 10 years, the creative scene has undoubtedly grown in confidence, and diversified, even if content is still subjected to censorship. There are more gigs and exhibitions than ever in small spaces around town."

Mai Khoi, Vietnam's Lady Gaga
Mai Khoi, disrupter and musician once known as the Lady Gaga of Vietnam.

Once a resident of Hanoi, now an infrequent visitor, I am struck by the growing diversity that is fast emerging in this supposedly ultra-conservative capital. Speaking to individuals such as Duc and Mai Khoi confirms my suspicions that this thousand-year-old city, deservedly lauded for the heritage of its architecture, cuisine and street-life, has another unheralded layer of contemporary cool.

It was only 1990 when author and journalist Neil Sheehan described entering a city "caught in a time warp, a place of history and icons, some dead, some still living to remind one that here the past never dies." The aesthetic Sheehan captured—time-capsule architecture, eternally drowsy lakes, centuries-old trees—is all still there, in spades, but at the end of the day, he'd probably find himself riding pillion behind a 20-year-old UberMoto driver, hurtling past the Hanoi Opera House to experimental music shows, modern-art pop-ups, craft beer and cocktail bars, stand-up comedy nights, or queer disco events. Even if the past never dies—how could it in a city with such a proud history and rich heritage?— nothing stands still. "If a tourist walked out of the Army Museum on Dien Bien Phu Street they'd see hip-hop dancers by the statue of Lenin across the road," Duc reenters the conversation at Tadioto. "Mind you there are still ballroom dancers there, too."

Hanoi Opera House
Cruising by the Hanoi Opera House, in a dress by Chula.

 

STILL, IN SPITE OF THE SHIFTING demographics, and diversifying dance moves, not many people would tell you to come to Hanoi for the nightlife. "Well, for a capital city, it's true that Hanoi shuts down early," Duc says, "but all around the Old Quarter, you can find bars that keep serving till all hours." Not so long ago, these dens pulled down the shutters before midnight—even if drinking continued inside. But, municipal authorities have loosened up, allowing bars to stay open until 2 a.m. officially. No one knows this better than Giles Cooper, who has been around long enough to remember the city's first public escalator being installed in a shopping plaza at the turn of the century, and more than one Old Quarter lock-in. He is one of the town's original expat impresarios: he organized the capital's first outdoor indie music festivals more than a decade ago, and an ASEAN LGBT Pride event in 2014.

The Old Quarter
A quintessential Old Quarter villa houses Loading T café, various boutiques—and local residents.

"Fifteen years ago, I first started persuading, and in some cases begging, indie bands and electronica artists touring Asia to detour to Hanoi for a night, as there were zero acts of that nature coming here. We were off the grid, quite literally," Cooper tells me from the balcony of his latest venture, Hanoi's premier taproom, Standing Bar, where a mix of expats and locals sip craft IPAs, ales and pilsners—all made in Vietnam. "These days things are happening more quickly. The beer scene has suddenly burst into life. Not so long ago, all Hanoi had was bia hoi [a cheap, bare-basics watery beer] and mainstream lagers. Now there's about a hundred high-quality, Vietnamese craft brews, many of which are made with local adjuncts, such as milk flower, cacao, jasmine, mango and Phu Quoc pepper."

While Cooper's earliest gigs and happenings were all, by necessity, underground affairs, in recent years the city's alt-music scene has been allowed to let its hair down in plain view—outdoor festivals, Quest and Equation being two of the largest, are much less unusual nowadays, and multiple music venues, such as Hanoi Rock City and the Doors Cafe, have opened with both local and international acts of all descriptions sharing the stage for increasingly bohemian and cosmopolitan crowds.

Standing Bar
At Standing Bar you'll also find a rotating roster of 20 Vietnamese craft beers.

One of the promoters behind Equation—a three-day house and techno festival held in the outskirts of the capital in 2016—is Frenchman Ouissam Mokretar, who can be found most evenings ensconced at his svelte yet laid-back nightclub, Savage, which is dedicated to bringing high-caliber acts to Hanoi audiences while championing cutting-edge local DJs. "Everywhere you go, you can see the history of Hanoi, but you can also see how it is changing, almost by the day," says Mokretar, who, sensing an air of opportunity (and enticed by considerably cheaper overheads) moved from Hong Kong to Hanoi in 2016. "As a night club, we are very conscious that what we are doing is new for the city, so we are happy to take it slowly. We ßpdon't want to be seen as outsiders. We want to be a part of the community and play a role in the transition Hanoi is undergoing."

While sipping on a ca phe sua da (local-style iced milk-coffee), overlooking the vast expanse of the ever-hazy West Lake, Mokretar reveals he will soon launch a record label, producing vinyl records of local DJs both expat and Vietnamese. "Each vinyl record will be a calling card that says: 'This has been made in Hanoi.' That way, I hope, people will come here knowing there is a scene to discover."

One already established 'made-in-Hanoi' brand is Kilomet109, the brainchild of Thao Vu, an intrepid fashion designer who traveled repeatedly to the northeast of Vietnam to learn the art of natural dyeing, silk production and fabric-weaving from hill tribes. It couldn't sound more traditional. But when I interrupt her at work at her home studio in the West Lake neighborhood, Thao stresses her label is not producing 'ethno-wear,' nor is she trying to replicate 'authentic' hill-tribe costumes. "We're a conscious clothing fashion brand, not an NGO," Thao says. "Yes, we are inspired by traditional dyes, fabrics and weaving techniques, all of which we maintain by infusing them into contemporary designs that we believe can be worn in Hanoi, Paris or London. They're already being sold as far away as Berlin and Porto."

Thao Vu
Thao Vu's conscious clothing brand Kilomet109 represents one way Vietnamese traditions and identity can evolve.

The philosophy behind Kilomet109 highlights a shift. "Ethnic fashion" in Vietnam has long been considered the perfect fit for souvenir-seeking tourists. As a result it's seen as something that can be frozen in time. But according to Thao, young ethnic minorities don't even wear their traditional garb anymore. "They're heavy, impractical garments for modern settings," she says. "As Vietnamese people, we have to modernize our identity and evolve our traditions, not just in fashion, but across multiple industries. A culture has to progress. Otherwise it's doomed."

 

FOR NOW, MANY OF THE CITY'S coolest contemporary places continue to elude outsiders, which, I'd argue, only adds to their mystique. "You can't expect to just pitch up at the airport and be handed the keys to the city," Cooper tells me. "If you want to get under the veneer, my advice would be to ignore what the hotel receptionist tells you to see or do and seek out what the residents are up to. In doing so, you'll play a role in opening it up to others."

Yet many Hanoians seem perfectly content, relieved even, that unlocking Hanoi remains a challenge. "As someone who grew up here, I don't like how Hanoi is developing so fast," Tram Vu tells me. She is the co-owner of Manzi, a contemporary art gallery (located, of course, in a French-colonial-period building) that gives a platform to the city's young artists, so she must favor the new to a certain degree. "But Hanoi is also a conservative place, so it hasn't changed as drastically as other cities, which is a good thing. Progress should be slow and sustainable."

Manzi
A sweep of contemporary art at Manzi, in an indigo hand-dyed cotton top, cotton-and-silk high-waisted trousers, and shoes, all by Kilomet109.

I find just this vibe among the large crowd of millennials sipping cold-brews and quietly confabulating at Tranquil Books and Coffee. "Sometimes I wonder what tourists actually do in this city. This is my hometown and it took me 28 years to know where I want to hang out," says owner Nam Lu, a heavily inked and long-haired poet and prose writer. When you step in here out of the heat and noise, there is a refreshing 'do not disturb' ambience to Nam's space. "It might sound cheesy, but we didn't start this to make loads of money—there are much better ways to do that. This is for the community, but it's also not for everyone. People who love it become our regulars. People who don't never come back."

Wandering away from Tranquil Books, I pass French-colonial houses, noodle stands, roadside mechanics, and bia hoi stalls, and think of heritage expert William S. Logan's observation that what attracted people to Hanoi was its distinctive sense of place, the cultural landscape, and the whole mix of human activities. And that's still the case today. All I have to do is take the inevitable stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, the physical and symbolic heart of Hanoi that is a meeting point for a range of activities from tai chi to courting. I walk toward St. Joseph's, the 19th-century Neo Gothic cathedral where, parched from the sticky heat, rather than enter the church, I pay my respects to the here and now on a small wooden pew under the shade of a banyan tree, where teenagers sit scrolling through Facebook feeds, and sip on an iced lemon tea.

As the twilight thickens, I summon an UberMoto, and soon find myself stepping back into Tadioto, where Duc introduces me to a table of drinkers and thinkers, none of whom, it transpires, has ever visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, or drunk a traditional Hanoi-style egg coffee. Sipping on a neat whisky, Duc muses out loud, "I wonder, does anyone ever Google 'LGBT parade' before coming to Hanoi?" I suspect in a generation even that question will have a time-capsule aesthetic.

 

 

   THE DETAILS

 

 

Hanoi

HOTELS
The Chi Boutique Hotel True boutique hotels are still a rarity in Vietnam, but The Chi ticks all the boxes beautifully: small, with individual style and a strong sense of place. Staff are welcoming, and the overall aesthetic is modern Vietnamese; room designs vary but always keep you feeling in the heart of Hanoi. Near Hoan Kiem Lake and St. Joseph's Cathedral, it is the perfect base for exploring the city center's best shopping and offers easy access to the Old Quarter's restaurants and bars. 13-15 Nha Chung, Hoan Kiem; +84 4 3719 2939; thechihotel.com; doubles from US$56

The Chi Boutique Hotel
Heading back to The Chi after buying the neighborhood out, in a raw silk coat with hood by Kilomet109.

Sofitel Legend Metropole This is the city's most historic and celebrated luxury address, in the most salubrious part of Hanoi, next to the Opera House. But just try leaving this oasis of heritage hospitality, where the 116-year-old original building and the glossy wing envelop a garden pool, greenhouse dining and the iconic Bamboo Bar (under which they recently found a well-preserved Vietnam War bomb shelter). 15 Ngo Quyen, Hoan Kiem; +84 4 3826 6919; sofitel-legend-metropole-hanoi.com; doubles from US$198.

 

CAFES, RESTAURANS + BARS
1 Loading T Hidden in a most quintessential shabby-elegant colonial villa, serving hydrating juices and caffeinated pick-me-ups. Try the coconut coffee. 8 Chan Cam, Hoan Kiem; +84 9 0334 2000; open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

2 Moto-san Uber Noodle Nguyen Qui Duc's eight-seater ramen stall also serves dumplings and a mean stewed pork banh mi. 4 Ly Dao Thanh, Hoan Kiem; +84 4 6680 9124; open 8 a.m. to midnight.

UberMoto
Chit-chatting with Godfather Duc at his Moto-san Uber Noodle, in a silk dress by Ha Truong and velvet cuff by Ha Linh Thu.

3 Nê Cocktail & Wine A lush, cozy bar that has upped Hanoi's mixology game since opening this spring. The popular Pho cocktail has gin, star anise, cardamom, cinnamon and coriander. 3B Tong Duy Tan, Hoan Kiem; nebarhanoi@gmail.com; open 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

4 Pasteur Street Brewing Company Founded in Saigon, Vietnam's leading American-style craft-brewery opened an outpost in Hanoi this July. The award-winning Imperial Chocolate Stout is sublime—and 13.5-percent. 1 Au Trieu, Hoan Kiem; pasteurstreet.com; open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

5 Standing Bar The rotating menu of 20 made-in-Vietnam craft beers can be complemented with yakitori-style snacks (a Mango IPA and pork belly lollipops go well). The bar also hosts stand-up comedy and live music. 170 Tran Vu, Ba Dinh; standingbarhanoi.com; open 4 p.m. to midnight.

6 Tadioto The café-restaurant by day and a drinking den by night is a modern institution. Keep your eyes out for the host with the most, the author, and a magnet for the city's artistic souls, Nguyen Qui Duc, as he works the room. 24 Tong Dan, Hoan Kiem; fb.com/tadiototongdan; open 8 a.m. to midnight.

7 Tranquil Book and Coffee Great craft coffee in a café where poet-owner Nam Lu says, "I don't like noise, or noisy people." He's been known to evict the latter. Don't mess with this poet. 5 Nguyen Quang Bich, Hoan Kiem; fb.com/cafetranquil; open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

8 Uu Dam Chay An old colonial manse with a postmodern interior, this stylish eatery makes next-level vegetarian and vegan food. 34 Hang Bai, Hoan Kiem; uudamchay.com; open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Uu Dam Chay
Uu Dam is a next-level vegetarian restaurant in a renovated villa.

9 VUI Studio One of the city's coolest contemporary cafés has a co-working-space aesthetic and specialty coffee—perfect for digital nomads and arty millennials. They also host film screenings and open-mics. 3C Tong Duy Tan, Hoan Kiem; fb.com/vuistudio; open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

 

ART + MUSIC
10 The Doors Café Live music in the Old Quarter, with a mix of locals and expats both taking the stage and making up the crowd. 11 Hang Chinh, Hoan Kiem; fb.com/thedoorscafe; open 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

11 Hanoi Creative City (HCC) A veritable miscellany of modern spaces: boutiques in repurposed containers, kitschy cafés and tea shops, a funky bar, the renowned Nha San Art Collective's gallery, areas for co-working and workshops, and more. 1 Luong Yen, Hai Ba Trung; creativecity.vn; open 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Hanoi Creative City
Hanoi Creative City is a miscellany of contemporary spaces.

12 Hanoi Rock City An indoor area stages a range of shows by expats, locals and visiting artists, but the courtyard is also a great space for hanging out. 27 Lane 52 To Ngoc Van, Tay Ho; hanoirockcity.com; open 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

13 Manzi The leading contemporary gallery champions local and Hanoi-based-expat artists. Check out the art store, or linger over a coffee or wine in the chill café. 14 Phan Huy Ich, Ba Dinh; fb.com/manzihanoi; open 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

14 Savage The place for cutting-edge electronic and house music has a dedicated dancing room with a Funktion One sound system, a loungey cocktail bar, and an outdoor terrace overlooking the rarest of sights: an undeveloped part of Hanoi. 112 Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho; fb.com/savagehanoi; open Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 6 p.m. to midnight, Thursday to Saturday 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.

T+L TIP : Use Hanoigrapevine.com to find openings, exhibits, concerts, and other happenings in town.

 

SHOPPING
15 An Store Meticulously crafted leather accessories and elegant, linen fashion-wear created by homegrown Hanoi designers. 8 Ly Dao Thanh, Hoan Kiem; fb.com/an1708; open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

An Store
Nguyen Mai Phuong, owner and head designer at An Store.

16 Chula Fashion House Imagine all the traditional fashions and fabrics of Vietnam reinvented by a pair of Spanish designers with an eye for vibrant colors and striking cuts. 43 Nhat Chieu, Nhat Tan, Tay Ho; chulafashion.com; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

17 Flora Playful homewares and accessories fill Flora's three boutiques dotted around Hanoi’s cutest shopping area (by St. Joseph's Cathedral). Main shop: 2 Au Trieu, Hoan Kiem; fb.com/floraboutique62; open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

18 Ha Linh Thu Vietnamese fashions and ceramics have been artfully modernized and stylized with a focus on women's and kids' wear. 6 Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem; halinhthu.vn; open 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Ha Linh Thu
Outside a traditional house, in 2017 silk dress by Ha Linh Thu.

19 Module 7 Find Kilomet109 clothes by Thao Vu, and collections of furniture and home accessories by other Hanoi-based designers. 83 Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho; module7design.com; open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

20 Moniq by M "Young, wild, wise…" is the motto for this funky independent clothing brand from designer Thu Madelin. 2 Hang Bun, Ba Dinh; fb.com/moniqbymboutique; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

21 Ozu by Tadioto Nguyen Qui Duc's lifestyle consultancy starts here: handmade crafts, refurbished furniture, salvaged vintage items, contemporary art— and well-made espresso. 3 Ly Dao Thanh, Hoan Kiem; maianh@tadioto.com; open 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

22 Thanh Ngd Urban, unisex label that takes inspiration from all across Asia to create its own nouveau-Oriental street-style. 35 Phan Dinh Phung, Ba Dinh; open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

 

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Cruising by the Hanoi Opera House, in a dress by Chula.
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