Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Awakening of Hanoi

The Awakening of Hanoi

Correction Appended

TO find the Mai Gallery in Hanoi, you must first walk down the bustling avenue of Le Thanh Tong, a street filled with flower stalls, neighborhood shops, sidewalk cafes and the ubiquitous roar of hundreds of motorbikes streaming in the direction of the century-old opera house. As you turn down Phan Huy Chu, one of a maze of narrow alleys in the Old Quarter, the throngs of teenagers leaning against parked mopeds with their cellphones cupped to their ears quickly disappear. Instead, squatting on the sidewalk stirring steaming pots of soup laced with noodles, pork and cilantro, are elderly women, their faces hidden under traditional farm-field conical hats, chatting among themselves as they give you a quick, inquisitive glance.

As I made my way down this passage on a warm morning in late November, I thought about why I had come to Hanoi — to see a country I knew only from history books and vaguely remembered images from the nightly news in the 1970s. The map of Vietnam was like a screen saver on our television set, and the war in Southeast Asia dominated the discussions at the dinner table in the politically active college town of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Thirty years later, I found myself experiencing an enormous disconnect. Hanoi was not at all as I had pictured it. Instead of being a squalid third world capital struggling to recover from years of war and isolation, it was a stylish, European-influenced metropolis with manicured lakeside promenades, tree-lined boulevards, ancient pagodas and French-colonial buildings painted in a peeling palette of jade, turquoise and burgundy.

On the streets, elderly men sipping tea at food stalls and grandmothers balancing poles on their shoulders laden with heavy baskets of fruits and vegetables were outnumbered by representatives of a younger and more boisterous generation. Nearly sixty percent of the population in Vietnam was born after the war ended in 1975, and Hanoi feels like a city of teenagers. They were everywhere — doubled up on motorbikes, their hair streaming behind them like jet spray as they raced off to school or work. At night they gathered in the parks and the city's dance clubs before zooming off again to start a new day.

Two days into my stay in Hanoi, I had made the obligatory visits to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum (where the body of the still-revered leader lies in state) and the Temple of Literature (once a university, built in 1070) but had also found my time increasingly taken up by visits to the city's art galleries. That's because back in London, where I now live, friends who had been to Hanoi had all come back raving about the art. One showed me her collection of traditional paintings — each a different village scene, Impressionistic in style, painted on wood and then treated and polished with sap from a lacquer tree. They were stunningly luminous, laced with gold and silver gilt as well as crushed eggshell. The effect was like looking at a detailed painting under a thin, still puddle of water.

“Just wait,” my friend said. “You will fall in love with the art there.”

And I had. But while I was fascinated by 20th-century Vietnamese art — a mixture of Eastern techniques (woodcutting, engraving, silk and lacquer painting) with European influences from the early 1900s (Impressionism, Cubism) — I was most taken with the contemporary works by younger artists, many of whom are integrating the traditional into the modern and expressing themselves in new ways that reflect an awareness of what is happening in the Western art world.

THAT'S one reason I was now headed toward the Mai gallery, hoping to meet Tran Phuong Mai, the owner, herself. As I wandered from art gallery to art gallery, her name kept coming up in conversation, as other dealers would describe her — sometimes with a slight roll of the eyes or a faint note of exasperation in their voices — as being among the most prominent figures in their midst, the one who was most adeptly taking advantage of the increased attention contemporary Vietnamese art was attracting in the West. (Well, that was certainly in contrast to one gallery owner I met, who when I happened to mention that Charles Saatchi, the noted British collector, was beginning to feature young Vietnamese on his Web site, said, “Charles Saatchi? Oh, I got an e-mail from him several months ago asking me if he could link my gallery Web site. But I had never heard of him. Is he famous?”)

Young, stylish, attractive and with a close relationship with many of the city's young artists, Mai was beginning to sound like a character I knew well from my days of living in Manhattan in the early 1980s, when New York's downtown art scene was exploding. Could this be the Mary Boone of Hanoi?

Opposite a wall of boldly drawn graffiti in the tiny alleyway was her sleek, modern art gallery. On display inside the stark white space were the colorful urban landscape paintings of Nguyen Bao Ha, an Abstract Expressionist, whose work has been described as depicting the “cancerous” pace at which Vietnam is being developed. There was no one inside, however, except Mai's mother. Her daughter, she explained in her halting English, was at her new art gallery, her second — a sign that business was booming.

When I finally tracked down Mai at the other gallery, a three-story space on less-remote Hang Bong Street, it was clear to me she was a young force — she's 36 — in Hanoi's art world. With a stylish crop of jet black hair and trendily dressed in a hooded red zipper jacket and black skinny jeans, she looked every bit the part of an artist's friend. But she also had the demeanor of an experienced businesswoman. She instructed her assistant to get us a pot of tea, and she invited me to sit while she told me her story.

“We were the first private art gallery to open after doi moi,” she said referring to the Communist government's decision in 1986 to allow foreign trade and private ownership. A poet's daughter who grew up around artists — many of whom painted her portrait as a child — Mai opened her original gallery in 1993 with the help of her parents. “Previously, every gallery was state owned, and Vietnamese contemporary art was anonymous to the rest of the world,” she said, adding that the Hanoi University of Fine Arts (previously the École Superieure Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine) had provided Vietnam with an unending supply of talent since it was founded by the French in 1925.

“Now many of our artists are exhibiting outside of the country,” she said, adding that her paintings, like those in most Hanoi galleries, range in price from $300 for a small canvas by a relatively unknown artist to less than $6,000 for a large canvas by one of the “Gang of Five”— the first contemporary group to gain international recognition outside Vietnam, in the late '90s.

“My clients come from all over the world,” she said as she escorted me to see “master” paintings — works from modern artists like Bui Xuan Phai, whose work is frequently compared to Van Gogh's and Klee's, and who died in poverty in 1988. Now his paintings are sold by Mai for $10,000 and go at auction for twice that.

After warning me about Hanoi's many “art shops” — kitschy stores aimed at tourists that sell cheaply produced decorative art — she sent me down the street to meet Vu Dan Tan, one of the first experimental artists in Hanoi, whose atelier, Salon Natasha, is open to the public and served as one of the first meeting places for contemporary artists in Vietnam. I found Tan, a white-bearded man, sitting in his paint-splattered studio surrounded by his work, paper creatures and masks constructed from recycled packaging — a style developed during the war years when materials were short and now was a statement on the Western-style consumerism that has enveloped the country. He told me his work had been exhibited in Australia, Germany and Japan. “It is a very different time for artists,” he said, sitting down gingerly at a wooden desk covered with paint brushes.

An international art expert agreed. “There are many vibrant young contemporary artists in Hanoi, and people are definitely buying their work — hoping it will one day appreciate,” Mok Kim Chuan, a specialist in the Southeast Asian Paintings Department at Sotheby's in Singapore, told me by telephone. “We are not auctioning many of the younger artists yet because their work is still readily available in the galleries, but we are very aware of them.” He said that the post-Impressionist works by the Vietnamese artist Le Pho, who died in 2001, were now auctioning for around $300,000. “Contemporary art is very hot right now,” he said.

Suzanne Lecht, an American art consultant who escorted Bill Clinton around the galleries of Hanoi in 2000 and who has lived in Hanoi and run the Art Vietnam gallery since 1994, is trying to help Vietnamese artists gain more recognition in the United States. Her newest gallery, the Fielding Lecht Gallery, is in Austin, Tex., and she is planning an artist-in-residency program in Hanoi for international artists. “I want it to be a meeting place for artists from all over the world,” she said in a recent interview. “It will also expose Vietnamese artists to many more ideas,” she added.

Just down the road from Mai's second gallery is the Apricot Gallery, which features minimalist artists like Le Thiet Cuong, whose family fled Hanoi for the countryside from 1964 to 1973 to escape American bombings, and Le Thanh Son, whose colorful canvases of village life impressed Mr. Clinton enough that he bought one to take home.

All galleries must get permission for exhibits; the government frowns on raw sexuality, and overtly political paintings, like depictions of “Uncle Ho,” are prohibited. Curious to see the experimental side of Vietnam's art scene — which was beginning to feel like a cross between Montmartre in the 1920s and Williamsburg in the 1990s — I visited L'Espace Centre Culturel Français de Hanoi and the Goethe Institute. Both, being foreign owned, get less government scrutiny (though they must still get a permit) and regularly hold public events that give exposure to installations and performance art presentations by conceptual artists.

At L'Espace an exhibit called “Surfaces” was on display, which showed small bits of dirt from historic places in Vietnam like My Lai, the site of a massacre of civilians by American troops in 1968. The Ryllega Gallery, next door to the opera, also provides space for experimental art installations, aided by a grant from a British cultural organization.

Art, it seemed, was everywhere in this city — from the Hanoi Museum of Fine Arts, with three floors and more than 2,000 objects on display, including artifacts from the Stone and Bronze Ages, an array of Buddhist images (one from 1057) and early lacquer paintings, to the many Hanoi restaurants that incorporate contemporary Vietnamese art into their décor.

In the public spaces of the century-old Metropole hotel, I noticed well-heeled American couples checking out the contemporary art on display in the lobby before heading out to the thatched roof terrace bar overlooking the hotel pool. The bar, with its large comfy wicker chairs, is an inviting spot to enjoy a well-made cosmo and warm, crispy spring rolls.

And, later, at dinner at the fashionable Restaurant Bobby Chinn, I watched a parade of young women in miniskirts traipse by my table and then followed them into a back room, where they were nestled on silk cushions in velvet banquettes, a water pipe in one hand, a drink in the other. On the walls behind them were abstract paintings from Mr. Chinn's personal art collection, which he regularly rotates through his restaurant.

When it comes to darting in and out of galleries, restaurants and the many craft and silk shops in Hanoi's densely populated Old Quarter, walking is the best way to get around. Though the roar and density of the traffic is overpowering, it's easy to navigate the city with just a hotel map in hand.

Even a simple stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, looking out onto the tranquil Ngoc Son Temple, which floats like a jewel in the middle of a lake, provides a glimpse into local culture. I watched an outdoor traditional flag dance exercise class (while enjoying a ginger ice cream from Fanny's, a near-legendary ice cream shop by the lake) followed by a noisy aerobics class of middle-aged women boogieing down to techno music. The language barrier makes it hard to strike up a casual conversation with strangers, but those who do speak English (mostly the under-30 set) are eager to practice with Westerners.

One day, having already enjoyed a typical breakfast of pho (beef noodle soup), I allowed myself Hanoi's other cuisine, French, and sat down at a table on the second floor of the Paris Deli, a comfortable bistro with black-and-white photos of Paris on the walls. From my window seat by the balcony overlooking the trendy Nha Tho Street, with a view of St. Joseph Cathedral in the distance, I took in the street scene below as I sipped a glass of Beaujolais nouveau, which had just arrived that week, right on time.

When my confit de canard appeared, my young waiter started a conversation in English that lasted nearly 15 minutes. It turned out he had a friend in New York. “If I visit, will gangsters and thugs get me, like in the movies?” he asked. “I see you later,” he said after I paid the bill, though we had not exchanged numbers, making me wonder if the city was much smaller than it seemed.

MY last morning in Hanoi, I again met with Mai, who had said she wanted me to meet Nguyen Manh Duc, a man in his late 60s who is considered the father of experimental art in Vietnam. When a friend and I arrived at her gallery, a taxi was waiting for us, and we quickly headed out toward the suburbs, the European elegance of Hanoi gradually replaced by urban sprawl. Thirty minutes later, after several cellphone calls between Duc and the taxi driver, the taxi deposited us on a corner where we were met by a thin man on a bicycle. He motioned us to follow him down a road and around several corners. There, in the middle of a neighborhood filled with housing projects, we came upon the exotic Thai Stilt House, Duc's home and atelier.

Walking through large wooden gates decorated with decoupages of photographs, notes and fliers, we were directed up a flight of wooden stairs, and we added our shoes to a pile before walking into a dimly lighted room. It was filled with hundreds of Buddha statues and ceremonial ornaments. Sitting around a low wooden table on stools about a foot from the ground were five young Vietnamese art students (all men, ages 23 to 27) drinking tea and smoking Vinataba cigarettes — no doubt the Vietnamese equivalent of the French Gauloise. Duc had invited them to meet us.

Most spoke little English, but they seemed excited to meet Americans, particularly Americans interested in Vietnamese art. All spoke reverently of Duc, whose Stilt House has been a salon for the avant garde art movement since the 1990s — the setting of controversial art events, installations and performance art. Sometimes in broken English, but mostly through the translation of another young student, they explained that at their art school they were mainly taught traditional European and Eastern techniques. Modern artists were not taught and were barely even discussed. “We come to Duc to create contemporary art and to talk about ideas with him,” said one of them, who like the others, had never left the country, though each of them had a Yahoo e-mail address.

Duc, described by one gallery owner as a “Gandhi-like” figure in Hanoi, sat listening as the young men discussed their nascent careers and then, only when pressed, added his thoughts. “There is still a big separation between mainstream art and experimental art in Vietnam,” he said through an interpreter, not wishing to elaborate further on the subject. “I will just say that when they are here we try to close that gap.”

We spent nearly an hour in conversation, until squatting on the tiny stools began to feel painful and the combined smell of smoke and strong tea became overpowering. The students and I walked out into the street, and the conversation lingered, as they peppered me with questions about my life at home, and what I thought of Vietnam. Finally, it was time to go. They thanked me again for coming, hopped on their bicycles and headed off.

Three hours later, on the computer back at my hotel, e-mail had arrived from one of my new friends, containing an attachment. “Here is my painting,” he wrote. “Hope you like.”

I did.

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