The financial-social nexus of Vietnam’s contemporary culture ecosystem

History, development and future

By Daniel Thomas

April 2021. Design by

In this month’s article, we are going to explore how unique social and economic dynamics have shaped the way contemporary cultural initiatives and projects have evolved and operate in Vietnam. 

Like all countries and societies, Vietnam is unique. However, this article will also argue that the nation is an outlier in many important respects, which have gone on to shape how contemporary culture is expressed, experienced and sustained in the country. 

These dynamics relate to the country’s recent history, and the economic circumstances affecting how cultural initiatives and projects have been funded and attained viability there.

Unlike in much of the west, or indeed in many other richer nations of Asia, actors in Vietnam’s contemporary cultural ecosystem have had to forge projects with no government funding, and in a highly-liberalized, rapidly-changing economic, cultural and social environment. 

These unique attributes make Vietnam an interesting case study on how cultural projects whose aim is the promotion of the arts – in a way that we go on to define as ‘non-commercial’ – have found viability through bridging the divide between commercial enterprise, community engagement and cultural experimentation. 

| Vietnam: from isolation to globalization

Before we begin discussing contemporary culture in Vietnam, it’s important to first mention the broader context within which cultural initiatives have developed. 

For many people outside of the country, particularly in the west, Vietnam is all-too often thought of as a place defined by war: poor, exotic, and, perhaps most erroneously: static. 

Indeed, the rate of transformation that Vietnam undergoes almost on a yearly basis can be hard to fully comprehend for people who have not lived there. 

A quick look at the changes it has experienced over the last 50 years can demonstrate the extent of this transformation:

Following the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the country went into a period of international isolation and severe economic hardship, as a consequence of complex internal and external factors. 

In 1986, the country initiated its Đổi Mới (“renovation”) economic reforms aimed at liberalizing the economy and opening it up to global trade. These reforms sparked its transformation into the globally-integrated, economically dynamic and increasingly affluent country it is today. 

Data from the World Bank shows that between 2002 and 2018, Vietnam’s GDP per capita nearly tripled, with 45 million people being lifted out of poverty. 

In 2017, Vietnam was described as “the most globalized populous country in modern history” with its international trade as a percentage of GDP reaching 200% – far higher than any other country of over 50 million people. 

Its middle class, which currently makes up about 13% of the population, is expected to grow to 26% over the next five years. This is even when factoring in the effects of Covid-19, which, due to Vietnam’s early control of the pandemic, will make the country one of a handful in the world to not experience an economic recession as a result of the crisis.  

Listing off these economic facts and feats is not intended to indicate that Vietnam is some kind of economic utopia. Indeed, there is still poverty in the country, inequality is growing, and the difference in wages and living standards between the country’s cities and rural areas can be extreme. 

However, in general terms Vietnam is widely and rightly regarded as being, overall, a very impressive economic success story.

And along with the material rewards of this success, its rapid economic development and processes of internationalization have also inevitably spurred tremendous social changes in the country over the last thirty years, with a particular acceleration over the last decade. 

Vietnam’s people are also overwhelmingly young: in 2019, 55% of its population of 97 million people were under the age of 35. 

The country’s median age is 30.2 years, which is typical of southeast Asia – and interestingly just slightly lower than that of the world as a whole – but significantly lower than east Asia, Australasia, Europe and North America, which range between 37-48. 

The growth of Vietnam’s contemporary cultural scenes has therefore been a closely-related outcome of these macroeconomic, social and demographic processes and dynamics. 

| Contemporary Culture: definition

Now, it’s probably a good idea for us to define contemporary culture. 

Contemporary culture can refer to a very wide collection of human activities, productions and normative values that constitute the culture of a group of people in the present. 

A wide range of social activities can fall into this expansive definition: how and what people eat, what they engage with for recreation, how they interpret and live out traditions, their social structures and hierarchies, and many other aspects of a modern society can all fall into the category. 

For the purposes of this article, we are focusing on contemporary culture in terms of what we are involved with as a club: people creating and experiencing artistic projects as a means of recreation, reflection and social activity. 

Even more specifically, we are examining what we can refer to as novel, experimental or “non-commercial” artistic initiatives, which are created primarily for the purpose of providing a new form of experience – but as we shall see, are nevertheless very rarely independent from commercial activities and economic functions. 

Another note: as well as being limited to a narrow definition of contemporary culture that The Observatory is a part of, this article is also admittedly very urban-centric and does not take into consideration activities or initiatives that are happening beyond Vietnam’s cities. 

Additionally, Vietnam’s cities also have different histories and relationships with contemporary culture. However, while these differences may be important to how cultural projects have developed in each city, they are beyond the scope of this article (though we may explore them in future features). 

| Projects and Initiatives

The vast majority of Vietnam’s contemporary cultural projects and initiatives – from galleries to nightlife venues and art/music collectives – have been established in the last 20 years. 

These projects are usually created as independent businesses by individuals seeking to contribute some kind of new experience to Vietnam’s contemporary culture ecosystem. Gradually, these independent projects have formed a constellation of different actors in the country that carve new spaces, audiences and communities centred around their initiatives. 

However, these projects tend to be quite siloed, and to focus on their own niche markets and communities. 

Nguyen Tran, Co-founder and Hub Leader of Barefoot Ventures “a hybrid model of an incubation hub and investment fund that provides creative businesses with research, connections, mentorship, and social impact investing,” explained the lack of a unified cohesion to the contemporary arts scene in Vietnam in an interview with The Observatory, stating that: 

“the creative ecosystem in Vietnam largely still remains scattered. Creative businesses, hubs, and investors in the creative industry have always been focused on their respective fields and have not had the chance to exchange information and knowledge with one another… That is why Barefoot Ventures is striving to build a community where information and knowledge can flow freely from one sector to another and from businesses to investors, with collaborative openness and transparency.”

Asked about some of the unique aspects affecting how contemporary culture is exercised and received by audiences in Vietnam, Tran’s focus was on the defining aspects of Vietnam’s youth – and the need to empower them further: 

“The rise of social media, curiosity, and openness to new experiences definitely made young people more interested and invested in contemporary culture and arts. Being adaptive to technology and bold to embrace the volatility of the industry, we are collectively building a more diverse, experimental, and engaging art scene, but also challenged to infiltrate the conventional art market.” 

| Cultural Cocktails

Another perception that people both outside and inside Vietnam sometimes have is that some contemporary cultural scenes, in particular western-influenced electronic music and nightlife, have tended to be a foreign transplantation in the country, both in terms of artists/performers and audiences. 

However, over the last several years, a blurring of the distinction has taken place.

Minh Nguyen, a partner in Ha Noi’s Savage club, told The Observatory that they have noticed a distinct shift in their demographic since opening four years ago:

“In the beginning it was mostly foreigners, but after three years there are more and more young Vietnamese. As Hanoi is the capital it has a lot of people and the young generation has more money to spend. People go out to study and they come back searching for something different to what was here when they left. They are more into art and culture now. The government is also more open to allowing events to take place.”

Another interesting feature of Vietnam that stems from its recent, rapid development, is that there have been more recent opportunities to create “new” experiences using influences and ideas brought in from abroad. This transplantation of outside influence within the context of Vietnam has produced syncretic cultural outcomes that are unique to the country. 

This process is well demonstrated by the rise in popularity of drag culture in the country. While experimentation with the culture has taken place in limited degrees over the last decades, usually by individuals expressing themselves independently, the scene has recently risen in popularity and exposure through collaborative projects between foreigners and Vietnamese that has created new forms of expression. 

Ricardo Glencasa, who founded one of Vietnam’s most popular drag collectives, GenderFunk, which organises and presents performances around the country, including at The Observatory, told us how a consideration of cultural context was producing new artistic outcomes for the group: 

“It is sometimes difficult to create an event/cultural project that fits differing styles of event formats that are western and eastern. These communities party/interact and run events in different ways so finding a middle ground can be difficult – however there is so much joy and connection to be found mixing these people and cultures through art and exploration.”

Phi Long Le, founder of the MOILand art community in the central highlands city of Da Lat, has been exploring the legacy of Vietnam’s French colonial history – and how it has related to contemporary culture through generations – with the Lang Du project, which he began in 2016. 

He explained some of the challenges of developing contemporary art projects in areas that have had little exposure to them in recent years:

“I set up an art program and my project fieldwork was located in a place where contemporary art was absent (in Da Lat from 2016 – 2017). For me, in addition to economic self-reliance, I had to find ways to communicate and be local, with local staff, customs and climate… that makes you actively change the way you operate.”

According to Le, it’s the greater absence of pre-existing norms, expectations and categorizations that creates a potential for contemporary art to be exciting in the country. 

Commenting on contemporary arts in the country in general, he told The Observatory:

“I find it interesting and rich. I like the comment from curator Zoe Butt, who is currently the artistic director of The Factory Art Center – she has been a huge influence on contemporary art in recent years in Vietnam. The idea is that intellectuals in Vietnam contain a lot of “gray space”: “ambiguity” is a great source of energy for artists and potentials for Vietnamese art .”

| Culture for sale?

Another big question surrounding contemporary cultural projects in Vietnam – which admittedly is not exclusive to the country – is the issue of the commodification of culture. 

As was mentioned earlier, cultural projects have to function like businesses, in a very laissez-faire environment. Cultural initiatives need to therefore consider market forces in order to survive, which can ultimately serve as a limit in terms of how much experimentation is possible from an economic point of view. 

While richer countries with a long tradition of fostering contemporary culture can often gain support from government funding and support from institutions, the same is not possible in Vietnam. 

However, this might be changing, with the Vietnamese government, in collaboration with the British Council, releasing an ambitious draft version for the National Strategy for the Development of Cultural Industries in Vietnam

The strategy proposes drastic improvements to the way cultural projects and initiatives are funded in Vietnam. However, whether this strategy will serve to provide the economic space for more experimentation remains to be seen. 

Tran, of Barefoot Ventures, lays out the issue at hand with precision: 

“The question now is: how to make culture and art more accessible and inclusive to the younger audience? How to cultivate an environment where young artists are free to experiment with new practices and still have the chance to be supported by traditional art institutions and galleries?”

Vietnam’s recent history, rapid transformation and success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic have provided fertile ground for a vibrant and diverse ecosystem of contemporary cultural projects to flourish. 

Whether the next phase will involve greater synergies and collaboration between the country’s cultural actors and stakeholders, more specialization and distinction, or the production of something new altogether remains to be seen.

It’s definitely exciting, and we look forward to being a part of it.  


Barefoot Ventures Vietnam:


Le Phi Long :


Impressions, context and sound

Exploring memories of music over the past year

March 2021. Design by

For this episode*, we’ve decided to feature an echo from our community, offering people the chance to express themselves on what The Observatory has been built on: music.

Music is intimately tied to what it means to be human. Not just because it’s the outcome of individual creativity, but because of its use as a social mechanism. Indeed, one of music’s most enigmatic aspects is how it can simultaneously evoke personal and communal experiences; a shared encounter with it has the power to instantly equalize complex individual emotions in a way few other elements can. 

With much of the world’s music venues being closed over the last year [The Observatory has also been shut over the last month] we’ve decided to focus on how people think about music within the non-communal contexts that define lockdowns. 

So, for this month’s feature, we asked a selection of people around the world to describe what their most memorable experience of music was in the last year – expressed in words**, imagery or sound***. By asking this question, we hope to shed some light on what music means to people, both personally and as a communal force.

* As The Observatory is still closed due to Covid-19 restrictions in HCMC, we haven’t published any lineups for this month. If and when the situation changes, we’ll publish lineups on a week-by-week basis.
** All answers have been kept in their original style, with some minor editorial adjustments in places.
*** Some readers may not be able to view music videos due to regional licensing restrictions; we have included the track titles as captions.

| Alex From Tokyo / 47 / DJ, music designer, Tokyo Black Star/World Famous label owner / Berlin – Germany

One of the most memorable experiences I had with music last year through this pandemic and the numerous lockdowns was last September on a nice afternoon in Amsterdam, playing a 6-hour vinyl-only eclectic set seated to a tiny crowd of friends and people socially-distanced, chilling on sofas including my partner Lindsey and our daughter Leona who was running all over the place grooving to my music selection on this sweet Klipschorn sound system inside this big beautiful old factory turned into the contemporary art and culture space Het HEM – it was surreal!

| DJ NOBU / Chiba – Japan

The tour with Föllakzoid that I experienced last year in Japan just before the pandemic broke out was one of the few musical moments that left a lasting impression on me last year. I like music with psychedelic elements, which I have been exploring and expressing myself. I fell in love with their minimalistic psychedelic approach when I first heard them play in New York, and from that encounter, they asked me to remix one of their songs. After the release of the remix, I invited them from Chile to Japan to play some shows with me. It was a mind-blowing experience to see their performances again, and also spend some time together. The remix was the most challenging one I’ve ever done, but it really helped me understand the structure of music more deeply. It was an incredible feeling to see the psychedelia that was brought over from so far away, Chile in South America being appreciated in Japan. A piece of memory that will stay with me for a long time.

Föllakzoid – IIII (DJ Nobu Remix)

| Ezra December / 42 / Artist, Psychotherapy Trainee, Property Tycoon / Bath – UK

How I have experienced music over the last year:

I have searched for excitement in new music as if I was a teenager again, as life in lockdown has lacked excitement for me. Music has been a fantasy world I escape to when the same four walls and the same limited company has driven me insane.

I have listened more intently. It has become richer and more colourful to me.

I have listened to old music with the ears of an older man, relating it to newer experiences, realising new depths, appreciating its cultural heritage and societal impact more profoundly.

In lockdown I have invested in a powerful, high fidelity sound system. This has allowed me to hear new sounds in music I thought I knew totally.

My most profound moment was listening to D’Angelo’s album Voodoo, loud, alone in the dark, and high on psilocybin. I could feel the music vibrating in every part of my physical being. My soul was alive. It felt like the most beautiful music I had ever heard, and triggered memories of a carefree, lighter and more exciting me. I chose this album, in its complete form, as it took me to a wonderful world that felt like home.

D’Angelo – Voodoo (Full Album)

| Fabrizio Mammarella / 38 / DJ, producer, label owner / Chieti – Italy

Last year’s most memorable music moment was probably the Sameheads open air party I played in October b2b with Franz Scala. It was definitely a relieving moment after the break lasted so many months. It was incredibly good to reconnect with a dancing crowd and listen to loud music again, through real speakers!  This is one of the tracks I’ve played in that set.

Fad Gadget – Ladyshave (Music Video)

| Gratts / 36 / DJ, producer, label owner, journalist / Berlin – Germany

The most memorable experience with music over the last year must have been sculpting my own tracks that will see the day of light soon. 

However, since you’re asking someone who used to call himself a dj first and foremost, I guess nothing beats standing in front of a sweaty crowd, playing music from the heart, loud. The best gig I played before we went into clubbing hibernation must have been for my Transport friends in Bangkok. One of my first sober gigs and one of those nights where everything aligned: a big sound, up for it crowd, homely decorations, great warm-up tunes by the hosts resulting in a massive vibe all over. I am ready.

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| Jade Barget / 29 / Curator / Paris – France

Amidst the turbulences of 2020, I needed stillness. This desire reflected in what I listened to: music had to be soothing. I had this 2019 album by Sweden-based Kali Malone, ‘The Sacrificial Code’ on a loop. 2h00 of pipe organ. It is meditative, grand, and austere. Not an easy remedy: the stillness is quite intense, sad. But it formed a sort of shield around me, which I really loved. The way I came across this album is important as well: at the end of a beautiful and psychedelic summer day, following an outdoor picnic celebrating my friend’s birthday and my departure from London, in the middle of two lockdowns, at one of my dearests friends’ flat, a hut in the trees, surrounded by beautiful souls. This memory travels through her sound.

Kali Malone – The Sacrificial Code (Full Album)

| Jing / 29 / Music producer and DJ / Taipei – Taiwan

Good frequency brings fun moments, and it does change a person’s mind. I have a friend who was only going to mainstream EDM parties… etc, for some reason, she’s been partying  at Pawnshop for one year since [the pandemic started]. Now she can tell what Electro and R&B are, and starting to know what she likes. Music taste/sense can be built when people find it fun, people tend to learn more regarding detail and the reasons they enjoy it. It includes a good show, a good sound system, a good party, a good track or good vibe.  A fun party with good sound is rather important for a better scene and community – without this I think a local scene doesn’t exist or is insipid.

Yung Acid – Sexyback

| Laura Zhang / 28 / Artist, Curator of 宀 Gallery / Hong Kong

I think it would have to be at a party in my family home on Lamma Island. We kept it relatively small (for people in the music industry) and allowed ourselves a moment of bliss while trying to be respectful. In this intimate space, on old CDJs and home speakers, sound itself had to be constrained. The presence of restrictions felt emblematic of the whole year. Yet, this very limitation gave rise to something unique. With minimal bass and a strict volume limit, 宀residents, Youry, Yadin and Xiaolin, had to do more with less. Youry played dark, slow, progressive trance while Yadin delivered indie-pop laced with electronic oddities and Xiaolin finished off with an alchemy of acid and ambient. No one was working, no one was worrying. We were absorbed by every beat and hypnotized by every note. You could almost see the waves that were held back, somehow exposing what was missing while finding inspiration in the current moment. Sound expanded internally.

| Manuel Fischer / 1991 / Musician, Art Director / Zürich – Switzerland

There were a few moments that brought me even closer to music, as a tool to reflect and rethink, but I guess this one moment connects well to the question.

I am part of an audiovisual / contemporary dance concert series called ““. Our full 2020 schedule was cancelled due to the pandemic which made us very sad, as our team had invested a lot of our time and heart into it in preparation. In December 2020, there was the possibility of running the event with Covid–19 restrictions. As this event is not based on a dancefloor situation with the audience dancing, we were able to have 3 slots of 50 people sitting with 2 meters distance between each other.

Before the pandemic started, I was mostly stressed while organizing the concerts, but in December it was the first time for me having a moment of sitting down and being able to fully explore the production. As I was sitting there I appreciated it more than ever.

I was thankful to be in a room with other people listening to amazing music. It felt like ages. It took 9 months to change something normal into something special, and I enjoyed every second of it.

| Robert Yang / Bézier / 41 / Electronic Musician & DJ / Berlin / San Francisco

The pandemic changed how we went about things particularly regarding how we interacted within the sphere in the most profound way. Because clubs shut down, the people who appreciated and needed it the most did not stop. Crews and artists doubled down on their efforts and managed to put on productions, but only in the virtual arena. Difficulty levels had been unlocked and a scramble to fill the economic void took place immediately. The speed in which online events flourished speaks to the drive to continue a discussion that includes questioning the politics set forth by dance music gatekeepers in a much more demanding light. Heavy processing of moods and pre-pandemic experiences crystalized into outrage as the community reflected on the mistreatment of Blacks and non-whites in some of these spheres. Community locked in to become much tighter, and engaged in healthy debate. Queer fam were more than willing to lend an assisting hand. I suppose, most memorable for me were peers who continued to maintain and operate space when physical presence was impossible. Some of these spaces helped establish decorum giving me hope when places open up again, we can feel slightly more comfortable in our skins as participants.

| Samuel Gieben / 36 / DJ, designer / Berlin – Germany

I didn’t get to play many gigs in 2020 but I did do one with my friend Fredi in an old church in Copenhagen in July. I played ‘The Forbidden Dance’ by Long Hair and before the breakdown  Fredi mixed in the acapella of ‘Don’t Tell Me’ by Madonna. I looked behind us and all our friends were on the stage, grinning and laughing and dancing together. It was rare last year to see the people you love dancing and having fun, but it hadn’t struck me til that moment. For the rest of the evening, and some days after, everything was in its right place again.

LOTR021 Longhair – The Forbidden Dance

Madonna – Don’t tell me (Acapella)

| San Soda / 34 / DJ / Berlin – Germany

I was late with grabbing this release after it came out and when I finally did, it was spring 2020 and the party was over. I took it with me to a few “semi” parties after the first COVID wave but never ended up playing it. The song is so powerful that it needed the exact right moment for it to have its full impact. Eventually that moment came at an outdoor party near Berlin in the summer. It was one of those true parties, a gathering where it was only about the energy flow and it had nothing to do with which tracks were played or how they were mixed or which individual was dancing or DJing or preparing the food. This was the soundtrack to one of those complete-union-moments where the music – and by extension the group of people moving around at that particular place and time – are fully reduced to a medium. If there’s one artist that is able to infuse this transcendental energy in his music, that manages to capture his journey so others can attempt it, it’s Theo Parrish.

Theo Parrish – This Is For You (with Maurissa Rose)

| SHHHHH / 42 / DJ / Tokyo – Japan

While we were still adjusting to life on lockdown, a media outlet  asked me to record a mix for them and I went to a local club to record it. I was impressed by the dance music (it didn’t really matter which track it was) that came out of the speakers during sound check. Dance music shakes our bones, it grooves and makes us feel alive. And the conversation that I had with my friends there, which I hadn’t had in a long time, I thought was also a groove. It’s different from listening to it alone on the speakers at home. This made me realize how much we are kept alive by dance music. This was my biggest discovery last year.

| Taku Hirayama / 40 / DJ / Fukuoka – Japan

The moment called perfect never comes so often but it did once in the middle of dancefloor at a festival in Portugal. Sound was rotating like a spiral and bass was spreading on the ground. It was really quiet at the breakdown with only one silky ambient chord.

Surprisingly I couldn’t hear anybody speaking at all. There were a few thousand ppl on the floor and everyone around me was totally into the music. It was absolutely one of the most impressive music experiences of mine. And I haven’t found that track yet.

| Toss Goldwater / 34 / Professor / Tokyo

To me, musical experiences are a sequence of events built throughout a party or a festival. What these create is an at times hazy, blurry, but foremost beautiful set of memories that are built as a collection of events, emotions, and memories. 

In a year in which the dynamics changed so dramatically, borders and boundaries became so evident, what stood out for me was the Japanese music scene’s vibrancy. Faced with semi-closed clubs, governmental regulations, and other variables, Japan’s DJs, party collectives, and sound crews decided to explore and push beyond the usual boundaries. What arose was a summer-long sequence of various festivals. Different in shapes, music, spectacular locations, and always lovely crowds, they all shared an equal desire to keep the musical experiences continuing, providing endlessly more magical experiences in times in which the ability to enjoy such experiences was not a given. Having the blessing and luxury even of being able to dance away days and nights throughout the Japanese summer at such an incredible number of festivals was the most defining musical experience for me in 2020. This note is also a massive thank you to all those who enabled this and who kept sure we were able to enjoy such experiences.

The Observatory’s New Communication Medium

Realigning with our original vision through socio-cultural investigations and discussions. 

By Daniel Thomas (aka Dan Lo), Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Observatory

February 2021 Program. Design by

Hello and welcome to The Observatory’s new article series.

After more than seven years of writing texts for each and every one of our events, we’ve taken the decision to change strategy and try something different. You’re now reading the first installment of what will be a monthly feature article, discussing what we hope will be a diverse and absorbing collection of subjects, ideas and insights.

Future articles will pursue a journalistic approach and perspective to engage with topics we believe our network will be interested in. The aim is to be as broad as possible, and to involve detailed analyses of a wide range of issues we believe are important and worth discussing. Our society, culture and economy; ideas about music; our history, and anything else we consider reflective of our identity and vision as a club will all be up for discussion. 

While we may also refer to our events and include interviews and analyses of the DJs and artists that have played or will play at The Observatory, this series will not simply be a review of our monthly program: it will be an exploration of our world, in a way that reflects and articulates what The Observatory is, what we want it to be, and who the people behind it are. 

We’ll start by explaining what brought us to this point.

| Conceptual Background 

When The Observatory first opened on the corner of Tôn Thất Tùng and Lê Lai in Q1 in October 2013, HCMC was quite different, and so was the club. 

The first space was meant to be “a multifunctional cultural centre”. We had an art gallery, intended to be open all day as a café, and had plans to host a wide range of different cultural projects, including exhibitions and performances. We also wanted to be a reference point for people seeking insights and information on other spaces and individuals active in the contemporary culture of the city (which is part of the inspiration for The Observatory’s name), and to be a focal point on HCMC’s cultural map. As it turned out, what we quickly ended up focusing most on – and doing best – were our parties.

However, while our initial ambition of being both a conduit and node of multidisciplinary contemporary culture in HCMC may have been slightly sidelined by our focus on the musical side of the operation, the desire to be more engaged in diverse aspects of contemporary culture has been latent in the backdrop since the beginning. As such, we view this new communication medium as a chance to finally engage on an intellectual level with the types of issues and concepts that we originally wanted The Observatory to be instigating and facilitating. 

The Observatory was the idea of Dan Bi Mong (aka Hibiya Line), who had moved to Vietnam from Switzerland with the aim of creating a place where people could experience art and music in a way that wasn’t yet available in the country. Dan and I met around the end of 2012, when Dan was still planning The Observatory’s launch, and in the meantime throwing his notorious weekly Optimist Club parties. Although we definitely bonded quickly off our shared love for diverse types of music, partying and street rum, in hindsight it was probably our shared academic background in the social sciences that placed us on the same page when it came to understanding our city, and the possibilities for the club as the years went on. 

While it’s taken a while to get to this point, this new chapter for The Observatory feels like a necessary and natural evolution. Dan and I both have backgrounds in studying and writing on issues ranging from politics to culture, economics and society. While I’ve been working as an editor and writer for a long time in parallel to my work with The Observatory, Dan has not, but will be making his return to the field in this series as Co-Editor-in-Chief with me. We will also periodically be inviting other writers who are engaged in our fields of interest to feature articles in this series.

| Agents of Change

When The Observatory first opened, there weren’t really any venues in the country dedicated to consistently playing the types of eclectic dance music we were providing. So, we were beginning with something of a blank slate when it came to establishing an identity – not just for the club, but for how we wanted people to perceive the music they heard there. 

As The Observatory’s writer, I tried my best to provide highly descriptive texts for each event we were hosting. This involved listening to the mixes and productions of DJs that had been booked, and trying to create a glimpse of their sound and the atmosphere I imagined them bringing using words, which were also translated into Vietnamese. 

Going back through some of the first texts reveals a blend of fresh excitement and what could perhaps be described as wide-eyed passion bordering on effusiveness. However, over the years, I like to think that the texts evolved according to my own expanding comprehension of what could be experienced at the club from an atmospheric and sonic standpoint, and my understanding of what our guests could and would expect when they got there. That approach would continue for seven years, essentially uninterrupted. 

Beyond the aforementioned desire to re-engage with the intellectual pursuits The Observatory was originally intended to address, there are a number of other reasons for our new choice of communication medium:

The first is the COVID-19 crisis. 

Compared to much of the rest of the world – large parts of which have spent most of the last year in lockdown – Vietnam has handled the pandemic well.

However, the country has achieved this at the expense of essentially closed borders, with entry permission restricted to Vietnamese citizens, residents and foreign experts, all with a mandatory 14-day quarantine. So, although we’ve been fortunate enough to remain open for much of the last 11 months, it’s been impossible to bring in any artists from abroad, as we had been doing regularly since we opened. As our access to international artists has been severed, we’ve had no choice but to make do with holding events featuring exclusively local lineups.

This change in circumstances has pushed us to seek out and work with many more local artists than we had previously. Doing so has opened our eyes to just how much talent there is in Vietnam, in a way and to a degree that we were simply not aware of before. 

Vietnam now has a very strong and vibrant contingent of DJs playing a very wide and eclectic selection of music at a high level. Border closures have allowed these artists to carve a more prominent place for themselves on our and other clubs and parties’ lineups. Peak-hour sets in front of packed rooms – which were often monopolized by international guests – have been made more available to local DJs, who have taken the opportunity to really shine and show that they are capable of creating dance floor experiences at just as high a standard as highly-paid international headliners. 

Also, the absence of short-term visitors to our city and the club has been a double-edged sword. On the downside, it has meant that we have been deprived of the constant stream of energy and inspiration that people from outside the country would bring to us, and from hearing new and exciting sounds played by artists from different scenes and persuasions. 

However, the lack of inward flows of people means our events are often more intimate. Transience is very much the antithesis of community, and the border situation has compelled many of our guests to get to know each other and us at a deeper level. 

Well, that’s what I’ve been told anyway. I left Vietnam in early 2019, and had planned to move back some time in 2020. As that became impossible, I’ve had to write each event text from far away, often for very similar lineups every month. This became progressively harder to do in any kind of exciting or original way – after a while, there’s only so much you can write about a DJ, let alone a DJ you’ve never heard before, often with a minimal online presence. So there’s the first reason for the move away from event texts. 

The second reason is related to COVID-19, but also separate; it probably would have sparked a change at some point anyway, pandemic or not. This reason is also slightly more theoretical, but also functional.

Social media-based event promotion is essentially an advertising exercise that attempts to sell a product, and as with all advertisements, they are a largely unilateral intrusion into individuals’ consciousness for the purposes of changing it in some way, usually for profit. We want to move away from this form of one-way, unbalanced communication that principally serves the business model of immensely powerful social media companies, and in its place create something that is more discursive, independent and centred around a direct line of communication between us and the people interested in The Observatory. 

While we have of course benefited from and used advertising to bring people to our events in the past, we feel that now is the time to reduce our reliance on it. We believe that we’ve reached a point where people in HCMC know about the club and what it offers, and we therefore don’t need to constantly bombard them with ads for each event. For those who don’t, we hope that they can find out about us in other ways. 

Finally, as most of the world and many of our friends outside Vietnam are currently not able to attend parties, we’ve become conscious of how us posting links to events on social media every day might seem like an exercise in irrelevance. It is also monotonous, and we are not willing to indulge in the fantasy that anyone is really reading or cares about the text that is written for each event anymore.  We want the content we produce to be relevant to people who can visit the club, as well as to those who cannot. 

| The Future 

Following from these ideas, we’ve decided to use our communication resources to develop content that people might actually want to consume. 

The people behind The Observatory consider it something more than just a place to party (even though that is a very important part of it) and we want to be able to articulate what that may be. We do not expect everyone who has visited or plans to visit the club to want to read these articles, but for the ones who do, we hope it will be an experience that provides you with some kind of value, and allows us to build a stronger connection and community. 

Below is a breakdown of our communication protocol going into the future:

  • Each month, we’ll make one post to The Observatory’s social media pages (Facebook, Instagram) and stories that includes one unique design for our monthly program, info on the dates and lineups for each event, and a link to our website where we will publish the monthly article.
  • On the day of each event, we’ll post a reminder to our social media stories with the lineup and timetable for the event. Other information on the music featured will also be posted on the stories. 
  • We will no longer be creating Facebook event pages for our events

This approach has been designed to reduce repetitive and irrelevant promotional noise from flooding social media feeds, and to focus on quality instead of quantity. 

Ultimately, our goal is to use this opportunity to express and articulate ideas, experiences and views we believe are important within a range of different contexts and perspectives. This is in order to finally realize the primary mission of The Observatory, which is to provide something that is culturally richer, deeper and more diverse than simply partying. In the process, we hope to build a stronger and deeper network of people who value The Observatory, what it does and where it’s going. 

This first article has been a presentation of our new approach and can be considered “Episode 0” in the series. Episode 1 will be more focused on a specific subject and will be released next month. As always, we thank everyone that has been a part of The Observatory, whether you have been visiting us since the beginning, just dropped by for a night, or following what we do from afar. We hope you’ll enjoy this next chapter and continue to play a role in what makes our club special to us.