History, development and future
By Daniel Thomas
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: