The Awakening of Hanoi [Part 1]

The Apricot Gallery.


Published: February 18, 2007

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’sart 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.

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