August 14, 2014 12:00 am JST

Renaissance in Vietnam

MANABU ITO, Nikkei staff writer

HANOI -- The pounding of sledge hammers echoes in the heart of the Vietnamese capital as a new gathering place for artists and entrepreneurs nears completion. The complex is meant to replace a hangout for creative types that was closed down by the city late last year -- ostensibly for safety reasons, though some suspect the place was simply too popular for the Communist Party's liking.

     The young business owners behind the new project, which is called Zone 98, hope it will become a base for free expression.

     Zone 98 is located on Hoang Cau Street on what was once the site of a 2,000-sq.-meter wrapping paper plant. The new complex will combine art galleries and studios with restaurants and clothing stores. Construction started in April and is expected to be finished this month.

     "We want to get construction design companies and information-technology companies as residents to advance interaction among various kinds of businesses," said Tran Vu Hai, a 37-year-old restaurant manager who took the lead in planning the project and directing work at the site.

     Explaining the motivation behind the endeavor, he said: "We wanted to continue the concept of Zone 9."

     Zone 9 was an art facility about 5km to the east, the brainchild of 46-year-old architect Doan Ky Thanh. Open from June through December of last year, it was a place where artists could gather and inspire one another. The project was funded by artists, art dealers and music businesses.

     Zone 9 was packed with nearly 60 stores, including bars, cafes and boutiques. Workshops and exhibitions were held daily. Vietnamese and foreign students aspiring to be painters or musicians exchanged ideas. Hai was one of the owners of a bar that served as a venue for many of those discussions.

     Nguyen Qui Duc, 56, managed a different bar in the same facility. "We would have poetry readings and performances by dancers," he recalled, adding that the place was "teeming with energy."

     Zone 9, Duc said, sent a new artistic breeze through Hanoi. Then, last November, everything changed when a fire broke out, killing six.

     The following month, the city of Hanoi announced that Zone 9 would be closed.

Pushed out

"In the end, they cut off everything, including electricity and water, forcing us to leave," Duc said. "Some 2,000 people that worked at the facility lost their jobs."

     The city cited "safety problems" as the reason for the closure, but some involved with Zone 9 believe the real reason was the "air of freedom" and the complex's quick rise in popularity. Vietnam remains under single-party rule and expression is heavily restricted.

     Still, Zone 98 is almost ready to take Zone 9's place. And there are plans to build similar art hubs in Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Haiphong in the north.

     "Opportunities for young artists in Vietnam to display their works are rare, and they tend to be isolated," said Thanh, the architect. "We want to create an environment that increases their motivation."