A New Culture of Cool, Vietnam-Style
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Brooklyn with a Vietnamese vibe isn’t your typical blend.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Shabby-chic geeks with thick-rimmed glasses are sipping iced coconut coffee in Hanoi, Vietnam. It’s a sultry summer day in Southeast Asia and they’re cooling off in the communist-themed Công Càphê coffee shop, where the baristas wear dark-green military uniforms and the menus are scratched into dingy, old Lenin books.
Sure, Vietnam has a staunch reputation for communism and conservatism. But the irony-loving hipsters in the country’s quaint capital have been bringing more independent, local and creative stripes to the straight-laced city. This surge of counterculture all comes to a head in Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi’s charming lakeside neighborhood, lined with French colonial town houses and traditional pagodas. It may seem like a strange place to seek out brown leather man-bags and fixed-gear bikes, but this kitsch hangout has your hipster needs covered, including indie bars, caffeine-fueled dens and vintage shops — all underground and all adorably zany. The end result: a little Williamsburg, with an oriental vibe.
This Viet-style hipster culture is “uninfluenced by colonialist-style thinking.”
Vietnam’s growing affluence, urban middle class and a comparatively young population have all played a part in the rise of hipsterdom here, explains John Kis, the bearded owner of the three-story Hanoi Social Club. His Hanoian café boasts vegan options and a subscription to Australian art and fashion magazine Frankie, with folk tunes playing in the background. Kis says the hipster scene is “blossoming” as Vietnam’s economy picks up, with the number of his ilk doubling in the past six years. Considering that the developing nation suffered through more than a thousand years of colonialism via the French and the Chinese, five years of Japanese occupation and nearly two decades of war with the Americans, “being able to define yourself through fashion, food and music” was certainly not an easy feat, Kis says. Now, though, Hanoi is the king of drip-coffee culture and trendy speakeasies filled with throngs of Vietnamese bluegrass fans and aspiring artists. This Viet-style hipster culture is “uninfluenced by colonialist-style thinking,” says Kis.
Moreover, the nightlife is centered around grit more than glitz. Nestled in the backstreets of Hanoi, the Tadioto bar is a popular watering hole whose walls are covered with paintings by local artists. Here, expats, freethinkers and intellectuals roam about until the dead of night. Bar Betta, the trendy epicenter of Hanoi, lets patrons buzzed on craft cocktails muse about ukulele music and subversive art while lounging beneath the glass bottles that dangle precariously from the dark ceiling. But one topic is strictly off-limits, says 30-something Thoại Tran: politics. It’s still Vietnam, and government persecution is quiet but ruthless. “[The government] will kill you if you say anything bad,” Tran says, flinching and taking a swig of his Tiger beer. It’s a scary endeavor to buck the mainstream when heavy censorship is on the line.
But perhaps Vietnam’s artsy hipsters are ahead of their time, and eventually the walls of suppression will fall as the country continues to jet forward into the future. Vietnam’s gross domestic product is growing rapidly at 6 percent, according to the World Bank. For now, stay funky, Hanoi.