As Zone 9, the once-hottest-spot in Hanoi, quickly returns to its original status of a ghostly ruined factory site, young Hanoians now pour into a new area located just a few minutes away. Situated right next to Luong Yen bus station, it is known as Hanoi Creative City.
The 22-storey building stands out from afar thanks to its large dragon and feathers tattoos created by German graffiti artist Julian Vogel, who was sponsored by Goethe Institut to come to Hanoi in April 2015 for the Sound Stuff Festival.
Coming closer there is a sign that reads “Kim khí Thăng Long” and a remarkable red staircase leading up to the 6th floor. In front of the building, there is a playing ground decorated with graffitied containers where live music performances take place or street sport activities happen. There is also a Cộng Cafe at the corner facing a bar called “Bia Khu 9” (meaning Zone 9 Beer).
The first glance may leave visitors an impression of a hip entertainment center. People come here to shop in one of Boo’s stylish fashion stores or other clothing shops. There are also craft shops, a few cafes, many restaurants and an entertainment area called Dóo which occupies 2 floors of the building and offers a variety of activities including rock climbing, indoor golf, kids playground, etc. A well-equipped gym named Swequity takes up the whole of the 10th floor while the famous twins Thuy Hang & Thuy Hanh use the 13th floor for their model training center.
The most creative part of the whole complex so far is Nhà Sàn Collective located on the 15th floor, but there will be more with plans for an art center on 5th floor managed by artist Trinh Minh Tien and the Tết Art’s team as well as a bar on top floor by composer Quoc Trung and the Monsoon Music Festival’s team. The Vietnam Creative Entrepreneur Club (VCE) has also moved their office to Hanoi Creative City to support the project.
According to the project’s mastermind, architect Doan Ky Thanh, it is too early to give any judgement at this stage since the project has only been 50% completed, and there is still a lot of construction ongoing.
In relation to Zone 9
It is impossible not to compare any new indie collective spots in town with Zone 9. In mid-2013 when Zone 9 came into being, it was the first time many Hanoi natives heard of the phrase “art district” even though it was still questionable if Zone 9 was an “art district” or not. Anyway, so much hope was then put into the Zone that when it was shut down (*) many hearts were broken. The positive thing is that business owners then realized the potential of collective businesses and started moving in together to set up other “zones” in their cities such as No. 24 Ly Quoc Su, Zone X98, The Yard in Hanoi or 3A Station in Ho Chi Minh City. However, none of them matches the capacity or the creativity that good old Zone 9 used to offer.
Architect Doan Ky Thanh, once a key member of the Zone 9 crew, started to work on the Hanoi Creative City project right after Zone 9 collapsed while the other crew members spread out to look for something else. He soon found the halfway-built Kim Khí Thăng Long complex and agreed with the owners on a 10-year leasing contract to help finish the interior facilities. The twin buildings with 20 and 22 stories each can offer spaces for roughly 40-50 tenants apart from the occupied residential area, and so far it is the place with the most potential thanks to its capacity to host creative businesses and public events, just like Zone 9 did before.
But not quite Zone 9
While the old Zone 9 was started spontaneously by architects and artists, the Hanoi Creative City team now gathers more business-minded people. According to Mr. Thanh, the project needs to be sustainable first before it can provide more support to the creative community. “If I had financial power I would just let all the art groups in”, Mr. Thanh emphasized, “This is my social enterprise. I want to contribute to the community”. Even though some may say this top-down method makes the complex less creative than Zone 9’s bottom-up approach, in terms of sustainability, this is a wise model, which has proved successful in many countries.
And even though the modern building, initially designed for offices and residential purposes, may leave artists less room to deliver their creative ideas, it also means that the security is better which will reduce the chance of accidents like the fatal fire that precipitated the closing of Zone 9.
The biggest difference, though, is the tenant mix. Zone 9 was lucky to gather an exceptional mix of creative groups in town, among which only Nhà Sàn Collective moved into Hanoi Creative City, while others have settled elsewhere in the city (**). “I’d love to have them back”, Mr. Thanh stated, but he knew it was not possible at this stage.
The story so far
Hanoi Creative City opened its doors on 05 Sep 2015 with a series of public events including flea market, dance performances, sports activities and live music concert together with the opening of shops, cafes and restaurants. The unofficial opening ceremony, called Creative City Day, gathered a huge crowd and drew lots of press attention. While most press coverage is over positive, mixed feelings are being expressed across the creative community with some even publicly referring to Hanoi Creative City as a mere entertainment site.
And despite all the ongoing construction and the 10 year leasing contract, there is no certainty that the complex will be there that long. Zone 9 was planned for 3 years but it was gone only after 6 months. “We have to have faith and keep working”, Doan Ky Thanh replied when being asked if the Zone 9 case could be repeated. Investing in a project like this in Vietnam is like gambling. “If lucky your program will happen, if unlucky your things get shut down”, an artist/event organizer pointed out cynically. Therefore, for the meantime, it’s actually not bad to have the creative institutions scattered in different locations.
With all these threats and mixed public reaction it will be interesting to see how the project evolves in the next few months, and, if it’s luckier than its Zone 9 cousin, maybe even the next few years. However, even at this early stage, Hanoi Creative City has clearly proved that creativity shouldn’t be excluded from the business mindset. And obviously, the collapse of Zone 9 was not the end, it was actually the beginning.
Words by PHM, photos by Tung Cao.
(*) The Economist explains the fall of Zone 9: http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2014/01/urban-development-vietnam
(**) Current locations of some creative spaces once sharing the roof in Zone 9: Tadioto is now located at 24B Tong Dan, a central street near the Opera House; Work Room Four is on the 24th floor of Packexim Building, An Duong Vuong street, right next to Nhat Tan bridge; Dom Dom is still in the search for a new space; Nhà Sàn Collective currently has another space at 24 Ly Quoc Su next to Laca Café and Art Vietnam Gallery, but they are closing down this location and will keep only the one in Hanoi Creative City.