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April 2021. Design by

In this month’s article, we are going to explore how chất lượng social and economic dynamics have sầu shaped the way contemporary cultural initiatives & projects have evolved and operate in Vietnam giới.

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Like all countries & societies, Vietphái nam is chất lượng. However, this article will also argue that the nation is an outlier in many important respects, which have sầu gone on to shape how contemporary culture is expressed, experienced và sustained in the country.

These dynamics relate lớn the country’s recent history, and the economic circumstances affecting how cultural initiatives and projects have been funded & attained viability there.

Unlượt thích in much of the west, or indeed in many other richer nations of Asia, actors in Vietnam’s contemporary cultural ecosystem have had to lớn forge projects with no government funding, & in a highly-liberalized, rapidly-changing economic, cultural và social environment.

These unique attributes make Vietnam an interesting case study on how cultural projects whose ayên is the promotion of the arts – in a way that we go on to define as ‘non-commercial’ – have sầu found viability through bridging the divide between commercial enterprise, community engagement và cultural experimentation.

| Vietnam: from isolation lớn globalization

Before we begin discussing contemporary culture in Vietnam, it’s important to lớn first mention the broader context within which cultural initiatives have sầu developed.

For many people outside of the country, particularly in the west, Vietphái nam 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 Vietphái mạnh undergoes almost on a yearly basis can be hard lớn fully comprehkết thúc for people who have not lived there.

A quichồng look at the changes it has experienced over the last 50 years can demonstrate the extent of this transformation:

Following the reunification of Vietphái nam in 1975, the country went inkhổng lồ 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 và opening it up lớn global trade. These reforms sparked its transformation inkhổng lồ the globally-integrated, economically dynamic & increasingly affluent country it is today.

Data from the World Bank shows that between 2002 & 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 GDPhường. 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 khổng lồ grow to lớn 26% over the next five sầu years. This is even when factoring in the effects of Covid-19, which, due khổng lồ Vietnam’s early control of the pandemic, will make the country one of a handful in the world to lớn not experience an economic recession as a result of the crisis.

Listing off these economic facts and feats is not intended to lớn indicate that Vietphái mạnh is some kind of economic utopia. Indeed, there is still poverty in the country, ineunique is growing, và the difference in wages & living standards between the country’s cities và rural areas can be extreme.

However, in general terms Vietnam giới 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 – & 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 và demographic processes và dynamics.

| Contemporary Culture: definition

Now, it’s probably a good idea for us lớn define contemporary culture.

Contemporary culture can refer to a very wide collection of human activities, productions và normative values that constitute the culture of a group of people in the present.

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A wide range of social activities can fall inkhổng lồ this expansive definition: how và what people eat, what they engage with for recreation, how they interpret and live out traditions, their social structures và hierarchies, and many other aspects of a modern society can all fall inkhổng lồ 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 & experiencing artistic projects as a means of recreation, reflection & social activity.

Even more specifically, we are examining what we can refer lớn 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 và economic functions.

Another note: as well as being limited lớn a narrow definition of contemporary culture that The Observatory is a part of, this article is also admittedly very urban-centric và does not take into consideration activities or initiatives that are happening beyond Vietnam’s cities.

Additionally, Vietnam’s cities also have sầu different histories và 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 & Initiatives

The vast majority of Vietnam’s contemporary cultural projects và initiatives – from galleries khổng lồ nightlife venues và art/music collectives – have been established in the last đôi mươi years.

These projects are usually created as independent businesses by individuals seeking to lớn contribute some kind of new experience khổng lồ Vietnam’s contemporary culture ecosystem. Gradually, these independent projects have formed a constellation of different actors in the country that carve sầu new spaces, audiences và communities centred around their initiatives.

However, these projects tover to be quite siloed, and to lớn focus on their own niđậy markets and communities.

Nguyen Tran, Co-founder and Hub Leader of Barefoot Ventures “a hybrid Mã Sản Phẩm of an incubation hub & investment fund that provides creative sầu businesses with retìm kiếm, connections, mentorship, and social impact investing,” explained the lachồng of a unified cohesion to lớn the contemporary arts scene in Vietphái mạnh in an interview with The Observatory, stating that:

“the creative sầu ecosystem in Vietphái nam largely still remains scattered. Creative sầu businesses, hubs, and investors in the creative industry have always been focused on their respective fields and have sầu not had the chance lớn exchange information & knowledge with one another… That is why Barefoot Ventures is striving khổng lồ build a community where information và knowledge can flow freely from one sector to another và from businesses to investors, with collaborative sầu openness và transparency.”

Asked about some of the chất lượng aspects affecting how contemporary culture is exercised and received by audiences in Vietphái nam, Tran’s focus was on the defining aspects of Vietnam’s youth – & the need to empower them further:

“The rise of social media, curiosity, và openness lớn new experiences definitely made young people more interested and invested in contemporary culture and arts. Being adaptive to lớn technology & bold khổng lồ embrace the volatility of the industry, we are collectively building a more diverse, experimental, & engaging art scene, but also challenged khổng lồ infiltrate the conventional art market.”

| Cultural Cocktails

Another perception that people both outside and inside Vietnam giới sometimes have sầu is that some contemporary cultural scenes, in particular western-influenced electronic music and nightlife, have sầu tended lớn 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.

Minc 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 & more young Vietnamese. As Hanoi is the capital it has a lot of people & the young generation has more money to lớn spend. People go out lớn study and they come bachồng searching for something different to lớn what was here when they left. They are more inlớn art & culture now. The government is also more open lớn allowing events to take place.”

Another interesting feature of Vietnam giới that stems from its recent, rapid development, is that there have been more recent opportunities lớn create “new” experiences using influences và ideas brought in from abroad. This transplantation of outside influence within the context of Vietphái nam has produced syncretic cultural outcomes that are quality lớn 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 sầu projects between foreigners & Vietnamese that has created new forms of expression.

Ricarbởi vì 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 lớn create an event/cultural project that fits differing styles of event formats that are western và eastern. These communities party/interact và run events in different ways so finding a middle ground can be difficult – however there is so much joy và connection to be found mixing these people và cultures through art & exploration.”

Phi Long Le, founder of the MOILvà art community in the central highlands city of Da Lat, has been exploring the legacy of Vietnam’s French colonial history – & how it has related to lớn contemporary culture through generations – with the Lang Du project, which he began in năm 2016.

He explained some of the challenges of developing contemporary art projects in areas that have had little exposure lớn them in recent years:

“I phối up an art program & my project fieldwork was located in a place where contemporary art was absent (in Da Lat from năm 2016 – 2017). For me, in addition lớn economic self-reliance, I had to find ways to communicate và be local, with local staff, customs và climate… that makes you actively change the way you operate.”

According khổng lồ Le, it’s the greater absence of pre-existing norms, expectations và categorizations that creates a potential for contemporary art khổng lồ 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 bình luận 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 giới. The idea is that intellectuals in Vietphái nam contain a lot of “gray space”: “ambiguity” is a great source of energy for artists & potentials for Vietnamese art .”

| Culture for sale?

Another big question surrounding contemporary cultural projects in Vietphái mạnh – which admittedly is not exclusive to the country – is the issue of the commodification of culture.

As was mentioned earlier, cultural projects have to lớn function like businesses, in a very laissez-faire environment. Cultural initiatives need khổng lồ therefore consider market forces in order to survive, which can ultimately serve sầu 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 giới.

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 Vietphái mạnh.

The strategy proposes drastic improvements lớn the way cultural projects và initiatives are funded in Vietphái mạnh. However, whether this strategy will serve sầu khổng lồ provide the economic space for more experimentation remains to be seen.

Tran, of Barefoot Ventures, lays out the issue at hvà with precision:

“The question now is: how to lớn make culture & art more accessible and inclusive lớn the younger audience? How lớn cultivate an environment where young artists are không tính tiền to lớn experiment with new practices and still have sầu the chance khổng lồ be supported by traditional art institutions and galleries?”

Vietnam’s recent history, rapid transformation và success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic have sầu provided fertile ground for a vibrant và diverse ecosystem of contemporary cultural projects khổng lồ flourish.

Whether the next phase will involve greater synergies & collaboration between the country’s cultural actors và stakeholders, more specialization & distinction, or the production of something new altogether remains khổng lồ be seen.

It’s definitely exciting, và we look forward khổng lồ being a part of it.


Barefoot Ventures Vietnam: