The Arbiters of Change

Business in Vietnam is no longer just about profit and loss. Words by Ed Weinberg.



 Dan Bi Mong is a pretty constant presence on Ho Chi Minh City’s alternative circuit. As much a DJ as curator (thanks in part to his connections with Hanoi’s CAMA), he’s helped bring the rare spins of Maft Sai, Digital Natives, Trus’Me and Bottin to town, as well as held up various parties — including Sound Adventures and Optimist Club — with his positive, soul-swinging grooves as DJ Hibiya Line.

And now, like so many people these days, he’s starting something. The Observatory (corner of Le Lai and Ton That Tung, Q1) is going to be something of a cultural hub for Ho Chi Minh City, acting as a bridge between that nadir of culture, the backpacker’s area of Pham Ngu Lao, and the places where something good is actually happening. And these days — unlike the situation as recently as two years ago — a lot of good things are happening.

It’s partly the relatively low cost of setting up business in Vietnam, partly this unique, collaborative moment in time, where a lot of idealistic people are realising that what they want Vietnam to be is possible — if they set about doing it.

And they’ve been doing just that. Steven Wiig set up an earthen pizza oven in the shape of an anime character at the arts space, Saigon Outcast. Some of Hanoi’s most unorthodox creatives circled their wagons around the brutalist confines of Zone 9, a repurposed pharmaceuticals factory where they’re creating their own artistic utopia, Shoreditch style. Look at the work of Hanoi music collective CAMA, live music venue Hanoi Rock City, and the two art spaces Tadioto and Work Room 4. On the resort front, the owners of Six Senses Resort in Con Dao are taking advantage of their location in the East Sea, an air-pollution-free spot perfect for gazing up at the stars. Next month they will be completing the largest, private observatory in Vietnam.

Even the mighty Mr. Vincom is ushering in the age of cable cars, with a two-mile marvel connecting the island-based Vinpearl Resort Nha Trang to the mainland. He’s built an ice rink in the capital as part of the futuristic, mixed shopping mall, residence and office space Vincom Royal City. He’s created a marine park and a shopping mall built modeled on the art deco style of Paris’s Galeries Lafayette. It’s not alternative or unbder the radar, but it’s certainly different.

They’re all trying to make money, sure, but that’s not the only reason they’re doing this. Like Dan, they feel a responsibility for the future of this country, and they’re doing their best to make sure they like the future they’re creating.


The Difference-Makers

On the surface, Dan’s project, The Observatory, doesn’t seem so different — a café/bar, venue and gallery, curated together with his partner Kelsey Siggins. But its deeper identity is as a cultural centre, an olive branch to the Vietnamese youth and not-so-enlightened backpackers they’re trying to ensnare. It’s a recognition of a new culture growing up in Vietnam, an alternative to the culture people get when they “just come to Ho Chi Minh City, and visit Go2 and the War Museum”.

The Observatory is a sharp contrast to the cover band cafés of yesteryear, which viewed music as more of a commodity, not an event. If you’re just pulling in people off the street, you don’t need a big room — how many people are going to cross town to hear Hotel California again? The penchant for doing the same as everyone else because that seems to make money has strangled the growth of an original music culture. Hanoi was a bit ahead of the curve on this Catch 22, and Ho Chi Minh City is just now catching up.

The cool thing about this change is that entrepreneurs are starting to do what it says on the tin — start new things. The mirror culture that so afflicted Vietnam in the past is starting to be phased out, as it becomes less and less profitable. Why start up a western style café/bar like all the others when you can set up one with a Korean twist and soju-inspired drinks? Better yet, why go to one?

Already a veteran at making things happen, Dan sees this progression better than most — and he’s already looking ahead to the next wrinkle. “Now, there are many bars and venues welcoming interesting music events,” he says.

“But everyone is generalistic, doing everything, any kind of music, and any kind of art. And it’s a good point, but I think maybe now there are enough venues doing this, and our target is to focus on something really precise.” — Ed Weinberg

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