Hanoi’s music scene has been described as a wavy line. For a couple of years it takes off, and then it goes dormant again. Right now it seems it’s about to take off for good.
“In the early days, you could put on a party and 300 people would show up,” says Giles Cooper, co-founder of music promoters, CAMA.
“In 1999 there wasn’t much going on at all, apart from the stuff the embassies were bringing over, but that was all cultural exchange stuff where you dress up and sit down.”
The lack of live music in Hanoi back in the early days was felt by anyone from abroad who lived here — it left a market open for anyone willing to put on a show.
“We started bringing bands over in 2004,” says Giles. “We had a venue, and people would show up.”
Feeling the Squeeze
Things started to get rocky around 2015, when live music venue CAMA ATK closed in Hanoi, followed the next year by Ho Chi Minh City’s premier indoor live music venue, Cargo Bar.
It seemed at this point that Vietnam wasn’t in the mood to cater to international live acts any more — save of course for the EDM giants currently booking out stadiums around the country.
“We never made any money on international acts,” says Giles. “Sometimes we’d break even, sometimes we’d make a bit, but it was never very profitable”.
“The problem was that once more bars opened up you couldn’t get everyone in the same place any more. And people became tight. They weren’t willing to pay the price it costs to see an international act.”
Indeed, Hanoi’s expat community thrives on bia hoi and cheap eats. The thought of spending US$30 on a concert ticket sounds suspiciously close to the prices they were paying back home.
After the closure of CAMA ATK there’s been a noticeable gap in international acts visiting the city. The demand hasn’t dried up, but feasible venues and active promoters seem to have.
But under the surface, the city is seeing a resurgence of local bands performing regularly in new and existing venues dedicated to giving artists more stage time.
The Steady Climb
The revival of Hanoi’s music scene is a slow-moving phenomenon. In a way it’s coupled with the city’s development as a whole. Almost as a natural consequence of the emergence of a generation of people with more money to spend and more time to kill.
“It’s like half a step forwards, and a quarter step back. It’s slow progress,” says Brett Zweiman, proprietor of music venue and creative space, DeN.
“When there’s a lot of people doing stuff, it inspires more people to do it. We do have awesome shows here, but it’s a struggle to fill it in.”
“Obviously the expat scene is transient, they come and go. But it takes time and commitment to build a good band; to have a real stylistic thing happening, it takes being here and working. A lot of people are successfully going it alone with the DJ thing, but to be collaborative here can be really hard.”The music scene amongst expats in Hanoi has always been something of a wavy line. Most people come for a couple of years and leave. Even within the local community, bands often find themselves at odds with a professional and family life, and lack the time and commitment to produce and tour professional music.
That being said, outfits like Rabbit Punch, Monoheart, Shes, and a range of other bands of expats are active on the circuit.
Also the local metal scene, while fairly small, makes a good effort to keep the juices flowing, with at least a couple of live shows a month — particularly bands like Windrunner, Bloodshed, and Revenants; also Gai, MXM, and Morning Waits.
Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation
Anyone who’s been here for the long term will tell you stories of great bands like the indie sensation Go Lim, whose late singer sadly passed away after a battle with cancer.
“In the early days it was always tough to find decent local acts, and it was mostly hard rock outfits,” says Giles of CAMA, “Recycle were big, Microwave were big for a while. Ngu Cung (Pentagram) were a very famous local rock band we did things with.”
Nowadays the rock and indie scene has been seeing some revival with indie stars Ngot taking the reins. Ngot formed in 2013 and have since released two studio albums. They’re shows cater to audiences of thousands, and they’ve helped influence a new generation of Vietnamese musicians.
“Everything changed so quickly when we started out,” says Ngot frontman Vu Dinh Trong Thang. “I feel like there’s more artists putting music out every day, with more of a bravery to express how they feel.”
“The new generation started to see that they have their own life. They have their influences from the US and the UK, but now they’re starting to make their own unique product out of that.”
“I think the next generation is going to be even better,” says Thang. “For now we’re all trying to get better at writing music; and then we’ll try and create something truly unique.”
Other local bands, although many of whom are based in Ho Chi Minh City, will play in Hanoi. Bands like COCC, Ca Hoi Hoang, Mimetal and also singers like Marzuz are making original and professional standard music.
“The hip-hop scene is the tightest crew that I’ve come across in Hanoi,” says Sebastian Urinovsky, co-founder of RECROOM. “Like when DJ Slows does a set, everyone turns up, and there’s usually b-boy crews and graffiti artists as well.”
“The younger generation are more into the EDM side of things, but then saying that, now more than ever things are so open. You’d be surprised how many people in the younger generation are diverging into the ‘weirder’ side of things.”
Hip-hop has been something of a success story in Vietnam. While continually underground, the scene has a pull to it which has enticed a segment of the youth, and the community is open to collaboration with other artists.
Names like PKL, Krazi Noyze and Kimmese, a female Vietnamese MC, have been on the wall for some time now, and have left their mark on the city.
Other notable names include Rebel Monk — whose members span from England to Chile; American born New Fame; and Hanoi based PB Nation — recently signed to Sony Records.
Where to Go
Being in the know of every live music show in town can be difficult, especially with a language barrier to contend with — but here’s a list of venues to start with.
49 Lang Yen Phu, Tay Ho, Hanoi
Hanoi Rock City
27/52 To Ngoc Van, Tay Ho, Hanoi
231 Au Co, Tay Ho, Hanoi
23 Ngo Van So, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
The Doors Café
11 Hang Chinh, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Tiny Music Club at Hanoi Social Club
6 Ngo Hoi Vu, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
21, Lane 12, Dang Thai Mai, Tay Ho, Hanoi
36 Cat Linh, Dong Da, Hanoi
112 Xuan Dieu, Tay Ho, Hanoi
Binh Minh’s Jazz Club
1 Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
19 Dang Thai Mai, Tay Ho, Hanoi
65 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
158 Thuong Dinh, Thanh Xuan, Hanoi
PHOTOS BY MARCUS LACEY