An Unexpected Makeover of Hanoi's Old Quarter

In the spring of 2017, Scott Matt became a celebrity in Vietnam overnight. Known as ông Tây râu xồm (the Bearded Westerner), he appeared in news outlets and on various TV channels, all because he had, quite literally, painted himself into a corner of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

After studying engineering and business and working in start-ups in the United States, Matt decided to search for a more fulfilling life and found himself in Vietnam. Initially, he lived in a hostel in an alley off Hang Bac Street and engaged in various forms of employment, such as working in a motorbike shop and helping to open Rafiki's, a popular Hanoi bar which recently closed.

The alley where he lived was dark and uninviting. "I was in a room with 10 other people for five months. The hostel is in an alley. It was grey and everyone was a bit miserable to us. You look down that alley as a guest and you don't want to walk down there. There's this neighborhood in Cape Town [South Africa] called Bo Kaap where every house has a different color. It's beautiful. Super vibrant. And I just had that in my head," Matt tells Saigoneer.

Matt wondered if he could brighten up the alley in a similar way. One of the first things he did was put up some lights, but he met resistance from people living there. He recounts: "The locals said, ‘What are you doing putting those lights up? Don't touch the wires, get down from there!’ But then when I turned off the lights for Tet the neighbors said, ‘What are you doing? Don’t be selfish! Don't turn off the lights!’"

Not long after, he had the idea of adding a few licks of paint to the alley. He painted a dirty grey wall plain white in the middle of the night in order to avoid criticism.

“In the morning the people weren't ecstatic, but they were like, 'It's ok, it's a little brighter'. And that's when I decided to paint in the day time in front of them. I started painting the electric boxes and painted them each a different color,” he explains.

A design from the project.

The artist adds that the people living in the alley went from hating him to inviting him over for oranges and beer.

Eventually someone wrote a Facebook post about the project and it received plenty of attention. Soon, Matt was giving three or four TV interviews every morning. He isn’t sure what would have happened if local leaders had found out about the project before it received media attention. "Nobody wants to be the guy that looks bad asking me to stop painting," Matt says. "But when I did talk with them, they said, 'Hey. Great project. You want to do it again? Talk to us."'

Now, Matt is doing it again, this time with official permission. His renovations will have a far greater scope than before, though he'll still be working in the Old Quarter. He and a team of 11 Vietnamese artists are focused solely on painting hundreds of grey electricity boxes, and Ecomix, a paint company, has already sponsored VND100 million worth of paint.

One of Matt's electricity box designs.

When asked how the artwork will fit with Vietnam's culture and tradition, Matt says: "First, I'm painting on the boxes...if you look there are ten steel poles left. Original French steel. There are things hidden in plain sight in the Old Quarter that you didn't know are super historic. But then there's all this new stuff. They're plastic. At the oldest, a box is only a few years old."

"All of the designs we're making have Vietnam in mind in some way," he goes on. "It's not going to be obvious. It's going to be subtle to get people thinking. There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. A lot of them have their own languages. I thought about a way to represent all the groups. They all have these patterns on their clothes. Taking a pattern from one of the clothes of each group, and for each one putting that pattern on a box."

It's an ambitious project which will undoubtedly create plenty of reactions, just as people spoke directly to Matt about his first project. While some affectionately called him a 'bearded westerner,' others thanked him for trying to improve their country. Still, Matt felt that some people can't really relate to a foreigner doing this kind of work, which is why local artists are now involved.

"When I did my first project, people said, 'I'm so ashamed - you've been here a couple of months and you've made the country more beautiful. I've been here my whole life and I've done nothing.' But I'm not watching them see me do it and then do it themselves" he shares. "I want only Vietnamese artists because it's going to be all over the news like the first project was. What I want them to see, especially other young Vietnamese people when they look at this, is young Vietnamese people like them doing this work. I want to inspire people."

An example of what will be painted on Old Quarter electrical boxes.

Matt is also trying to get funding for the effort, since this project isn't cheap. Along with the VND100 million paint sponsorship, he's trying to raise another VND200 million to cover payment for the artists, materials, and basic living costs.

Therefore he built a crowdfunding site with videos in Vietnamese about what he intends to do and rewards for supporters. He plans to start painting with his team just after Tet, although the actual process of working with the artists and arranging the painting will take a few months to complete.

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