BackArts & Culture » Music & Art » Q&A: Nguyễn Quí Đức on Tadioto, Zone 9, and How He Fell for Hanoi's Charms

Q&A: Nguyễn Quí Đức on Tadioto, Zone 9, and How He Fell for Hanoi's Charms

Countless are the number of hours Hanoi creatives have spent sipping whisky and contemplating the world at the famous drinking hole that is Tadioto.

Gatherings of the artsy and the wanna-meet-artsy folk huddle in the dimly lit smokey bar, and if you’re lucky you will spy the man behind it all, the impeccably dressed cheeky hipster that is Nguyễn Quí Đức.

Born in Đà Lạt, Đức’s family relocated from Huế to the US, where he spent his late adolescence and many adult years working as a radio journalist and writer. Since his return to Vietnam, he has dedicated his time, spirit and certainly a chunk of his liver to the Hanoi arts community, creating a space for young artists and musicians to host events, play with ideas and, most importantly, be together.

After more than ten years running, many new projects, and certainly more than enough cigarettes, we reflect on what has changed for Đức, Tadioto, and the landscape of the Hanoi arts scene.

In Hanoi your name is synonymous with Tadioto; after more than ten years and many reincarnations, what does the space mean to you now?

It still amazes me that Tadioto has lasted that long, and astounding that my liver has lasted all this time as well. In its many incarnations, Tadioto has been a gallery, an event space, a meeting point for creative and unorthodox people, and a comfort space for expats as well. I finally had to step away and let it be a bar/sushi place.

But that means I have more time to reconstruct some of what it used to be. A place for good music, readings, discussions on topical and cultural issues. I am also reverting to collaborative projects with photographers, filmmakers, designers, architects, etc.

At the moment I am planning curated concerts, ranging from serious jazz to Vietnamese instruments, and at times adding musicians and performers from various countries, sometimes reworking songs by known Vietnamese composers, or performing with us to include poetry and songs from their home countries. Translations, and of course, mad monologues and between bottles of whisky.

Tadioto has always been a meeting point for Hanoi creatives and those that want to meet them. What changes have you witnessed over the past 20 years through these conversations?

Hanoi has always had waves of creativity, waves of artistic trends lasting anywhere from six months to three years. Artists come and go, issues die down, certain urgencies fade away. I am less aware now of current trends and thinking as I drift into old age. And with more contacts with the outside world, more people are doing things, more ideas emerged, more possibilities present themselves.

And yet, it all gets lost in an internet-driven [society], or capitalism, or maybe boundaries are more porous and it’s not such big deals for certain ideas to become realities or possible. And perhaps creative people have a larger playing field that can go beyond Vietnam’s borders.

How does your past life as a journalist connect with your current projects?

There’s a curiosity that has never left me and although I miss journalism, I am also having a distance to look at events and at the world with calmer eyes. As a writer, I am more prone to seek out more involved truths rather than what’s happening day-to-day. As a journalist, I developed interest in politics, social issues, as well as the arts, architecture, design. I got to travel to many countries and meet a lot of people. Now I can bring some of those ideas, concepts to my projects in Vietnam. In many ways, Vietnam is a society that still values Confucian notions like harmony. But I am happy to challenge old ideas and hope to work with people and encourage creativity and critical thinking.

When returning to Vietnam after more than 30 years, why did you choose Hanoi over any other city? Does it still inspire you today?

I fell under Hanoi’s charm the first times I came in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was an isolated spot in the world. Then, I discovered artists and writers I really liked and began translating them and bringing their art works to the US. When I moved back to Vietnam, it was an easy decision — partly there were practical reasons: all foreign journalists had to be based in Hanoi, and with an ailing mother, I needed to be near hospitals and airports.

Over the years, the arrival of capitalism, the fast money, the selfish attitudes have taken over and made Hanoi less appealing. I still like the arts, the seasonal changes. I don’t venture too far from the Old Quarter and still enjoy the old architecture. I’ve met young people — architects, designers — who are quite inspiring. Luckily, Tadioto still attracts a lot of interesting people from around here and the world.

What did the rise and fall of Zone 9 mean for Hanoi?

Most people lament the loss of a spontaneous art space with lots happening. That’s sad. The city and government could have learned to let such a place blossom without fear. I tend to believe it was not so much a political decision but financial reasons that led to the closure. What I also regret is that rather than it becoming an art space, within three months, Zone 9 became mostly a commercial venture. The people involved wanted to make a quick buck, others came in for that and few artistic venues really thrived.

When designing your spaces there is something distinctly “Đức” — both urban and organic with threads of Tokyo, Marrakech and New York. What inspiration do you take from Vietnamese design?

I suppose what inspires me goes back a long way. A sense of harmony with nature, a respect for the ways of the universe. It has nothing to do with money, and imposing your will of wealth. I like the scales of old temples and communal village structures. Nothing ostentatious, big, or discordant with the surroundings. I like the humility in arts, crafts and architecture. The simplicity of the clothes worn by peasants and average people.

You have also designed architecture projects and interiors; what made you turn to clothing?

That’s the problem of a self-taught person. I like to dabble, I get bored, I have ideas, and I like to be playful. To look at a metal car part and imagine a lamp, to look at a box and make a nice suitcase. To apply the lines of an interesting building on a piece of fabric. All in all, it’s also an expression of people, who they are, who they can be.

You have published novels, poetry, translated works and of course spent many years as a journalist. Do you still have time to write? What are you working on now?

I do write a lot. Poetry is something I am learning a lot about. I have been working in many areas, from film ideas to short stories, to book-length projects. A bit of family history, and revisiting a novel set in Morocco I finished long ago, but have left languishing in many old computers. I now write mainly because I like the craft and I am not under any illusion, pressure, or rush to publish.

It seems you are spending more and more days in your country house in Tam Đảo. As the younger generation of artists slowly take the lead, opening spaces and launching new collectives, what do you think will be their struggles and challenges?

I have seen others trying to replicate Zone 9 but fail. I have also seen young artists trying to form collectives and such. However, like anywhere else, artists shouldn’t be art administrators. Fundraising, organizing, curating, are all different tasks that need a degree of devotion and professionalism, especially in the “emerging” art environment of modern Vietnam.

Artists will sooner or later go back to producing art, and they should. A group effort, a collective, a gallery, or any art space will always need a collaborative machinery. The other challenges remain how to escape authoritative control while facing capitalist tendencies and brutality.

Love, there is no
First death, and never
Has there been
A last death.
—Trịnh Công Sơn

Tadioto: 24 Tông Đản, Tràng Tiền, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội. Open everyday 9am–12am.
Motosan: 4 Lý Đạo Thành, Tràng Tiền, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội. Open everyday 8am–12am.
OZU: 17 Chân Cầm, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội. Open everyday 10pm–6pm.

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