It was the perfect storm of creativity and collaboration. In the summer of 2013, a few Hanoi artists got together and firmly decided to rent studio space in a derelict pharmaceutical factory south of Hoan Kiem Lake. This was a quiet place of town, if you can believe it, with the factory and residential areas situated around the French-inspired Pasteur Park.
This factory was like any building you would expect to see on the periphery of public life in Hanoi. It was bland, boxy, and without an ounce of enjoyment. It was large to say the least, and still halfway operating just a year and a half earlier. The windows were regularly placed throughout, making the space oddly comfortable and welcoming. However, the factory was more familiar because of it’s impending demolition to make way for a large apartment complex. Fortunately, as you will see shortly, future zoning and construction permits could not allow these visions, and the factory was left to sit empty and purposeless.
Local artists saw this as an opportunity and began inquiring about renting parts of the building. Certain machine rooms happened to be perfect studio spaces, with large areas that were simple and filled with light. Through several negotiations, the landlord offered ‘temporary leases’, on terms that the factory could be sold or demolished at a later unknown period. This made the leases very affordable, yet anything but stable. Nevertheless, this was the start of ‘Zone 9’.
Once a few painters moved into the large studio spaces, they naturally needed help clearing and modifying it for any sort of chance at productivity. Many joined in and adopted this new collective energy, like everyone was embarking on a long overdue adventure. This stage was rough. Parking consisted of moving your motorbike to a location that was ‘vacant’ rather than ‘occupied’ with debris. Walking upstairs to the main floor involved avoiding vapors, dust clouds, and hopping from floor clearing to floor clearing. Special attention was paid to rusty machinery and noxious filth, so that it wasn't encountered in the future. The place was a wreck, but people that visited came back again and again.
Soon cafes joined the scene. They were wonderfully creative places out of necessity. The public demanded it, and the spaces required it. These spaces were strange, with large pipes, or odd windows that fit around once-existent machinery. Most were either painted over, or incorporated into industrial chic design. The original spaces were so raw that they just invited uniqueness. Bars and music venues also sprouted into existence. Tadioto and Barbetta 2, well known niche spots, joined the scene.
There was always a new idea being unveiled. Fashion, art, cafes of every variety. It was a peaceful haven to escape to, even with all of the development. It probably had something to do with the specific intricacies and beauty found in each destination. These were places that just made sense. Places that demanded relaxation and a long stay. Places that were so genuine and interesting, because they had avoided conventional expectations.
Zone 9 was always a work in progress, and that’s part of why people came back, almost daily. They wanted to check the progress of things. After being accustomed to Hanoi for several months before this happening, it was a welcomed alternative to the simple seating found around the city. It certainly got me. The summer at the factory sustained an excitement, freshness, and entrepreneurial spirit that I had never witnessed elsewhere. This was a true success, turning a wasted resource from common neglect, into something useful and important for society. Local businesses brought in healthy revenue, and customers took a breath of fresh (dirty) air as they welcomed the new scene. This was business in its fastest form.
The first time I visited the factory, I was turned away by neighboring car wash workers who thought I was just incredibly and utterly lost. Evidently, this factory’s evolution was a concept that made no sense to most people, making it that much more exciting to witness. It makes you realize how much a place can change with the right ideas and support. This was a place built around the people, because the structure was certainly nothing special.
However, things changed. Building kept up at a blistering pace and shortcuts were eventually taken. After the summer ended, a building fire broke out killing six construction workers. It was a devastating event, but sadly not a surprising one. Ceremonies were delivered, and Zone 9 was given a notice by the government to shut down indefinitely for various reasons. It all happened swiftly.
People that experienced this time now look back and think if they could have done something differently. Should more oversight have been warranted? Nonetheless, it was over. The temporary wild success is still incredible to think about. Maybe its organic nature, no exceptions attitude was exactly why it became successful but only for a short spurt. The vanishing scene only makes the memory stronger. I write about this time here to recognize how exciting it all was and for my curiosity in what lies ahead. I hope to witness a creative commons that rivals Zone 9 in the future.
Lang, Xuan. “Zone 9” hay Khu 9 - Một “arts district” của Hà Nội. 2013. PYS Travel. <http://pystravel.com/vi/tin-tuc/diem-den/ha-noi/1514-zone-9-hay-khu-9-mot-arts-district-cua-ha-noi.html>.
Ngay, Tin Trong. Hà Nội: “Hợp tác xã ăn chơi” – Zone 9 bị sập, 2 người ngã từ tầng 4. 2013. <http://tintuc24h.info/tin-trong-ngay/ha-noi-hop-tac-xa-an-choi-zone-9-bi-sap-2-nguoi-nga-tu-tang-4>.
Tran, Liem. 2013. Hanoi’s Hippest New Hangout. International Traveller Mag. <http://www.internationaltravellermag.com/hanois-hippest-new-hangout/>.
Vola, Julie. 2013. Photographer. Tadioto Bar.