Editor's note: Mark Barnes is a freelance journalist currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam. In this piece sent to Tuoi Tre News, he observes how Hanoi’s live music scene is recovering after a period of social distancing owing to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in early April.
On a rooftop in Hanoi’s old quarter a handful of lanterns, strung above a small makeshift dais, burn bright against the dark of a Hanoian summer night.
Beneath them, a tender-brown, acoustic guitar sits idle against a small wooden chair. Beside it a chalkboard advertises the night's headliners, 'MAT KING COHEN with special guest AYUSH.'
A breeze sifts its way through the overgrown vines that twist their way up the walls and weave themselves between the breaks in the bamboo lattice overhead.
The guitar holds steady, lying in wait. For months, it has struggled to find an audience in the flesh.
COVID-19 has seen to that.
But with restrictions eased and Hanoians once again allowed out into the streets and bars, it’s ready to make music once more.
Incense smolders and the scent of sandalwood shifts effortlessly to the steady hum of a restless crowd sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Then Ayush Shrestha, a singer-songwriter from Nepal, takes the stage and the lonely guitar in his arms.
He strums a chord and the crowd falls silent: it’s Tuesday night, at the Hanoi Social Club (HSC), and the capital’s live music scene, put to bed weeks ago by social-distancing restrictions, is waking up.
“I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out. At around eight o’clock we didn't have anyone at the terrace... So I was prepared to expect a lot less people,” Shrestha says.
Shrestha has spent more than four years living and playing music in Hanoi. For a living, he teaches, but on the side he plays the occasional gig for the Tiny Music Club hosted Tuesday nights at HSC.
“It was just great to be there and play live. Quite a lot of people turned up. That was great to see as well,” he says.
This, however, may not be an accurate representation of what is to come for Hanoi’s live music scene moving forward.
John Sylvan, the man who helped to establish HSC and part owner of the popular institution, says he booked Cohen because he knew he would draw a crowd.
“I pulled him out because I knew he was going to be a good one and I wanted to make a good first impression with this first one back,” Sylvan says.
“Whether someone who's not as strong a performer will pull a crowd like that. I don’t know.”
However, Sylvan says he had a similar experience on Wednesday night when Xom Nhac (Community Music), the 'Vietnamese version of Tiny Music Club,' made its post-social distancing debut.
“That was chockablock [crowded] too,” he says.
“They're positive signs,” he goes on, “but I'm a bit of a realist. I'm not convinced that, that's how it's going to play out.”
On the other side of Ho Tay (West Lake), at Hanoi Rock City (HRC), Anh Duc Vo, who helped found the well-known live music venue, says he has noticed a significant drop in patronage.
“The artists are very supportive and the people are very supportive, but I still think it's only half or like one- or two-thirds what it was before,” he says.
HRC will have been in operation for ten years in December.
Over those ten years Vo has seen Hanoi’s music scene go through a huge transformation.
“As Vietnamese, we were not exposed to different types of music that much when we were kids. We were just listening to popular music and we would learn to cover songs growing up instead of writing songs.”
As a result, he says, it has taken some time for the Vietnamese live music industry to develop, but it has definitely been moving.
Where in the beginning 90 percent of the performers at HRC were expats, Vo estimates, this figure is now more of a 60/40 split in favor of Vietnamese performers.
This breakdown may also shift further, post-social distancing, with both Sylvan and Vo noting a reduction in the expat talent pool as a result of travel restrictions.
This, however, may actually benefit the local music scene.
“It's a really unique opportunity to rebuild the community… to bring both sides of the community, the Vietnamese and the expats, to grow, and to learn together,” says Tobias Paramore, one half of the live music duo Tiny Giant.
Tiny Giant is an Australian-Vietnamese duo who create music that is “a mixture of electronic beat production with layers of vocal looping, analogue synths, and acoustic instruments.”
The Vietnamese half of Tiny Giant, Bui Linh Ha, also emphasizes the importance of live music fans in helping the industry to recover.
“I think the revival of arts is in the hands of the community,” she says.
“They are able to come back and support live music and they want to. They want to go out and see live music and they want to support the venues.”
However, incomes across the board have taken a hit due to social distancing measures and this is likely to impact on returns for artists and venues.
When the live music scene in the capital city, therefore, can fully recover is still hazy and may continue to be for a number of months.
That said, one thing is clear.
“The people,” as Shrestha observed on the rooftop of HSC on Tuesday night, “they have really missed live music.”