When I moved from London to Hanoi in 2017, I was excited to learn that much like my hometown, Hanoi is a city with its own vibrant and diverse live music scene. As a lover of music - particularly rock and all of it’s associated subgenres - discovering the countless venues hosting open-mics and live shows added an extra layer of intrigue when exploring this ancient city.
At packed concert venues, I encountered a network of artists passionately performing an assortment of different music genres, to crowds made up of a tight-knit, music-loving community. Often times I would bump into the same familiar faces at different events. Whether it was a weekday night with punters reluctantly staying for “just one more drink” as musicians kept the buzz alive well past bedtime, or the weekend nights when the music drew in more people and more rambunctious energy – there was always a show to see, and people to fill the venue.
One of my fondest memories is of a Wednesday night show at The Doors in Hoan Kiem, where a Vietnamese Nirvana cover band had drawn in an audience so large they were practically leaking out the front door. After shoving my way through a mass of sweaty rockers, I made it to the front, let my hair down (literally) and headbanged and swayed to their full cover set, knowing that I’d never get to see the real version of my favourite band play but this was the closest thing to it.
Unfortunately for me (and the rest of the world), when COVID struck, that all changed. Hanoi’s music scene, like almost every facet of human life, was detrimentally morphed by the past few pandemic years. Swathes of foreigners had to leave Vietnam, businesses suffered economically, and places that used to host regular music events had to temporarily shut their doors to music lovers of all dispositions.
However, in recent months Hanoi’s live music scene has been going through a bit of a revival, though it hasn’t quite yet been able to regain the popularity it once had. Though life in general has returned to some level of normalcy in 2022, the live music scene has lost some of its energy, but is slowly crawling back to where it once was.
A committed community of artists and avid music lovers have kept the scene alive, and venues dedicated to delivering instrumental soundwaves to music-hungry ears are experiencing a much-needed bounce back. It’s a great time to be here and witness the rebirth of a part of Hanoi’s culture that I fell in love with all those years ago.
One place that has long been devoted to showcasing relatively unknown artists is Hanoi Social Club (HSC). Anyone visiting HSC during the day might find it difficult to imagine this hip, popular brunch spot as a music venue, but don’t let its mid-century design and peaceful ambiance fool you. Every Tuesday night, the soothing daytime atmosphere lingers after hours, but transforms into a different form of tranquillity.
|Tiny Music Club on Tuesdays (Photo: Jason Law) - THE Mat King Cohen, back in the day (Photo: courtesy of Mathieu Lacombe)|
The cafe’s rooftop terrace becomes a dimly lit, modestly decorated lounge, with an assortment of floor cushions and basic seating facing the makeshift stage area, amidst plants, table-top lamps and lanterns. The whole aesthetic gives it a warm, cozy feeling, which was perfect for the type of music on show there when I paid a visit.
Singer-guitarist Mathieu Lacombe, from Montreal, Canada, was the headliner for HSC’s weekly ‘Tiny Music Club’ that night, performing under the stage name "Mat King Cohen" – inspired by the jazzy, jingly sound of Nat King Cole, and Leonard Cohen, Mathieu's hometown hero. Like the acclaimed Canadian singer, Mathieu's rich baritone charms music lovers from all walks of life.
The event was reminiscent of an NPR Tiny Desk concert; small, intimate, and at that perfect volume that can be felt by the audience but doesn’t drown out conversation – not that anybody wanted to talk as they watched Mat’s performance with mesmerized eyes. He sang self-penned songs about heartbreak, happiness, dreams and drinking; each served with a side of background story and sprinkling of good humour. He finished with the swashbuckling, catchy “A Barrell of Rhum”, which had people singing along and collectively indulging in a complementary shot of rum.
The homey and welcoming vibe made speaking to fellow patrons effortless, which most people did once the gig was over - so it was easy to approach HSC owner John Kis, who had been quietly watching from the unlit back of the crowd. We spoke about the event, its popularity, and its role in the community.
“Tiny Music Club is the longest-running music event in Hanoi, actually I’m pretty sure in the whole of Vietnam. We opened the cafe eleven years ago, and we’ve been running this night regularly for eight years,” said John.
Though the event felt like it had the right level of busyness, there had been a few empty seats, which was surprising for such a long-running event.
“I’ve noticed the returning crowds recently, but it’s hard to say why. Before COVID we’d usually be full or over capacity, but we’re now back to about 85% of how busy it used to be. If anything, I’d prefer it to be over capacity," said Jon.
Before the pandemic, many of the foreigners who resided in Hanoi did so on tourist visas, but due to the necessarily strict enforcement of visa regulations introduced alongside COVID lockdowns, a large portion of those people had to leave the country. This unfortunately meant that many of the people who both visited and played at music venues regularly are no longer here to fill them up.
I asked Mat, who has been performing in Hanoi since moving here in 2019, about what changes he's noticed in the music scene since the pandemic.
“It’s difficult to judge because I have an actual daytime job now!" he said with a low-pitched chuckle. "My theory is that we all had to adapt over the past few years, not just in terms of the music scene but with everything, like going to restaurants, or the nightlife or even going shopping, and people became accustomed to a more relaxed and quiet way of living. It’s like we need to re-adapt, but that takes time. Maybe people realized they actually prefer the chilled lockdown lifestyle."
|The crowd at Blue Note's Friday night show (Photo: Jason Law)|
Another well-known music venue that's been seeing a slow but significant resurgence in popularity is Blue Note Resto Bar in Ba Dinh. Like HSC, they host a weekly event, every Friday, where a headline act takes to the stage, albeit in a very different atmosphere.
Alexander Jerome, who used to run Blue Note's Friday nights, along with his band, The Mansion Family, now runs the Tuesday open mic-nights and has been frequenting the famous music hub for years. When I went to check out their Friday night, there he was, relishing it, despite no longer running it.
As a talented musician himself with a long-time presence in the Hanoi music community, and someone with a special connection to Blue Note, he spoke of the venue with a certain fondness.
“Blue Note used to be a very charming but very dingy dive bar but since its renovations (which began in 2020 and finished two months ago) it now has much better sound and more room."
Blue Note is definitely still charming, but it was obvious they’d ditched the divey aesthetic and gone for a more modern feel. It was well-lit and spacious, so the sound of the classic rock ‘n’ roll being played traveled well. The bright pink and blue lighting gave it an 80s electro vibrance, and the music was loud enough that I had to shout into my friends' ears when speaking, reminding me of Hanoi's raucous, pre-Covid concerts.
Although there was space to be filled, a sizeable crowd had gathered that night to watch Ukrainian expat Valery Chibichik enthusiastically play covers of classic rock and folk songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Eric Clapton.
After the spirited show, Alexander explained his hopes for his beloved Blue Note.
“It has the potential to be a big music venue with the added space, but as it's not been open long, it needs time to find the right people to run the Friday night."
Before the pandemic and Blue Note's extensive renovations, their Tuesday open-mic night used to be packed full of music enthusiasts watching a variety of creative talents.
“The open mic on a Tuesday has been a Hanoi staple for almost a decade. Attendance varies from week to week but people usually react positively to the changes made,” said Alexander.
Since the venue re-opened in July, owner Thien has seen the crowds slowly coming back.
“We were closed for one year, and many of our foreign customers have gone home. Years ago, our nights would be full, but now it’s quieter."
He optimistically described his current efforts to restore Blue Note to its former glory, and the search to find musicians to headline their Friday nights, adding that with the influx of fresh foreigners recently they’ve seen new musicians emerging.
“I think the music scene is coming back, and the popular venues are hosting more live bands. I hope by next year that we’ll have a rooftop and a third floor, so we can host bigger nights, and more often," said the business owner.
Alexander echoed Thien's hopes for Blue Note.
“I think Blue Note is a really important spot for a lot of people who live in Ba Dinh but it hasn't yet brought back the punters from Tay Ho.”
He hopes that The Mansion Family will perform on a Friday night soon, to serve as a big relaunch for Blue Note’s pivotal role in the music scene. With such dedication and love for the music, Blue Note could be the go-to place for gigs by 2023!
|Blue Note's new look, with plenty of space for new guests (Photo: Jason Law) - Open mic nights at the new Blue Note (Photo: Jeannine Hunter)|
Though Alexander spoke of drawing the Tay Ho punters towards Ba Dinh, it seems that Tay Ho is also struggling to regain its pre-COVID effervescence, despite being home to several live-music venues hosting their own regular events.
One of the most committed of those venues is Whiskey, Mystics and Men (W2M). W2M is the spiritual successor to the popular rock and roll venue The Doors, in Hoan Kiem, which permanently closed its doors in 2018 and was reborn on Dang Thai Mai Street, though its character stayed intact following the relocation. W2M looks like the kind of dive bar you’d imagine finding in rural USA – small, unglamorously old-school, and dimly lit save for some eye-catching neon signs. W2M carried over a lot of The Doors’ popularity following the rebranding, but struggled to maintain it post-COVID.
|The Cowboys perform to a cool crowd on a Friday night (Photo: Jason Law)|
Before the pandemic, venues like W2M used to draw in crowds on every day of the week, but now the weekday scene is comparatively dead, save for their Thursday night open-mics. The venue currently hosts enough weekly music events to satisfy a large number of music lovers - making it evident that the business has a true passion for what they do. Unfortunately, filling the place up is a work in progress.
Le Minh Quang, the friendly and bubbly founder and owner of The Doors, and now W2M, explained his establishment's current predicament.
“Back in 2020 we always had visitors during the weekdays, thanks to the many foreigners who were here. Since then, most of our old customers sadly had to leave the country- we’re still recovering from that."
Another night, another vibe. When I visited on a Wednesday, the Vietnamese band Old Boys Blues was performing rock, jazz, country and pop covers, adding their own unique flavour to the catchy songs. Though the band’s frontmen looked like they had a few decades of experience under their belts, they played with a youthful and driven energy. If their guitarist has any grandchildren, those kids have one of the most awesome grandads in Hanoi - one who dishes out complex guitar licks with apparent ease. Yet surprisingly, I was one of only three people who had come to see and appreciate the band’s instrumental skills.
|Old Boy Blues on a Wednesday night, lacking the crowd they deserve (Photo: Jason Law)|
Quang told me that they have no current plans to promote W2M’s Wednesday nights, as their current focus is solely on the weekend events and Thursday open-mic night, which he was quick to assure me are much busier. On Fridays, their house band The Cowboys performs popular cover songs, and Saturday nights are dedicated to various performers covering the likes of Rage Against The Machine or The Beatles.
I eagerly returned on a Friday, to find the bar filled with Vietnamese music lovers and expats alike, amidst the image of the 90s grunge scene that I’d never truly experienced but had always mentally romanticized; as though this were an underground, alternative side to Hanoi where only the hippest Hanoians can hang out. The Cowboys performed familiar rock classics to a packed crowd that managed to look buzzing and apathetic at the same time; or in other words – ‘cool’.
|The dimly lit bar and punters (Photo: Jason Law)|
American expat Alex Pike, lead singer and guitarist of local band The SACS, has been in Vietnam since 2015, and currently leads Whiskey Mystics’ Thursday open-mic night, after years of being a regular there.
“In general, open mics at W2M were empty following the pandemic. Just a handful of musicians jamming. It was still really fun, but the crowd was missing. Recently, open mics have been packed, things are picking back up!” he said.
When asked about the weekday and weekend crowds, he can never be too sure about what type of audience to expect.
“They vary.. Different events draw different people. Open mics generally tend to be a good mix of Vietnamese people and expats. It’s a great place for expats who live in the Tay Ho bubble to meet and spend time with like-minded locals.”
Hanoi has long been home to a diverse music scene full of talented and interesting individuals, and though a large part of it was lost over the course of the pandemic, it looks set to come back stronger than ever, thanks to the continued passion of artists from Vietnam and around the world.
“The music scene here has always been very vibrant and supportive," said Alex. “It seems like things are getting back to pre-covid vibes. There is so much great live music to see every weekend, and there’s an open mic nearly every day of the week. It’s amazing being a part of this community."
Alex isn’t wrong; there are still enough live shows happening to keep the most eager music lovers satisfied every day of the week, but there is a long way to go before Hanoi can be revered in the way it was three years ago. I’ve heard expats describe Hanoi as the "Melbourne or London of South East Asia," framing it as a springboard for unique and ambitious artists. In the years leading up to 2020, that was an apt comparison.
Today, although the community is still made up of some truly inspiring creative talents who have kept the spirit of the music scene alive, it is lacking the vitality it once had. This can be attributed to the partial exodus of expats, the change of people’s overall mentality over the past few years, and the economic fallout of the pandemic. Regardless of the difficulties that venue owners, event hosts, and musicians are currently facing, their optimism and dedication to restoring the music scene to its former glory mean that for lovers of all things music, it’s a great time to be a music lover in Hanoi.
|Alex Pike, of The SACS, and host of W2M's Open Mic (Photo: Alex Pike)|
Writer: Jason Law