Trần Vũ Hải – turning trash into treasure

October 09, 2016 - 09:00

For six years, artist Tran Vu Hai has brought his talents to Ha Noi, turning disused sites into communal art spaces with a distinctly vintage aesthetic.

Waste not, want not: Hải is a master of recycled furniture. In this photo, he is sitting around newly-covered chairs in his trademark vintage style. Photo
Viet Nam News

For six years, artist Tran Vu Hai has brought his talents to Ha Noi, turning disused sites into communal art spaces with a distinctly vintage aesthetic. Thanks to his inspired repurposing of antique furniture, Hai has built an almost cult-like following to his bars and cafes throughout the city. Westerners and locals alike flock to his hipster hangouts.

by Hoàng Hoa

One day in 2010, artist Trần Vũ Hải visited his friend’s house at the end of a narrow alley on Cao Bá Quát Street, Hà Nội, and persuaded him to move out so that Hải could redecorate, and transform the house into a café. Hải worked hard to restore the French colonial building, and retain its classic charm. In this way Bar Betta café and lounge was born and quickly became a hotspot for Western customers.

A year later, Hải discovered a large vacant area of some buildings laid waste by a pharmacy enterprise at 6 Trần Thánh Tông Street. He, along with some friends, developed the disused lot into an arts and business collective, henceforth known as Zone 9, “the most open space for contemporary arts and culture” in Hà Nội at the time.

Hải chose the central part of Zone 9 for his new venture, Bar Betta Republic. Surrounding the bar was a big yard for cafés and fast food vendors. Many other Hà Nội-based artists and entrepreneurs flocked to Zone 9 to open restaurants and fashion boutiques, each featuring a different artistic style yet matching the unique thematic space of Bar Betta Republic.

Zone 9 attracted a lot of attention from tourists and foreigners living in Hà Nội. Singers and film makers took the opportunity to shoot videos at Zone 9 because of its eclectic space and vibrant background.

The closure of Zone 9 in 2014, following a fire accident, came as a shock to many of its loyal customers.

Right after the collapse of Zone 9, Hải began the search to continue its legacy. X98 collective zone was established in another unoccupied area in Hoàng Cầu. That time, Hải managed to use part of X98 to open Đồng Nát Décor Showroom and invited his entrepreneur friends to invest in the rest of the X98 area. Taking the lessons of Zone 9 on board, Hải did not disseminate information about X98 through mass media. He focused on a particular customer niche.

“All of the bars managed by Hải are distinguished and artistic. His recycled furniture is very eye-catching,” reporter Hoàng Minh Trí said.

 Infusing spirit into unused furniture

Since his student days, Hải has been attracted to recycled items and attempts to repurpose them. The idea of making recycled furniture from unused items stemmed from 400 old chairs Hải was charged with redecorating when he took a designing job at a hotel. Hải covered them with colourful fabric pieces, aiming for a vintage and eye-catching look.

Wooden doors, water tubes, and bits of discarded timber were all put to use to reduce costs.

“We are familiar with old items. If we can refresh them, they will carry new spirits,” Hải said.

Casks became wine tables. A coloured ambulance became a mini bar. Lamps were made from old glass bottles. Customers were thrilled at Hải’s products, and their innovative origins, and were soon clamouring to buy their own versions. Đồng Nát Décor, specialising in this kind of homeware, has become a popular brand for both individual and business customers.

“What I am working on can be done by any designers, or at least those with good style. I am not afraid of my products being copied. I’m happy if there is a recycled item community in Việt Nam. I hope that in the future, Upcycling will become a lifestyle choice in Việt Nam as it is in developed countries.” Hải said.

Filtering customers with music

Hero Bar and +84 Bar are also under Hải’s ownership. Hero Bar aims at younger customers with electronic dance music, while +84 Bar targets an older clientele who enjoy wine, cigars and jazz music. The live band at +84 Bar comprises amateur musicians who have a diverse array of jobs in Hà Nội. They all are talented musicians and appreciate the opportunity to play music in such a setting. At weekends, Hải’s bars are familiar destinations for many foreign diplomats working in the city.

“They say that it’s a complicated job because you have to deal with drunken customers. But my customers are not alcoholics. Most of them are very civilised,” Hải said.

“Many people often think of bars as a place for uncivilised people to drink and dance. In the last 10 years, the conception of a ‘bar’ among young people has changed. Coming to bars is like coming to restaurants. It’s normal. My customers are drunk, too. But I have never had to manage any serious cases.”

Hải is working in the field of interior design and catering services. He is also investing in a law firm. However, Hải still has time for travelling.

“I don’t work based on emotions. I always try my best to make any plans come true.” Hải said. VNS