Việt Nam’s Renovation Generation Gets the Podcast Treatment

Published March 21, 2016 in Episode 44

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Đổi Mới, the series of economic reforms that changed Việt Nam from a centrally planned economy to what some describe as a “socialist-oriented free market” economy. These reforms changed the daily realities for many people, and the generation born after Đổi Mới live lives that previous generations could barely dream of 30 years ago. This generation only knows what it feels like to live in an era of relative prosperity, and two women - Eliza Lomas and Fabiola Buchele - seek to understand their experiences: dealing with parents, falling in love, making art, their relationship to the internet, and everything in-between. Their podcast series, “The Renovation Generation”, features intimate conversations with post-Đổi Mới youth and draw sonic portraits of their lives and experiences.

I talk to Fabiola and Eliza about the inspiration behind starting their podcast, their process, from first meeting to finished product, and being a part of the community in Hà Nội, which has given them intimate access into the lives of artists, poets, philosophers, tattoo artists, mixologists, curators, and more.

Renovation Generation: Hi I’m Fabiola. And I’m Eliza. And we’re recording for Loa, directly from Hà Nội, Việt Nam.

Stella Trần: Great to have you both on Loa today. Can you tell me a little bit about Renovation Generation and what inspired you to tell the stories of the artists in Việt Nam?

Fabiola Buchele: The Renovation Generation podcast is a series of what we call sonic portraits. They each feature a young Vietnamese person born after Đổi Mới, the political change in 1986, who are doing something. Most of them are doing something that would’ve been impossible before that time.   

Stella Trần: What inspired you to look specifically at the Renovation Generation?

Fabiola: We’re getting this question now because people go, ”How did you [get] this idea?” So, full disclosure: we just wanted to do a podcast, and we interviewed Thắng [in] the first episode. He’s a friend of ours, or a friend Eliza’s, she’s worked with him. So he was our first one. We didn’t know what we were doing.

We just had him over and just interviewed him.  And then it kind of started molding into this format, as we were talking about how it could all be tied together into an actual podcast thing that has a theme and has a topic. So then the inspiration came from -- a lot of these guys are friends of ours or then their circle of friends. So people that we’ve gotten to know as we live here and they’re not necessarily people that we read about a lot. It was wanting to show them, or have some fun with it.

And the other thing was that we wanted to find not just the stories in it of itself but to find a medium that’s unusual for Việt Nam, both in and outside Việt Nam. And to break the mode of the stories that usually come out of Việt Nam. So the stories that we tell, they’re not political, or at least not overtly. They’re not part of a grand narrative. They’re not supposed to sit in any …like “uh, this is Việt Nam” or we’re changing the narrative. We’re just trying to diversify it and this was something that we had access to and thought was really, really interesting.

Eliza: Mmhm. And also it’s funny to say we’re calling them the Renovation Generation, which is kind of like putting a box around this generation of people that we’re talking to. But actually, within this, we’re not trying to find a singular theme of all the people. We’re actually trying to show as many different stories as possible and diversify the amount of stories you hear. So we’re not trying to saying “all this generation have similar upbringing, similar beliefs, similar pastime activities.” We’re trying to make it seem like there’s such a range of experiences.

Stella Trần: So how did you both end up in Hà Nội and how did you guys get involved in this scene?

Eliza: I decided that I didn’t want to live in London anymore, which is where I was living and working in radio. And I just, researched places to go in Asia and Hà Nội seemed the most intriguing to me.

Stella Trần: Can you elaborate why?

Eliza: I think because I knew the least about it. Before I came, I went on the BBC website and typed in radio programs about Việt Nam and then all there was, was about the war. Like that was literally the only programs that existed. And I was just like, there’s just got to be something that’s happening now in Việt Nam that’s not like from 1975. And coming here, none of my friends talk about the war and there’s just so much other interesting stuff happening.

Stella Trần: So Fabiola, how did you make it to Hà Nội and can you speak---

Fabiola: I kind of skirted that question. How did I end up here?

Actually my parents were living here after I finished university in London. So I studied journalism and international relations in London, always with the intention of going somewhere in the world again. I didn’t really have a preference. So my father works in development. He works for the ministry of education here.

They’re [my parents] not here anymore but I stayed with them for a bit and then I interned at a magazine here. And then I started my own magazine about arts and culture in Việt Nam, mainly because I didn’t know where to find the stories that I was interested in.

Because like Eliza just said, you Google those kind of things and there is nothing. And I was like, well I might as well just write them myself if nobody else is telling me. And then very quickly I got so excited about this thing that I just said which is access, right? So we started this online magazine and I got access to artists who were like the most established artists.

I remember getting an interview with a guy called Hà Trí Hiếu who is one of the most well-known artists from the ‘80s and ‘90s. And I was like, “Ooh it’s probably gonna be really hard to get an interview”. I had one the next day and I was like: “This is ridiculous! We’ve just been going for a month!”

But because there is so little stuff it means that when you are doing something, you really get really cool people very, very quickly.

Eliza: We’ve been here three years. The first year was not that rewarding. I mean it was rewarding but not in terms of like, working on things that I wanted to work on.

Fabiola: And because the information isn’t readily available, it needs personal perseverance and motivation to get to these things.

Stella Trần: What are some interesting learnings you have after talking with six artists now?

Fabiola: Well, we’ve talked to a lot more than that already. Like we’ve been quite active with doing the interviews. Because we do quite a lengthy process. So we interview each of them at least twice. So once in like a good setting where we get good sound-- well namely my flat. And then one with a bit more ambiance.

Eliza: I think we’ve learned the most about making podcasts. We’re just learning the best way to tell the story of that person and experimenting with the sound and the way we do interviews. And we’re really pushing ourselves as journalists really, and creating something interesting.

Stella Trần: How do you get your guests to speak so candidly?

Eliza: A lot of the first podcasts we’ve already done, we’ve been friends with them, so it’s been quite easy.

Fabiola: Well, even the ones we didn’t know. A: I think this is one of those things, people speak very candidly in Việt Nam.

Eliza: And I think I’m also trying to push the limits of what I ask people because I’m not actually used to asking people personal questions. So now I’m like, “Oooh, I’m just gonna ask you about, y’know, your first kiss, and your current dating situation.” And I’m just gonna try and see, and if you don’t wanna answer and you’ll know soon enough. And usually they go right with it and they’ll answer everything.

Stella Trần: I love that.

Fabiola: The thing about it is, because of that, I do think there is a certain, I don’t know if responsibility is the right word. But you are making people incredibly comfortable, and I think that we’re both very respectful of the fact that people are speaking so candidly. And we do have a long conversation with each other and the rest of our team.

The reason they speak so candidly is that we spend time getting to know them. And that getting to know them then also means that you try and represent them in the fairest, most comfortable way possible. Because, you know, you’re just sitting there and having a great conversation and people are just, you know, open about things.

Stella Trần: It sounds like you’re spending a lot of time with each person. Where are you taking them for that first meeting, first interview, the first date?

Eliza: Well, I try to go somewhere relevant to them. So with the next podcast, it’s a guy who’s a mixologist. So we went to his bar, and then spent the evening with him at his bar.  And then—and then met him again in this house [Fabiola’s flat].

Stella Trần: What I also think is really interesting is Đổi Mới is also this generation of millennials and that there’s new mediums for them to convey their work. But what other themes are they exploring that you think other generations of artists haven’t?

Eliza: Well, Giang is a good example. One of the podcasts is about Giang and he is really, he really loves just making gifs, just trying loads of different formats for his art. He’s just like, “This week I’m gonna try sketching and next week I’m gonna try to learn a new software or make a new videogame or something!”

Stella Trần: So what’s really interesting to me is the rise of a free market economy in Việt Nam. Is there there a Western influence on their art at all and do they think of it as a Western influence?

Eliza: Hmm, I think that they see it more as an exposure to the internet. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and they don’t really see it as, oh, it’s them getting a Western influence. They see it more like the whole world has been opened up through access to the internet in 1997. So then it just gives them a way of seeing so many different alternatives.

Fabiola: And I also don’t know if the lines aren’t just getting blurrier and blurrier. People put these West-East discussions down. I’m not sure whether-- you know, sometimes it kind of undermines the abilities of these kids to just have more modern minds as well. Who knows where what is coming from? But I do think there are some people around who are actually kind of counteracting with looking within Việt Nam again for inspiration and going through their own legends, like Giang’s vina-kitsch thin. So I don’t think it’s that clear cut. I think they just learn how to pick and choose, like we all do.

I think it’s tough to pinpoint one influence but definitely the exposure to the internet just means exposure to more stuff in general.  

Stella Trần:Yay! Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today.

Fabiola: Thank you!

Eliza: Yeah! Thank you!

Editor's Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.