The creative director for Quest Festival, Mark Harris is one of the new breed of event planners based in Hanoi. Photo by Julie Vola
What brought you to Hanoi?
I was working full time in property for around ten years, but started to feel quite disillusioned. Vietnam had a reputation for authenticity and being less affected by tourism, and Hanoi in particular. I was also told the food was fantastic.
My partner at the time was managing a sheltered housing building and the day we found out she was paid less than call-centre staff was the day we decided to sell everything and leave. That was October 2009. The plan was to stay a year.
What was the nightlife scene like when you first arrived?
As a newcomer it seemed limited and hard to know where to go and when. There were some people running events, but Hanoi tends to go through peaks and troughs, and that time seemed to be quiet.
How did you come up with the idea for GingerWork?
After about three years [in Hanoi], I started organising private events with friends, then we began doing full club installations. Soon there were a few of us collaborating and a friend said that if I wanted to do it properly, I needed to give it a name. From when I was young I used to make crafty gifts and cards for people — I always wrote GingerWork on them. So I used that name.
How important is it to provide something that gets people away from spending all their time in bars and restaurants?
A lot of our events involve a bar, but it’s important to provide something other than just drinking. Hanoi’s music and art scene is generated on a grass roots level, so we all rely on each other to come up with ideas and make projects happen. Not just to enjoy but to create space where people can meet, exchange ideas and grow the scene.
You’ve been involved in Quest since it first started. How difficult is it to put such a festival together?
It’s hard to believe how far we have come from the first night with 250 people and a sound system. It has without doubt been the most challenging project I have ever been involved in. However, we have always managed to make it happen and there are very few regrets — each festival has been a step forward and a huge learning curve.
There is no way we could have achieved what we have without the super human levels of enthusiasm and contribution from everyone who has been part of the teams each year. The hardest part is the sheer volume of time it takes to bring the festival together.
As an event planner, what are the main hurdles you have to cross to get things done?
Aside from the physicality of just trying to get everything together and set up, the main hurdle is curation.
Personally it’s about making the right decisions and learning to empower people. The key is knowing [when to listen] and to allow people to develop their ideas with a clear brief. In short, to extricate yourself from the mechanics and work efficiently with your team. There are two main barriers to this — one is that I am hands on. The second is budget. The budgets we work with here are relatively low.
How difficult is it to get the Hanoi public to pay to go to quality events? Is this changing?
It is quite hard, there is most definitely a disconnect between perception and reality in terms of what it costs to run a quality event.
We try to keep prices affordable, foremost the Vietnamese audience. We always offer early bird prices for Quest and Hanoi-based events. One issue is we have always tried to offer a full programme of performance, however Hanoi is an early night city full of late night people, so people often arrive late. This lowers the incentive of a venue to support a fuller programme.
What has been your most memorable event?
The first two GingerWork events — an Alice in Wonderland-inspired party with theatre and an indoor forest, and the Carnival of the Dead at Halloween where we were full at 8pm. Both of these were working with Camille Picquart, Marine Billet and Dana Peterson from Full Circle Studios.
Also the improvised private parties and the installations we did for Picnik Electronic. These smaller projects, just done for fun, have always felt special.
What are the main changes you’ve seen in Hanoi’s nightlife since you’ve been living in Vietnam?
An increasing variety of projects are running and the community is really connected and sharing inspiration. It seems we attract more people every year, and a high proportion are incredibly talented.
We are also seeing far more Vietnamese-run projects and collaborations. Vietnamese artists are developing their craft very quickly.
What needs to be improved?
We need more venues to work with and better equipment. A variety of musical styles is important as Hanoi tends to go through waves where there is a lot of one genre. The main thing is a clear platform with advice and terms from venues to allow innovators to achieve their ideas. That said, I think Hanoi is pretty awesome as it is.
The next Quest Festival takes place from Nov. 4 to Nov. 6 at Son Tinh Camp, Ba Vi, Hanoi. For more info click on questfestival.net