My introduction to the scene began when I met Matt Russell on Tinder. I’m not the biggest fan of the world’s most superficial networking tool — it’s very hit or miss — but this friend stuck. I started noticing his incessant Facebook posts on a group called Hanoi Circus Community and got curious. A map posted on the group’s wall led me to a small grassy park tucked away next to West Lake.
I found Matt mingling with the park’s intimate crowd, introducing himself to new faces he didn’t recognise, ensuring newcomers don’t feel ostracised. Hanoi is a small world for expats, though, and I instantly found friends in the grass. Matt disappeared and returned with a tray full of beer from the bia hoi across the street. As he passed them around, a bearded hippie lit his poi on fire and began to spin, slipping us all into a trance.
Burn, Baby, Burn
It’s not a circus in the way that you think. There are no big top tents or women being shot from cannons or horribly mistreated elephants — ‘circus’ here refers to a collection of body-mind practices called ‘flow arts’, stemming from yoga and dance. The most well-known and fascinating of these arts is fire spinning, which can be done using a variety of toys: staffs, swords, hula hoops, and poi, a tethered weight swung by a performer in various geometric patterns. (Artists also use LED lights, a decidedly less dangerous alternative to fire.)
Poi itself stems from Maori culture in New Zealand, where it was mainly performed by women, but rumoured to have been used by men to improve wrist flexibility for handling weapons. Today, flow arts are especially popular with the counterculture, and have become a distinct aspect of large festivals in the West (think Burning Man).
With commercial events, however, come pesky things like fire safety regulations and accident insurance. So the hippies have flocked to Southeast Asia, where they can ‘burn’ anywhere they want.
The community in Hanoi started sometime in 2012 with Mark Harris (from Gingerwork) and his friends in a small park across the street from his house. What began as a few people getting together on Sundays to practice their fire-spinning has grown quickly, thanks to the concerted efforts of dedicated circusers like Tim Coker and Liv Ferrari. Most recently, Matt has taken up the charge of organising the troupe’s weekly meet-ups, and drawing new members into the group.
The Circle of Inspiration
A couple of weeks after my first Sunday night circus, I got another Facebook invite from Matt: the crew was making a pilgrimage to spin on Cat Ba Island. I shared the event with my housemates, Lucie and Siobhan. “But we’re not in the circus!” they said. “Everyone’s in the circus,” I replied. I invited my friend Jess to come along, and on the way out of Hanoi, we picked up a talented fire-spinning backpacker that we’d met on Sunday night. The six of us set off biker-gang style at 7am on a Monday, Matt with three hoops across his shoulders, a bottle of kerosene between his legs, and a backpack full of circus toys.
Six hours, several unfortunate mishaps, and two grey ferry rides later, we rolled off the boat onto Cat Ba. The air was crisp around us from a surprise cold front as we weaved up and down the mountainous coast. I couldn’t wipe the stupid smile off my face; these are the beautiful rides that make all the road pains worth it.
We found our hostel in the dark just outside Cat Ba town, a collection of thatched roof huts underneath a rocky cliff face. A group of circusers were already there to greet us as we all collapsed in exhaustion around our dorm room. I had to fight the urge to close my eyes — we came here for a purpose. “To the beach!” someone shouted, and the sentiment echoed around the group. Sleep when you’re dead, I thought. There’s burning to do.
We gathered a stack of firewood and a bag full of beers, and 15 of us mounted our bikes and roared out into the darkness. We were flying down the road, past black behemoth peaks rolling by, mysterious and sublime in the distance. We turned off towards a small cove as yet unknown to tourists, a sign in the road illustrating the beach’s imminent plans for development. It would be a resort soon, but that night, it was just us and the sea.
The bonfire began to roar and Matt emptied his bag of toys onto the sand for us to play with. Most of the toys that the group uses have either been brought from home or made here by hand; Matt even had several sets of practice poi tailor-made with materials sourced from the fabric market in Hanoi. It was these poi that piqued our interest.
“Workshop!” we exclaimed, and Jess, Siobhan, Lucie, and I formed a circle in the sand with Matt at the center. None of us had ever dabbled in the art before, so he walked us through the baby steps. Something that looked so impossible from the outside suddenly became accessible, though, granted, I couldn’t stop accidentally hitting myself in the face. “Look! I’m doing something!” Jess kept shouting in astonishment every time her wrists learnt a new move. Matt calls this ‘flow’.
“It’s basically a state of mind where you are surrendering what’s happening in front of you to muscle memory, and you’re kind of living in the moment,” he says. An hour later and Jess was still going; the circus was catching.
This skill-sharing is essential to the group’s dynamic. Matt describes it as an organic “circle of inspiration”; everyone learns from those who have learnt before, through imitation and repetition and failure and laughter. It’s a beautiful illustration of community, and a very real-world application for the social benefits of sharing.
Group learning can be an intimidating process for many people, especially when some are far more skilled than others. But somehow this group fosters a radical inclusivity that voids all of those self-conscious feelings. The collective mindset is an openness to growth, no matter where you are in terms of skill or experience. Come as you are, do what you feel.
Back to Hanoi
We left Cat Ba the next day feeling renewed. Sometimes you need to escape the chaos of the city and retreat into the wild. Sometimes you need to create a safe space where you can express yourself. That’s the nature of the circus. It was a similar retreat to Son Tinh Camp in the beginning of 2013 that inspired Quest Festival, which has become a sort of showcase for the fire-spinners, as well as a platform for them to skill-share with others.
But like the fire that burns strong and inevitably flickers out, there is a bittersweet transience to all of this. After the group’s workshops and performances at Quest, Matt plans to leave Hanoi, on to the next adventure. It remains to be seen who will take up the torch when he’s gone. “Circus needs to fill a deep hole inside of you,” he says.
It’s Sunday night in the park again. But tonight the circusers are planning, not playing. “Is 40 litres of kerosene enough?” “How should we choreograph the effigy burn?” “Who wants to spin on the lake platform?” Quest Festival is nigh. And the circus is about to come together in a big way.
For more info do a search on Facebook for Hanoi Circus Community