Nestled next to the famous Japanese Bridge in the beautiful lantern-filled town of Hoi An sits a new gallery that’s changing up the Vietnamese art scene. ‘Hay Hay‘ really stands out amongst the tourist-touting traditional art that everyone and their water buffalo come away with*. Selling everything from coasters and aprons to notebooks and paintings, this is a gallery with a difference, supporting local artists and offering an element of cool to tourists and expats alike. Meet Hay Hay’s Megan, Shann and Ha and find out what inspired them to start this venture, how they’re using the gallery to promote their artists and why you should go and meet them in Hoi An yourself (they’re really nice!)
Can you introduce yourselves and tell me what Hay Hay is about please?
My name is Megan Sedlak, I’m an American and I’m 26 years old. I went to university for Accounting, and through my travels over the last 4 years, I could not stop looking at beautiful patterns and decided it was definitely an avenue I wanted to pursue myself. Then I met Shann two years ago and he was an artist and had already had a gallery in New Zealand. It’s kind of, I’m the business side and he’s the artistic side. When the two minds met we never looked back. Then we met Ha, and Ha was the person I’d say really motivated us to move forward with his Vietnamese designs. And then we just started rolling, and basically what we want to do at Hay Hay, what we are starting to achieve is to become a space where all artists can come together – more Vietnamese artists than foreign artists – and show what they have to offer and give them a space that they can call their own, and use it to the potential that they want to use it. We’re not going to force them to give more than they want to, if they want to put one piece in that’s great, if they want to put 10 pieces in, that’s also great. It’s an art space where people can live – they use their passion to live off of.
That’s pretty amazing. So are you looking to build beyond this store in the future?
Megan: We’ll never say no to a great opportunity, but right now it’s just starting small, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. First though, we’d love ten more artists – we’d love a million more artists! – so we want the artists there before we can start to grow and then we can have a Hue shop with just Hue artists, a Hoi An shop with just Hoi An artists, things like that. But right now, we just need the new artists to come in.
How are you finding the artists? What’s the process of finding people?
Shann: Various ways, I mean Ha had a few contacts. We also started looking at places like Hue Art University, Saigon, Hanoi and putting out on their Facebook pages, ‘Who’s interested in submitting art work?’, friends through Da Nang…Now we’ve got some ideas for doing competitions. One of our ideas is to design a Vietnamese hat – to paint on a Vietnamese hat, and we can hand those out. And we have a sign on the front door (telling customers about the artists). But it’s different here because we’re offering a long-term payment scheme. So Ha has one picture in here that’s selling very, very well, and every month he gets a percentage of every sale from that piece of art – whether it’s a card or a painting or a book. If that picture’s in here for two years and keeps selling well, then that piece of artwork potentially makes a lot of money. Whereas here in Hoi An, the artist sells a piece of artwork for $30, the gallery sells it for $120 and that’s it – that’s one piece of art. We like the idea that if you come up with a great idea for one piece of artwork, why not let it sell to a lot of people?
You all contribute to the gallery. Megan, how much time do you spend making your textile pieces?
I guess I look at it as the time that I travel. Travelling is when I find all of this fabric, so Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam. My biggest thing is functionality: what do I want? I want a make-up bag that has a clear lining so that when my make-up breaks I don’t have to throw out my bag, I just have to rinse the inside. Or a bag that has a zipper, or a clasp over the top – just little things that aid the functionality.
Do you create them yourself?
I create the designs of them, I don’t personally sew them myself. They’re all sewn and manufactured down in Saigon, but I spend endless hours making sure samples are right and taking trips down to Saigon.
Textiles are sourced from several countries in SE Asia and manufactured in Saigon.
And what about you Shann?
I’ve got two kinds of styles: I do painting, and photographic collage. I like taking photos and then collaging them together, and placing say, images over the top of landscapes. My painting style’s a lot different, it’s definitely a bit more…I don’t know if tongue in cheeks the right word, but it’s got an animated sort of feel to it, and just painting ideas that I see here. Like the Buffalo Girls (see the image behind Shann in his picture above), which is about how girls in Vietnam hide from the sun, how we Westerners love brown skin and how Vietnamese just love to be white.
I used to live in Korea and it was the same there: covered head to toe at the beach.
Shann: It’s been like that in Korea for 20 years and it’s come here from Korea, so it’s sort of folding down.
I just come out with ideas based on what we can make here in Vietnam, seeing stuff around and thinking ‘Hey, that’s a good product, we could actually attach our designs to that’ and then redesigning it.
Why did you feel there was a need for a gallery like this? Was there anything else like this in Hoi An, or any of the bigger cities?
Shann: No, and that was the idea. I mean, we’d been here for two or three years.
Megan: It’s hard finding a gift for someone that isn’t a piece of crap to send home and be embarrassed by. It’s one thing here, ‘cos we know what it’s like, but when you’ve got a thousand choices at home, and you send something from Vietnam you want it to be a good quality product, and we were finding it really hard to find those things here.
Shann: It’s just store after store after store selling the same thing.
Megan: So in terms of Hoi An and Da Nang, I don’t think that there’s anything like our shop. But maybe after you’ve been in Hanoi for a month you can let us know what’s going on up there! (I haven’t even started exploring yet!) But I don’t think there is necessarily anything going on up in Hanoi or down in Saigon.
What’s the creative scene like in Vietnam?
Shann: Well, Hoi An used to be the artistic capital of Vietnam. But then more and more artists came in, and because there wasn’t enough money for all the artists, they started to copy each other. And then one by one, the original artists started to leave and the people that remained were the people just copying other people’s artwork. And then like the tailors, once one starts to do it, then the neighbour becomes a tailor or an artist, and then it’s just a whole row of people painting the same thing or making the same thing. I think there’s a huge amount of talented people here in Vietnam. It’s a communist country and all the artists were killed in the 40’s just for being artistic. Now the artistic ability is there, but just not the ideas, and it’s really difficult to come up with ideas and they don’t have the money. To come up with ideas and just put it out there is very expensive – they want that instant gratification, that instant money.
How has it been setting up a business here, especially as foreigners?
Shann: Well we’ve had Ha. We could not have done it without Ha, with the language and just with the knowledge. I couldn’t have done it. But I think it’s been easier than I expected. What do you think?
Ha: Yeah, it’s easier because there’s a lot of artists who want to be famous. A lot of young artists focus a lot on how to be better and they forget about marketing themselves. So in this shop we have the artists marketing themselves much better. They talk to each other, so somehow it’s easier.
So it’s been quite easy to find the artists?
Shann: For the first time, yeah. We don’t need lots, we just want something different. Finding something different is the tricky part.
Photos on the door give information about Hay Hay’s artists
I think you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head here. The first time I walked in I immediately saw that everything is really nice, and as much as I of course appreciate everywhere else selling the traditional art, it’s nice to see something a little bit different.
Ha: I have a lot of customers who walk into the shop, they say, ‘Oh, your shop looks different’. And they say they’ve been around so many shops that look the same, and they say ‘Why do we have to walk into a shop where they sell us the same thing?’ And maybe they trust me more because I am different, finally they’ve found something different so they like it here.
And also there’s not the hassle of, ‘You buy, you buy!’
Megan: ‘Excuse me, buy something please’ is never going to be said in this store!
Ha: We enjoy buying things, so we use the experience of us like, how do we go into your shop? How do we feel when we buy things? And we make it exactly the same for customers. When they come into the shop they feel like, free. So we are thinking of actually making more offers for our customers, so when they come into the shop we offer them like water, coffee, soda, so it’s more like talking about where to go in Vietnam, recommendations of what to do. So we make more connections with our customer. Not only selling things, but also we’re making friends with people.
Have you found that a lot of your customers have been foreigners, whether it’s expats or tourists, or are you getting locals into the shop as well?
Megan: It’s quite an eclectic mix. I would say that at Tet (Vietnamese new year) when all the Vietnamese were around, I think we sold more to Vietnamese than to foreigners. So that was a nice way to start the shop, ‘cos we opened Tet eve. And now that Tet’s gone, we’ve got expats coming in since our opening as well as every day we meet foreigners from all over the world.
Shann: And then I guess we’re just getting an idea of what nationalities are coming in and who wants what and what to buy. I’m finding the French really like our stuff. I’m finding the Chinese really like it, but it’s too expensive for them.
Ha: When the Chinese want to buy something, they only want to make it cheaper. Even when we make it reasonable, they only want it cheap. They don’t care about anything else.
So at the expense of them not actually buying anything anyway?
Shann: Yeah. The Japanese really like Megan’s products. After a month, we’re really getting to know who likes what.
That’s really interesting. Are you open 7 days a week?
Megan: Yes, we’re open 7 days a week, 9:30 to 9:30.
So there’s always at least one of you in here? And you’re running this full-time, that’s your job now?
That’s so exciting!
Shann: Exciting, nerve-wracking…
That’s the best time when it’s all new and it’s all you’re thinking about.
Shann: Yeah, it is cool. Plus I think about the possibilities as well. We were just talking about whole-sale. All our energies have just been on the shop and what it looks like and what our products are. Now it’s open and people have gone, ‘Wow, this is great!’ Now we’re thinking about resorts and hotels and other shops as well.
With the design in here, was this something the three of you worked on together?
Megan: Yes. It’s nice, it was a blank canvas so there wasn’t much we had to take down, just what we could create in a very blank space.
Great, thanks so much for your time.
* I’m definitely not saying that I don’t like the traditional Vietnamese art so many tourists buy. Hey, I’ll probably decorate my apartment with some of it when I have somewhere to live. But I do like variety and that’s what you get with Hay Hay thrown in the mix!