Lorcan Lovett heads to Quest, a special festival outside of Hanoi that’s getting bigger by the year.
Quest would stand out anywhere in the world, but the fact it’s in Vietnam makes it truly unique.
The three-day festival has struck a fine balance between arty curiosities, nature, and that throbbing electro music that ties us all together.
It’s the only Western-tilted event to take advantage of some of the North’s inspiring landscape, surrounded by Dong Mo lake and beyond that Ba Vi mountain range, just over an hour from Hanoi.
We travelled there Friday night, fairly sure we’d made some profoundly wrong turn as our motorbike slipped through the muddy curves of a rough path flanked by forest.
Suddenly the drone of insects was replaced by deep thuds and light burst through thick branches, casting flickering shapes onto the black canvas of water around us.
English teachers from Hanoi, who along with their Saigon counterparts made up the rump of revelers, crawled out of a taxi in front on to Son Tinh camp. The spit of land would host 2000 people raving to over 30 DJs and 10 bands across three stages in Quest’s fifth and biggest year yet.
We dropped our bags and blankets at the stilted Longhouse where an artist painted a giant, psychedelic octopus with an all-seeing eye. It set the tone.
Nearby, people were bouldering over the adventure playground that overlooked the main stage, which adopted this year’s monster theme in name and style.
Quest has its own money that’s used for drinks and foods. A plastic glass cost VND 10,000 to discourage waste and boost revenue – charging your phone also costs for the same reasons.
But it’s by no means an avaricious machine. Tickets are reasonably priced at VND 900,000 for three days (VND 200,000 cheaper for early birds) and VND 500,000 for a day.
All the beers are provided, and a good portion drank, by the local community. The security also comes from the area. We chugged down a couple of 333s at VND 30,000 a pop and strolled down to the pre-pitched tent site.
Within an hour you can easily visit every venue. Eerie Altar for hidden, late-night disco gems, Rec Room for acoustic, Cinema for, well, you guessed it, and Quest Embassy for dance, dance, and dance.
Back at the main stage, Hanoi New Traditional Music Group smashed their way through the opening ceremony with a combination of traditional Vietnamese string instruments and dubstep. I’ve since scoured the Internet for them, but to no avail. Someone please help.
I’ve met you before
Orbs of yellow, blue and ketchup red glimmered across the lake from Monster Stage to three wooden decks. There we shuffled for hours to synth and pounding bass among a large crowd whose faces would become familiar over the next two days.
Quest is intimate, even after increasing tenfold over the past four years, and goers still leave with a shared, impressed experience. Staff said the maximum capacity of around 3000 was a safety cap for the cozy atmosphere. It’s likely to reach that level next year.
Stagehands, artists, locals, peddlers and ticket holders mixed happily together – no egos, no trouble. Only a few bemused looks from the Vietnamese women behind the food stalls. Their gawps became more pronounced in the early morning when a crew of convincing zombies stared vacantly at the noodles.
The prevailing strand of celebration and inclusion was welcome on Saturday noon. We went for a swim before heading straight back to Quest Embassy. After a quick wake-up dance, there were workshops to enjoy.
There’s a strong chance someone who would usually teach verb tense in a sweaty Saigon classroom returned from Quest a fire juggler.
Among the boundless opportunities to gain new skills were massage lessons, yoga, word slams, and an army of circus performers jumping about the place.
Traditional Vietnamese musician Vu Nhat Tan shared his knowledge, one of the many Vietnamese artists and guests who joined the festivities.
In the tone of offbeat Western festivals, art projects were scattered around the site. A dangling circle of photographs displaying images from faraway countries, neon rectangles hanging from trees, and a bamboo ship-like structure were all intrigues.
The latter’s creator said the local workers were at first puzzled as to why they needed to build a purposeless object. However, he said, they soon became fervent about the construction. It must have been a full circle of emotions to see it set alight Burning Man style on the Sunday evening.
On meanders through the camp there were enough creative diversions to pique interest without feeling like you were trapped in an art gallery, but perhaps the star of the show was a little pied goat.
Bouncing between impromptu theatre and disheveled monsters, the ballsy kid was most definitely real and not a collective hallucination. It joined the dwindling crowd on Sunday evening as they watched a spirited performance from Saigon-based Space//Panther, an indie electro outfit with potential to hit the big time. They’re returning to their native US soon, so we’ll see.
With the Bloody Maries dried up and the goat standing forlornly in the third bout of rain, it was time to leave.
The festival is beginning to get name checked in international publications while expats in Vietnam’s big cities have it stamped in their diaries.
Its next big challenge is to balance its rocketing popularity with the congenial spirit that created its success. I’ll most definitely be returning to find out if it’s achieved this.