The music scene here, like many things in Vietnam, is constantly changing. Traditional, pop, and electronic music all fuse together to take new forms, create unique sounds, and propel sub-cultures forward. While Vietnam has had its own flavor of electronic music, known as Vinahouse, it seems as if the global EDM craze is finally beginning to take a hold here with underground events leading the charge.
Late last year Steve Aoki performed for the first time in Hanoi (during his first trip to Vietnam) and then proceeded to celebrate this year’s Tet holiday with a show in Saigon. And earlier this year, Wally Lopez came back to Blanchy’s Tash in Saigon after his first time the year before. Now, Hardwell is the latest house music DJ scheduled to come to Vietnam for the first time ever as part of his “I am Hardwell” tour. Hardwell will be playing in Saigon’s Quan Khu 7 stadium on September 28 and General Admission tickets are currently on sale for 600,000 VND (approximately $30). VIP, VVIP, and CA tickets are also available.
The larger-than-life style of music that is presented by Steve Aoki, Hardwell, and their contemporaries is full of high-intensity and high-energy beats and rhythms that lead into a “drop” where the crowd is simultaneously jumping or fist-pumping in unison. This variety of house music is growing in popularity with young and trendy Vietnamese here where most of the electronic music heard takes the form of Vinahouse, a hard-hitting, repetitive beat that continues until the end of a song.
Rumored to have originally been a Russian intro beat (lasting for no more than 30 seconds), the steady thumping seems to have captured the hearts of Vietnamese electronic music enthusiasts as they extended it to last the entire length of a song. Vinahouse can be heard everywhere: gyms, discotheques, and even street shops blare Vinahouse through speakers set up on the sidewalk in an attempt to draw a passerbys’ attention.
Actually, most of the music that can be heard in the streets of Vietnam’s cities comes in two styles: Vinahouse, or more traditional and soulful Vietnamese songs that usually have a somber deliverance. As in much of Asia, karaoke is popular here and citizens will sing karaoke in their homes with the volume turned way up for their neighbors to hear in the early to mid-evening. Some entrepreneurs have even set up portable “karaoke stations” on wheels where they can serenade diners on the sidewalk while they eat in exchange for a donation before moving on to the next group of diners.
The Music Scene in Vietnam
The music scene here is a far cry from the days of CBC Band. If you happen to go to any establishment where pop music is played then you will definitely hear Flo Rida’s Whistle at least once and perhaps several times per night. You might also hear variations of other American techno-remixed pop songs in some of the nightlife institutions of Saigon such as Lush, Apocalypse, and if you are unlucky/unsober enough to end up there, GO2 Bar on Bui Vien in Pham Ngu Lao. However, there are also Vietnamese clubs like Canalis and New Saigon where strictly Vinahouse tunes are blasted at dangerously high levels and patrons are dazzled with light arrays, lasers, and strobes while inhaling copious amount of cigarette smoke. Occasionally, some foreigners are mixed in with the crowd but the customers there are overwhelmingly locals.
Some of the more progressive and alternate locations for music other than remixed Billboard Top 20 hits and/or Vinahouse include Broma, Bootleg, and The Observatory in Saigon; and Cama ATK, Madake, and Rockstore in Hanoi. There are also small but growing communities comprised of lesser-known genres of music like DubStep and Drum and Bass (DnB). For example, Saigon Beats and Heart Beat Saigon are two organizations comprised of music enthusiasts who passionately promote new and different kinds of music and sounds in Saigon.
For live music, there are a number of options for covers and original performances. For example, bar chain Seventeen Saloon (present in Hanoi and Saigon) features live music (mostly rock) on a regular basis. And original acts such as Mai Khoi take the audience on a wild, sensual, and bilingual journey that pushes boundaries in what is perhaps one of the best live performances in Southeast Asia.
In terms of larger events, full blown music festivals such as RockStorm (a rock festival, as the name implies) and the HEC KPOP festival can appease fans of those genres–or headliners can opt for music venues such as Cargo in Saigon and Hanoi Rock City in Hanoi.
Vibration Festival: 24 Hours of Good Vibes
Interestingly, a growing trend in Vietnam is that of the “micro” festival whereby events are organized and operated in a gray legal area and the events lends itself to be more of an infusion of creative expression rather than cranking out popular hits while patrons in the VIP section post real-time photos on Facebook. Names like Eden, Quest Festival, Halloween Escape, Hanoi Sound Stuff, and A Dose of Escape all conjure up images of partying, dancing, and good times.
[Update August, 2015: Quest Festival V will be held in November, 2015.]
One such event was the Vibration Festival, which we attended last weekend. The festival was located about 10 kilometers outside of Hanoi at the nearby Minh Hai resort. The event started at 2:00 PM but we arrived around 9:00 PM and stayed until about 1:30 AM. By the time we arrived the bia hoi (literally, “fresh beer”) had run out so only shots were available at the bar. Our tickets were 100,000 VND (approximately $5) each but were double the price at the door for those who didn’t buy tickets in advance. Approximately 10 DJs were on the lineup with each playing a variation of some genre or sub-genre of electronic music. It was hot but the mood was pretty festive especially after midnight. The food was provided by a local company, Highway 4, and appeared to be almost artisan in presentation.
Americans, Canadians, French, British, and, of course, Vietnamese (plus other nationalities) were dancing under a full moon partially obscured by rolling clouds. By 10:30 PM the dance floor was full with a crowd that seemed to be about 85-90% westerners. Organizers estimated that around 300 people attended the event.
We had the opportunity to speak with the main organizer, an Irishman who goes by the moniker Bad GraFX. Like many expats, he now does something totally different than what he originally came to do in Vietnam. He started organizing events like Vibration Festival in order to have a good time and to be able to listen to the kind of music he and his friends wanted to hear.
The overall atmosphere at Minh Hai resort was relaxed and the heat didn’t seem to take the wind out of the sails for most people. Still, 24 hours of partying is intense, especially in the hot summer sun so it will be interesting to see the second iteration of the Vibration Festival and its changes, if any.
Music “And More” Festivals
Some people might not like mainstream musical acts as part of the western export “package” to developing countries because it overshadows local and independent artists. But getting globally recognized talent to perform in Hanoi or Saigon also raises Vietnam’s profile as a growing destination for international music genres and its fans–and it also potentially introduces locals and expats to new kinds of music. One thing is certain: these commercial headliners, micro festivals, and branded events will continue to shape Vietnam’s music scene as artists, musicians, and enthusiasts seek outlets for creative expression here in Vietnam.
We would love to see a major electronic music festival with global and local names playing across different stages. Perhaps this vision could be realized in Da Nang due to the international airport and accessible coastline. Beautiful Hoi An is nearby which could also benefit from the overflow of a festival. And there is even space for such an event, in the former American airbase. Before that can happen, perhaps the next step in Vietnam’s evolving music scene is to combine music with film or interactive tech a la SXSW, MOSO, or Incubate (albeit on a smaller scale) whereby the music, art, entrepreneur, and tech communities can meet and merge to share views and exchange ideas. For sure, a Vietnamese mash up of those domains would be raw, unpredictable in its specific outcomes, and overwhelmingly positive in its products.