On Apr. 14 SoundFest will hit Ho Chi Minh City — a daylong music festival featuring American Idol finalist Kimberly Caldwell, Taio Cruz and K-pop sensation Big Bang (pictured). The organisers expect a total audience in the region of 50,000 people — 98 percent of whom will be Vietnamese. Except for the one-off Backstreet Boys show last year, Hanoi has seen nothing of this ilk. Which points to the upstart southern metropolis built on a swamp being Vietnam’s international city. Doesn’t it?
Take a closer look. For all the buzz created by the arrival of Starbucks, Gap, Burger King, Subway, FCUK and Domino’s Pizza in Saigon — generic chain additions that have yet to venture into the capital — Hanoi can also lay claim to becoming increasingly international, especially when it comes to nightlife, dining and arts.
On the Town
It’s a typical Saturday night out in Saigon and we’re in a popular downtown bar. A superficial survey of the customers screams the word ‘international’. But a head count reveals a different story. The downstairs space has over 100 people crowded in. Fifty of them are foreign males — European, Asian, Australian, North and South American. Another 35 are female Vietnamese. Then there are 15 western women and two Vietnamese males. Let’s reiterate that. Only two Vietnamese males in a popular, downtown bar.
This segregation is typical of Ho Chi Minh City. There is so much interracial mixing between Vietnamese women and western men, that Vietnamese males feel excluded. As a result, the Vietnamese go to their bars and clubs, the non-Vietnamese go elsewhere.
Conversely, while the social relationship between Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese is still developing in Hanoi, and the ‘foreigner bar’ stigma does still exist, it’s quickly being eroded. On a night out in Hanoi it’s plain to see. Likewise, bars such as Barbetta — which was originally a mainstay of the Vietnamese — now attract foreign customers. That Hanoi is developing such an all-inclusive nightlife scene suggests that on this front, at least, the capital is more international. This is a change that is also stretching to the city’s non-Vietnamese restaurants.
For Art’s Sake
Arts and music in Hanoi are also moving in that direction. Take the annual CAMA Festival. Originally a music event organised and enjoyed by foreigners, the last two years have seen a growing Vietnamese presence among the audience, due mainly to a strong local desire to hear more international music. From the opposite direction comes the annual Hanoi Sound Stuff, an experimental electronic music festival organised by Vietnamese in conjunction with many of the city’s embassies. The musical influence does anything but appeal to the masses — this is alternative, musical art at its most surreal. Yet the majority of the audience here is Vietnamese. Despite SoundFest, Saigon has nothing of this ilk.
Move onto the arts scene and you see the same story. Aided by the likes of the Japan Foundation, the Goethe Institut and L’Espace, and buoyed up by a growing artsy population of both Hanoians and creatives from overseas, contemporary art in this city is starting to boom. In Ho Chi Minh City, the arts scene gets little attention and is only in its infancy.
When it comes to being big, brash and commercial, if you’re into Starbucks et al, on the international front Ho Chi Minh City is taking the lead. But for the more innovative, underground scene that meshes both Vietnamese influences with those from overseas, Vietnam’s true international city is Hanoi.