After being a music nerd for a while, I decided to take my music listening more seriously — by getting a record player and digging for records. But where could I start? As a 23-year-old Vietnamese girl who’s never lived overseas, I didn’t even know how a record player works — more nerdily, I didn’t even know there were two sides to a record.
But enough embarrassing facts about me. There’s a first time for everything. It’s okay to start from scratch.
For Vietnamese people, vinyl has always been a fancy thing, one that only audiophiles or people with a lot of money buy. When we Vietnamese talk vinyl, we think of giant hi-fi systems, fancy glossy turntables, rare records — of middle-aged Vietnamese dudes dressed to the nines, smoking cigarettes with a cup of coffee on the side looking oh-so-bourgeois and sophisticated listening to classical or jazz records of artists they probably know nothing about. Determined to break that stereotype, I began my adventure into the unknown world of Saigon vinyl.
Where the Records Are
Spending a while on Google, I found the vnav.vn (Vietnam audio-visual) forum, which is the biggest community of audiophiles and music enthusiasts in Vietnam. After wading through the sections where people show off their hi-fi setups, I found a thread dedicated to record shops and sellers in Vietnam — and a whole new world opened in front of my eyes.
I decided to head to the fancy Gia Dinh Audio (giadinhaudio.com) for my first turntable. I asked the shop guy, “Do you have any entry-level turntables?” — he laughed a bit, but eventually took me to the room where they keep all of their used but still beautiful Japanese turntables. “What’s wrong with an inexpensive, used turntable?” I wondered. I’m just a hip nerdy kid who wants to find and listen to new music. After browsing and thinking, I bought a Technics SL-1200 — which is a pretty solid turntable. But the sales guy didn’t look too happy with his latest sale.
It probably wasn’t expensive enough.
When digging through old vinyl in Saigon, be prepared for some sneezing from the musty smell of old records, strange Japanese bands you’ve never heard of, whose names you can’t pronounce, a decent amount of popular 1980s music but somehow no sign of new wave groups like New Order or Depeche Mode.
Looking through the ‘Jazz-Country’ section, you’ll discover all kinds of Sinatra and Connie Francis hits but not a single Miles Davis or Cal Tjader record. But you’re in luck if you’re into ‘Easy Listening’ — that’s the biggest section in every store I’ve been to. And don’t forget Richard Clayderman and Celine Dion.
Prices, however, are good. You can get unknown Japanese records from VND20,000 to VND80,000. They are in good shape and play even better, louder than other records you’ll get. Others are usually somewhere between VND100,000 to VND250,000 — towards the more expensive end for easy listening stuff. New records are always VND500,000 and up.
Low End Theory
Gia Dinh Audio is the only used (kind of) record store I know that has a proper store setup — that is, a few wooden crates on the floor, with genre names quickly written on them, and a record player sitting next to the most worn out record brush I’ve ever seen. Still, it’s a store, not a house, which is different from most.
Most of the other places are very small, in their owner’s houses — sometimes you have to call them to open the door for you when you arrive. All of these places are very scattered, one in Tan Binh, others deep in the alleys of Binh Thanh or on the third storey of some building in District 3. They aren’t connected by any kind of network, probably to keep their records — and record customers — exclusive.
For a classic example of this, go to The Tea Time LP. After some twists and turns on Nguyen Van Dau in Binh Thanh, I arrived and called owner Nga to get the door for me. Nga’s house is classically Vietnamese: one of a few buildings that share the same yard, the same door, the same lock. Her neighbours are her relatives, and relatives of relatives.
According to DJ Datodeo, a record collector living in Saigon, the place is a very “authentic Vietnamese record digging experience”. Just a small corner in Nga’s living room, there’s a small shelf of records, with an old turntable on the side. You sit there on a plastic stool, flipping through records while her kids play some kind of game on her iPhone. Her grandma wears pyjamas and hangs out with other grandmas in the yard, telling you to “drink, drink your tea!”… which makes me wonder, is that where they got the name The Tea Time LP from?
Nga is super nice. Unlike other sellers, she listens to pretty much all of the records she sells, and she can sit with you the whole time you’re browsing and give you recommendations. If a record has major scratches, she’ll give it to you for free no matter how nice the cover looks. And that is the story of how I got my 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack.
Voices from the Past
Reading a story we ran last year, Douglas Pyper’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute, I got an idea. The story tells about how when Maft Sai — the Thai vinyl junkie — was here, he stayed at Dan Sinh Market for hours with a portable record player, listening to every record, one after another, trying to save all the musical history that he could get his hands on. That was fascinating.
So I decided to go there for a try. Deep in the maze of the antique market, I found some weirdly coloured, psychedelic-looking records. Most of them are in bad shape, dirty and in the words of Douglas, “look like they’ve been used as chopping boards”. Some still have covers, but they’re falling apart, crumbling, thrown into plastic bags together with loose discs in the corner of the seller’s kiosk, right on the floor — just like the other things from Saigon’s past scattered all around.
A vendor gave me a bag full of records to choose from. The ones I picked, he threw to the side, on the ground.
Most of the records are Chinese, or Vietnamese EPs with hit songs from Saigon’s musical heyday. Some are pressed in red, orange, green, psychedelic melted-plastic style. Once I bought from one seller, others started asking me if I wanted to buy from them.
Looking at the remnants of old Saigon at stalls filled with dead soldier’s things being invited to buy more and more stuff, it left me feeling uneasy. I looked at the records I’d just gotten. Dirty and badly wounded, I somehow felt like they were staring at me, that an unrecorded history was told through the scratches on them. And I wondered what sounds they would make…
Vietnam Audio Visuals Forum
You can find big or small record stores here, as well as those mentioned
Gia Dinh Audio
68 Le Trung Nghia, Tan Binh, HCMC; giadinhaudio.vn
Sells and repair turntables
The Tea Time LP
183/28 Nguyen Van Dau, Binh Thanh, HCMC, Tel: 0906 730526 (Nga)
A quirky home shop, with a knowledgeable owner. Phone before you go to the shop
Déjà Vu LP Shop
3rd Floor, 492 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Q3, HCMC
New and imported LPs, reasonable prices, lots of jazz and classical records
97 Truong Dinh, Q3, HCMC
Record supply and repair, from budget to expensive audio components
Dan Sinh Market
Yersin, Q1, HCMC
Saigon’s best antique market, where you might find some gems in terrible shape