Vietnam Rocks

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By Isabelle Taft

It’s hard to be a metalhead in Vietnam. Your parents want you to focus on your job. Your friends think Linkin’ Park is the greatest rock band on earth. Your government is afraid you’ll incite some kind of mass anti-establishment uprising. You just want to play.

Vietnam—a country once synonymous with the war-fueled soundtrack of an American generation—now has a rock scene of its own. Though that scene is still small, buffeted by the same forces that beat against would-be Metallicas all over the world, it’s vibrant and growing. While earlier generations smuggled in records from abroad, young digital natives use the Internet to sift through music spanning decades and continents, and to find each other to organize shows and start bands. Though most of the bands will not produce albums or go on tour—both activities are too expensive for all but the most popular groups in this middle-income country—they practice religiously, write their own songs, and play shows in local bars and basements. In a nation still ruled by an old Communist regime and an even older set of cultural mores, emphasizing deference to authority and commitment to providing for family, picking up a guitar is still a political act.

Most Vietnamese rock musicians, however, aren’t engaging in conscious rebellion. They simply love music, and are willing to flout convention and parental expectations to chase a dream that spans generations and continents— the dream of making auditory art that means something. Metal fans and musicians (internationally known as the loudest and fiercest chasers of the dream) are an improbably strong and tight-knit presence in the world of Vietnamese underground rock, turning out by the hundreds for events like the annual Saigon and Hanoi Hell Fests, day-long concerts featuring metal bands from across Southeast Asia. Shows at Hanoi Rock City, the primary venue for independent rock concerts, often draw thousands.

But most of the musicians harbor no aspirations of quitting their day jobs. Kim Anh, the 22-year-old lead singer for Mozaik, a Hanoi-based gothic metal group, studies jewelry design at the Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Arts. All of her band-mates are dedicated students as well.

“We are all young and ambitious,” Anh said. “But with lack of money for instruments and the lack of experience and knowledge, the way to achieve something bigger than now is a long way to go.”

Anh’s curly hair is short and messy, with blunt bangs swept off to one side of her forehead. She wears retro eyeliner and bold red lipstick that contrast with the round youthfulness of her face, though not as much as the heavy black lipstick she sports in one of her Facebook profile pictures. She only recently told her parents she is in a band, and “they were not too hot on that.” Though music is her passion, she respects their wishes that she finish university, find a good job, and start a family. Still, Mozaik practices for two hours twice a week in a room rented from a friend, the lead vocalist of a symphonic metal group. A love for metal is about the only thing the band members have in common.

That’s true for many Vietnamese underground bands, whose members are often brought together from all kinds of careers and socioeconomic backgrounds by online forums. On a warm Tuesday evening in Hanoi, four members of the thrash metal band Voluptuary sat outside one of the city’s many storefront cafes. Squatting on the little plastic stools that spill out onto sidewalks, the mild-mannered men— an engineer, an architect, a police officer, and a university student—waited patiently for the final member to arrive. Nguyen Doc, the singer, played with a stray kitten to pass the time. When the secondary guitarist, a high school student and the group’s youngest member, finally pulled up on a motorbike, his goofy grin offered a wordless explanation for his tardiness.

“He’s been drinking!” Pham Binh, the group’s primary guitarist, declared triumphantly. Mild rebuke delivered, practice could begin.

Their rehearsal studio is owned by a fixture of the Hanoi rock scene: a drummer named Mr. Tan who plays in an oldies cover group called the White Eagle Band, an oldies band around since the 1980s and the city’s self-proclaimed oldest rock band. They perform American and British rock songs, but never anything later than 1979. Never punk or disco. Certainly never metal.

“Everything, in my opinion,” White Eagles Band singer Kao Vam said, “Happened 50, 60 years ago.”

Mr. Tan clearly knows better: his rehearsal studio hosts many of Hanoi’s underground metal bands. Mr. Tan, who speaks no English, provides equipment most of the bands couldn’t afford to purchase. He also likes to offer advice and drumming pointers to the younger musicians.

“He likes us to call him dad,” said Quang Nguyen, the bassist for Morning Waits, rolling his eyes.

Mr. Tan is the rare musician whose job aligns with his passion for music; he works as a drum teacher. The men of Voluptuary are all committed to their day jobs and speak openly about their band being a hobby, not a potential career option. But practice is still treated like serious business. Quay, the band’s new drummer, is struggling with the skill level required for Voluptuary’s music. The quick, intricate guitar riffs that characterize thrash metal are notoriously difficult for drummers to keep up with, and every minute or so, Quay stops drumming and swings his arms over his face in frustration. His bandmates stop, offer a few words of advice, and begin again, shredding guitars or clenching a microphone with hands that minutes earlier gently petted a kitten.

With time, some groups are able to find opportunities to transform their passion for music into more than a hardcore hobby. The members of SagoMetal, a Ho Chi Minh City group, grew up listening to Bon Jovi and Guns ‘n’ Roses on cassette tapes illegally imported from China. They have been playing together since 1991, and in March, they reached the pinnacle of their decades-long career when they opened for Paul Di’Anno of Iron Maiden, who played at the Hard Rock Café Saigon on his “Beast in the Far East” tour.

Di’Anno is notable among international metal acts for making it to Vietnam at all. Most artists are deterred by the small size of the scene, which usually can’t fill a large venue at ticket prices high enough to entice a big-name group. It doesn’t help that the Vietnamese government insists on vetting lyrics. Bob Dylan, famous for his anti-authoritarian lyrics that fueled anti-war protests in the 1960s, played his first Vietnam show in Ho Chi Minh City in April 2011. Before he arrived, he had to submit 100 of his songs for review by the government. None were refused, but the requirement is one more reason for touring acts to forego Vietnam.

Big-name artists aren’t the only musicians affected by the government’s hostility towards rock music. According to Quang Van Sot, the guitarist for Morning Waits, officials try to deter local groups from playing small shows. If police find a flyer for a rock concert, they sometimes show up at the venue, intimidating bands and would-be attendees. At one show Van Sot attended, police confiscated a band’s merchandise because they didn’t have a license to sell their t-shirts and posters. The potential for trouble with the authorities has led to creative solutions.

“Instead of ‘concert,’ we’ll write ‘music meeting’ on our flyers,” Van Sot said. “Rock bands are like rebels. And they don’t like that.”

(Here and above) Members of the thrash metal band Voluptuary rehearse in Hanoi (Nitika Khaitan/TYG).
(Here and above) Members of the thrash metal band Voluptuary rehearse in Hanoi (Nitika Khaitan/TYG).

But for all its problems, the government is presiding over a period of unprecedented stability and economic prosperity in Vietnam. An increasingly aggressive China is pushing the country closer towards the United States. American policymakers are more focused on building partnerships in the region than on condemning censorship and repression, but the American government seems to recognize the power of rock music to nudge Vietnam towards greater freedom and openness—or at least simply greater cultural affinity for the U.S.

The U.S. Embassy is one of the primary sponsors of the ASEAN Pride, a free annual concert in Hanoi that features rock, metal, and hip-hop bands from all over the country and continent. The event is held at The American Club, a U.S. government-owned space where the Vietnamese government won’t come knocking. It’s a strange quirk of history: America, condemned by hundreds, probably thousands, of rock songs for the violence it committed in Vietnam, is using music laden with that same anti-establishment ethos to make Vietnamese youth more pro-American. Has the Man co-opted rock or has rock won over the Man? To music fans who love ASEAN Pride and bands who get exposure and experience by playing the concert, the answer seems unimportant.

The frontwoman of Go Lim, Nga Nhi, sporting a buzz cut and baggy denim shorts, jumped up and down, thrashed around the stage and screamed into the microphone during a set that mesmerized the audience, a mix of expats and natives at Go Lim’s performance at the 2012 CAMA Festival, ASEAN Pride’s predecessor. Go Lim, an all-female group that sounds a little like Bikini Kill if Kathleen Hanna had a higher-pitched voice and even more volume and energy, became one of Vietnam’s most talk- ed-about underground rock acts. The group, whose name translated to Ironwood, seemed poised to become the leaders of Vietnam’s underground music scene, and maybe even tour internationally on the strength of their expat following. But in October 2012, Nhi passed away from a chronic illness she’d been battling for years, disappearing from the public eye.

“They were fucking cool,” said Seb Bo, a drummer and native of Bristol who moved to Hanoi from England two years ago to find work as an English teacher. They were also, according to Bo, among the most political bands in Vietnam, eschewing love songs in favor of more absurdist fare, like a song about being a hungry cat. Few bands on the scene now can match their energy, originality, and magnetic pull. But with so many young musicians dedicating all their free time to learning technical skills and listening to every metal and post-punk album they can find online, it seems only a matter of time before the next Nga Nhi comes along.

Kim Anh of Mozaik might be a contender. She shares Nga Nhi’s irreverence, holding a red bra on her head like a helmet and grinning in one of her Facebook profile pictures. She also shares her dedication to music, dreaming of touring internationally with Mozaik and pressuring her band-mates to commit more time and energy to their music. For now, the band practices twice a week in borrowed rehearsal space. For now, that is enough.

“Ten years ago, I’d be married right now,” said the 22-year-old singer. “It’s becoming more easier for us to follow our dreams, follow our passions. And so I’m sitting here with my band.”

Isabelle Taft ’17 is a History major in Silliman College. Contact her at isabelle.taft@yale. edu.