Karaoke in the west is a bit of a novelty. We secretly all know our karaoke song. We'll belt it out with relish when given the opportunity - but usually when very drunk, and with a deliberate, self-deprecating badness. It’s an all-inclusive exercise in public humiliation, like running for a bus.
Karaoke in Vietnam, however, is a completely different story. When I first arrived in this exquisite country, I had many expectations, but it’s fair to say none of them involved public singing. Yet this strange musical tradition has become an integral part of modern Vietnamese life, and over the next three months I had to seriously readjust my perceptions of the sing-along art form.
Here’s how to rock the mic, the Vietnamese way:
Take it seriously
Karaoke news stories in the western world invariably involve James Corden. It’s fair to say Vietnamese karaoke news is a bit edgier.
Here’s a small sample:
Officers attacked by local family for measuring karaoke noise in Southern Vietnam. [Vietnam breaking news]
Karaoke sessions crank up the volume and tensions in Saigon’s neighbourhoods [Vnexpress.net]
I’m not suggesting karaoke tends to send the Vietnamese into a murderous rage, but it’s definitely not taken lightly. In my experience, most Vietnamese men think they can sing. You can tell by the way they close their eyes and look to the heavens as they miss the high notes. If you’re looking to get on the vocals with some locals you’d be wise to do the same. None of that laughing and screeching. Close those eyes, double-clutch that mic and pretend you’re a vocal superstar on par with Pavarotti. No, believe you’re a vocal superstar on par with Pavarotti.
Anywhere’s a good time; everywhere’s a good place
In the large Vietnamese cities, Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, you’ll find karaoke rooms on every corner. It’s a dependable feature of weddings, birthday parties and family meals, and you’ll find a dedicated karaoke room in many middle-class homes. But for undercover superstars on the daily grind, this simply isn’t enough. It’s pretty hilarious whenever you see a wild karaoke machine pop up out of nowhere at completely inappropriate moments.
I remember seeing a woman wait patiently to pay for her rice paper rolls because the restaurant owner was holding a mic and belting out a song, sat behind the till.
Karaoke is love; Karaoke is life.
If you’re in the country for a while and really want to make an impression, try your hand at some popular Vietnamese numbers. Vietnamese folk songs are beautiful things – wistful, heartfelt, and usually about family, loss and home. They’re also – like the language itself – a bit of a phonetic nightmare for the untrained tongue. But the locals will be more than willing to help you out with every single syllable, and in my experience, they’ll love you just as much for butchering one of their favourite songs than if it was pitch perfect. Western music is also becoming increasingly popular in Vietnam so if you want to belt out your Britney or Whitney, you can still rely upon a decent reception.
Avoid the traps
Like many forms of popular entertainment in South East Asia, there’s a seedier side to Karaoke. Shady Karaoke bars will hire taxi drivers to bring tourists to their establishments, where they can ‘sing songs and talk to beautiful girls.’ The beautiful girls in this situation will usually be sex workers, who will take your money for a booth and disappear, before a bill for 200 US dollars arrives for a few beers and a few pieces of fruit. Repeat after me: never go anywhere on the advice of a motorbike taxi. There’s plenty of brilliant, legit karaoke options in Vietnam; do your research and make sure you’re not getting ripped off or inadvertently involved in crime.
This is the important one. Vietnam isn’t just a nation of natural beauty; its people are warm, funny and exuberant, and karaoke is one of its great communal joys. Possibly my favourite memory from my time there was at a beauty spot called Elephant Springs, where cascading miniature waterfalls encircle natural pools. A large Vietnamese family had set up there for a day and were having a BBQ, with enormous prawns, marinated pork, rice paper rolls and heaps of fresh fruit. Within minutes of arrival, my friends and I were invited over to join them and share some of their food. Naturally, a few beers later, the karaoke machine was out in full force.
As we massacred Sinatra together under the setting sun, I thought about music’s capacity to connect us. This is something the Vietnamese understand well. And what is karaoke but a means of human connection – a way for even terrible singers to immerse themselves in a universal art form and express themselves intimately, without inhibitions or judgement. When we left Elephant Springs that evening our cheeks ached from singing and laughter, and I still smile when I see my new friends pop up on my Instagram, double-clutching a mic, closing their eyes and looking to the heavens.