PHM – The Live Music Scene in Hanoi and HCMC: a Comparison

PHM – The Live Music Scene in Hanoi and HCMC: a Comparison

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Gibbon Suburbia at Hanoi Rock City
Almost a year ago, I posted an interview with Synergy Music Production (SMP), which stirred up quite a controversy among musicians in Hanoi about the cooperation between expat and local artists, as well as the difference between the “contemporary music” in Hanoi and HCMC (pay attention to the comments under the post). The first part of the issue was settled quite promptly among the musicians themselves with some help from The Word Hanoi. However, the second part was left unanswered, or at least there are no documented materials about it as far as I know. Thus, during the 8 months living in HCMC, I tried to “research” the topic and differentiate between the live music scene there and in Hanoi. Of course I will not refer to it as the “contemporary music” scene because the term “contemporary music” hasn’t even been properly defined and may need further research to deal with.

Let me start with this fact: whoever thinks Hanoi and HCMC are the same just because they are both Vietnam should try living in both places – believe me, you will definitely think again. Not only are climate, lifestyle, shopping, food, accent, etc. very different (you can check my blog where I compare life in Hanoi and Saigon), but the entertainment is as well. Thus, when talking about live music we need to take into consideration that Hanoi is the cultural and political capital, while HCMC is the commercial center and its people tend to be more outgoing and western influenced. Those factors absolutely contribute to shaping the music scene in the two cities.

First of all, let’s confirm one thing: think original and experimental music, think Hanoi! Can you believe that?! To be honest, that was the most surprising thing I discovered. Everyone in Hanoi knows it is easy to find original music just by following the SMP crew and so easy too to search for a taste of experimental simply by going to concerts by Tri Minh, Vu Nhat Tan, Dao Anh Khanh as well as many other experimental artists. But where in HCMC would you find such “creative stuff” regularly? Pardon my limited knowledge but after 8 months I still couldn’t figure that out. Live music in HCMC is much more commercial and the bands mostly play covers. The explanation could be that venues only want the bands to please the crowds because people always want to listen to something they already know, or there is actually no one standing up to start the “original revolution” yet. Surely it’s not because no one is writing their own music in HCMC. One note: this fact does not apply to local rock clubs in Hanoi because it seems like most rock bands in Vietnam in general are doing covers, apart from some original performances to introduce their new albums. Otherwise, it’s still the land of metal/MTV cover shows.

However, when talking about the scale of music festivals we have to mention HCMC first. The Saigon Sound System always put on very big and expensive music fests, such as the Loreto International Music Festival or Saigon SoundFest, the latter being said to have attracted 40,000 people. They bring in internationally popular musicians like Bob Dylan as well as huge names in the Vietnamese music industry. However, Hanoi isn’t too far behind, with the annual music festival organized by CAMA and the Hanoi Sound Stuff festival led by Tri Minh. The difference is that normally the music festivals in HCMC focus more on popular acts, which means everyone can enjoy it and have fun, while the festivals in Hanoi tend to be more selective in their audiences with certain genres of music dominating the shows (e.g Sound Stuff specializes in electronic and experimental music, while CAMA often showcases young emerging bands with a wide selection of punk, alternative, electro, reggae, etc). The ticket prices in HCMC are always much higher as well.

SaigonSoundFest
Saigon Sound Fest. Photo by Saigon Sound System

The third thing I would like to point out is the scale of live music venues in both cities. Again Hanoi comes behind HCMC in terms of number of large live music venues. This is obvious to see because HCMC is physically bigger than Hanoi so of course venues there tend to have more spaces to grow. Going around District 1 in HCMC, you can find large stages in Vasco’s, Hard Rock Café or Saloon 17 (which, however, only hosts their Filipino house bands), or other smaller but quite popular venues like Thi Café, Bernie’s and La Habana. District 3 is the “rock district” with the long-time famous Acoustic, Yoko, RockFanClub and also the small but cozy Cacophony. District 2 is the acoustic and unplugged area with Snap Café and Buddha Bar, and is also the expat area. Basically, international bands going to HCMC have many indoor options to choose from while honestly speaking, they have only one place to go in the capital – Hanoi Rock City. Of course Hanoi has many cool live music spots such as ATK, Tadioto, Cinematheque, Hair of the Dog, Hanoi Social Club, PUKU, Southgate (city center and the old quarter area) or Chez Xuan and La Cooperative (An Duong) and many more, but none have the capacity to host big indoor gigs like Hanoi Rock City does. I also have to mention the local rock venues such as Holyland, Heresy, Polygon or Ngu Cung Club but they don’t connect much with the expat and international bands and mostly communicate locally.

Another important point, especially for audiences, is the cost. In HCMC the price for a drink at a live music show can be from 1.5 to 3 times as much as in Hanoi, depending on the venue. That makes a lot of people think musicians must earn a fortune there. However, surprisingly they don’t! Musicians in HCMC just like in Hanoi, including professional bands, have to do “real” jobs to cover their expenses, because the payment a band receives there is more or less just the same as in Hanoi. Now that makes me wonder where the money goes(!).

Finally, one more advantage of HCMC that I would like to mention is that there seems to be a more natural combination of Vietnamese and expats in HCMC than in Hanoi, in both the bands and the audiences. It is common to see music bands with foreign and Vietnamese members playing together in HCMC. And at Vasco’s, Hard Rock Café, and elsewhere you will easily find groups of expats and Vietnamese coming for the shows, while in Hanoi it seems like where there are Vietnamese musicians there are only Vietnamese crowds and where there are expat musicians there are expat crowds or maybe Vietnamese who often hang out with expats. People in HCMC only care about entertainment and they don’t define a place as Vietnamese or expat; the only thing that draws them to a music venue is the type of music being played or the artists playing. Of course Hanoi is trying hard to overcome this obvious issue, but in order to catch up with HCMC it’s not enough if only the venues try to change their strategies to attract both foreign and local audiences. The audience themselves have to change their way of thinking too. Music fans can’t be divided geographically but they speak just the same language as long as they listen to the same genre of music. Then why do you have to differentiate between “local” and “foreign”, Hanoi?

Now, after all the comparison, which should come first – Hanoi or HCMC? That is a real tough call. HCMC has all its audience-friendly atmosphere while Hanoi is favor of the artists’ creativity. Thus, it really depends on your preference to decide whether you prefer music in Hanoi or HCMC. As a rock fan, I must say the HCMC rock scene is more attractive since they play more various genres than Hanoi, also my two favorite Viet rock bands are actually from there, Giao Chi and Black Infinity. For “fun lovers” and “party animals”, HCMC completely surpasses Hanoi when talking about nightlife and crowded music festivals. For musicians playing cover or dance music HCMC may still be a better place with its variety of places and events to perform. However, if you are a musician expecting to  experiment with your own music, it might be ironic to say either you consider making a move up north or really fighting to make a revolution down south.

NOTES: This article focuses mostly on rock, experimental and music played at live music bars/clubs and does not apply to local folk music, dance/DJ/hiphop music, classical music, instrumental chamber music, jazz or any official music performance under governmental organization.

I would like to say thanks to all of my musician, music producer and journalist friends who have provided me with information and statistic to write this article. And a special thank goes to Peter Cornish, manager of DepSkillz, who has helped me with his insights of HCMC music scene.

Pham Hoang Mien has been with Hanoi Grapevine for some time, mainly involved in social media and occasional translation. As an enthusiastic music lover, now she wants to challenge herself in a new role – being a columnist writing about music and musicians for the site.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. this article is really wordy and shallow. not everything big in quantity is great in quality.

    • @ anonymous: It’s true that “not everything big in quantity is great in quality” and that “this article is really wordy” (1500 words in Eng version). It may be true that it’s “shallow” too; so if you think you can do better, please send the link over after you’ve done. I’ll appreciate.

      PS: My name and contact info are set very clear, why do you have to be “anonymous” to talk to me? :-)

  2. Great article. This really sums up the differences between the two great cities.

    I must say it’s a really striking difference: Entertainment vs. Arts and Creativity.

    Also, I find it really surprising that I hear no mention of an “Underground Scene”, especially in HCMC where there’s so much mass-market reproduction for Entertainment purposes. I suppose the underground creative music scene is what’s visible in Hanoi, with all these little, ground-breaking events, and the cross-fertilisation of many arts all collaborating.

    It could be so much more, though. There’s no reason Hanoi shouldn’t have so much more experimentation and collaboration going on all the time. There’s the space, there’s the time and there’s the audience.

    Thanks PHM for a great article, and let’s hope we can pitch the two cities at opposite ends of the music spectrum.

    • @ Josh:

      Hey thank you! I mentioned not “Underground Scene” because that “Underground Scene” might be different here (“here” is Vietnam in general). Basically I can tell everything that is not organized by the government can be considered “underground”. It doesn’t mean “illegal” tho. It’s just not official, so it’s underground.. ;-)

  3. this article in quite informative in relation to someone would like understand music scene in Vietnam…

    i enjoy reading it.

    regards
    Tri Minh

  4. Experienced the music life in both cities, I think this article is such a good one and interesting to read. Looking forward to read more!

  5. Nice article Mien. Clearly you got to a deep understanding of the rock scene in Vietnam. From my perspective, there’s maybe not enough people to declare any overall “flavor” of each city’s underground creative scene. Right now, the scenes are so small that a single person can make a huge difference – does that mean that the city has that person’s style, or rather that person has style and happens to be living there?

    • Hey thank you Tomo for the the very interesting approach.
      First of all, let’s say I don’t understand that much about the rock scene in Vietnam. For instance I know nothing about how it was back in the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s and that phase was so important and interesting that anyone who does research about rock in Vietnam should know (but I don’t know coz I didn’t research.. Shame!)
      Second, I just have the feeling that in general people in Hanoi are more artistic and more “experimental” than in HCMC (it may be city’s characters, just like Hanoi people are known to be colder and less friendly). And also the community is Hanoi is so close. There are some certain places in town that you know you’ll meet the whole city if you go there, or some common virtual platforms that everyone goes to to find information (Grapevine is one example). Thus, it’s kinda easier for like-minded people to find each other. So I still think it’s the city’s style.. But sure someone may try to stand up and make a difference. Who knows :-)

  6. Reading this piece, I can’t help but thinking that the Hanoians cannot compete with the Saigonners in any aspect regarding temporary music scene, therefore they can only rely on their ‘artirstic-orientated’ flag to downgrade the Saigonners?

    Who really enjoy the somewhat blooming of the underground art scene in Hanoi? Mostly expat community. It doesn’t do anything to the local scene. And don’t underestimate the underground movement in Saigon. It’s like embers fire, visible but very hard to pick it up (I’m not talking about this overrated, hilarious band Giao Chi).

    Nice articles. Just wanna throw in my two cents.

    • @NPH: Thanks for the two cents. Appreciated. Wanna give us more info regarding the art scene in HCMC? Surely with only 8 months living there I can’t know it well. Also the way you talk about Giao Chi sounds like the way a pop fan look at Metallica(!) Oops, I didn’t mean anything serious.. Just trying to say that people have different tastes so better not offend the differences :-)

  7. Metallica is pop music. They have sold over 100,000,000 albums worldwide, half of Celine Dion’s total sales. Then they tried to be arty by collaborating with Lou Reed and giving birth to that abomination called “Lulu”. There is a thin line between experimentation and ridiculousness.

    Cheers for appreciating my two cents :-)

  8. NPH: As someone who recently has been organizing music & film events in Hanoi I can honestly say that it’s not as bad as you thought, regarding the Vietnamese locals. One of our film screenings last month was literally packed with young Vietnamese – and I wouldn’t say the program that night was something particularly popular in this country: you wouldn’t see high school kids talk about La Blogothèque the way they do Korean Pop music, I don’t even think they had had much exposure to truly ‘alternative’ music prior (I’m certainly not talking about bands like Coldplay or Muse). And yet they seemed to love it, we had our first ever fan mails after that screening. Even back in March when we showed a documentary on Japanese noise music (and it was a ticketed 3-day event), many Vietnamese attended the first 2 nights. What happened there?

    Admittedly, I’m sure the locals attended these events mostly out of curiosity. But I hope you agree that in a country like Vietnam curiosity is something that should be valued more, especially when it leads to people actually discovering things they normally don’t even know about. I would like to think what we’ve been doing is all about introducing new things to people, especially the locals; and I believe it hasn’t been all in vain.

    One of the reasons Hanoi has lots more going on I think has something to do with the fact that most (if not all?) foreign cultural centres have their Vietnam headquarter based here –> it will always benefit the Hanoians somehow. Exposure leads to inspiration leads to actually creating something of your own. And if CAMA or Synergy were based in Saigon would it make any difference?

    Having said all that I absolutely agree with you that the Saigon art scene should not be underestimated and I will be the first to defend it :-). Not long ago I discovered that RMIT Saigon actually has a film club that regularly organizes screenings. Elsewhere, I’m personally not a fan of the music and the approach, but much respect to the underground extreme metal community there, and also Wasted Youth of a Nation (RIP?). To me there is no ‘high art’ or ‘low art’, there’s only interesting and boring art. And we’ll just have to be honest about this.

    Thanks to Hanoi Grapevine and Mien (really thought-provoking article!) for providing a platform to discuss matters like this.

    • Hey thanks H for the comment. Very interesting contribution. Hope we can open an in-depth discussion about the underground art scene in Saigon later, I would love to know more about it as well. You know, 8 months can only give a person an idea about the top of the iceberg, or the general point of view.. However, just be reminded that I’m particularly talking about live music, not the “art scene”. Personally I’m also a rock fan and I enjoy very heavy beats, I love the underground extreme metal community here which is hard to find in Hanoi. That’s why I said at the end of the article that I preferred HCMC as a rock (well, metal to be exact) fan. Giao Chi is the only non-metal band in Vietnam that I like, they sound a bit like Rammstein to me.

  9. H: Regarding the screening of that Japanese noise music documentary, I was among the attendance for the first night, and I totally loved it, thanks for your efforts! It reminded me a lot about the first noise music event that I’ve seen in Vietnam, held in an obscure/tiny stage in Saigon a few years ago. Surely, the youth in Hanoi will realize what they’ve been missing and start to embark in their own maneuvers, but it’s gonna take more than a day or two for them to establish something noteworthy, in a field which their counterparts in Saigon have been doing for years.

    PHM: I think it’s not a good analogy. Maybe the singer from Giao Chi has been trying to imitate Til Linderman’s low-key register vocal performance, but it doesn’t make his band sound ‘a bit’ like Rammstein to me. Rammstein’s trademark is the unique, bone-crushing soundscape provided by multilayer guitar riffs, the thing that you cannot copy. Giao Chi, on the other hand, sounds like a watered down version of a mediocre Chinese post-punk band. If you really look for a badass rock band from Saigon, then I’d recommend CoCC, their self-released debut “6 Giờ” can be considered as one of the finest rock albums written entirely in Vietnamese.

    Peace.

  10. @Nph: I am the other half of toc in Saigon and basically I share toc-trademark viewpoints H voiced above.

    Allow me to add, the obscure stage you mentioned if am not mistaken is exactly the place H mentioned: Wasted Youth of a Nation, now r.i.p but one of its founders is now Hanoi-based. I agree w/ you on CoCC but I guess our @phm has not had a chance to listen to Wuu or the very first incarnation of Giao Chi and such. That’s a fairly long story to begin w/ ..

  11. NPH: yes CoCC is great, look forward to seeing them live one day.

    It’s always gonna be a long-term ‘investment’ with this sort of thing. It definitely takes time, what happened in Hanoi the last few years have all seemed positive but I would really love to see more freshness (and artists trying out new directions). That’s why we’re here. Hanoi Cinematheque (their film club) and Hanoi DocLab have also exerted significant influences over the local youths for a while and I think they should be appreciated a bit more. The same with RMIT Saigon and their film club.

    As a conclusion I would like to think that there’s not much difference (if at all) that makes one city ‘artistic’ and the other ‘commercial’, and like you said it’s certainly not all that black and white. At this stage in the Vietnam scene it’s all about the organizers and having someone introduce things to people and expose them to unpretentious art that truly matters. Hanoi just happens to have more of these at the moment.

    (Mien: I know this is not really about live music but I think it’s also pretty relevant, sorry for being ‘off-topic’ :-))

  12. @ toc and NPH: Btw, maybe you haven’t looked at the VN version of my post. Basically, since I write in both EN and VN (not merely translate) the 2 versions are slightly different. I forgot that a lot of people would read my EN version only.. In the VN one, when mentioning about the experimental and original music, I added: “Nhưng suốt 8 tháng ở TP HCM, tôi không tìm đâu ra những chương trình như thế. Có thể đó là do những chương trình biểu diễn như vậy không được “tiết lộ” cho công chúng, hay là do trong TP HCM không có trang web nào thâu tóm thông tin về các hoạt động nghệ thuật triệt để như Grapevine?!” blah blah..

    One more thing, I know Wừu. The Wasted Youth used to take place in the Rock City Hanoi once. I remember that I didn’t really like. And well, NPH, my bad that I missed CoCC (saw their performance schedule sometimes but couldn’t arrange to go). Have just checked out 6 Giờ though.. Again not my type. Well, I’m only an audience, I’m not an expert musician to talk about guitar riff or whatsoever, I only like what my ears want to hear. And that to say guys don’t try to offend the differences. People have different tastes. But well yeah Til Lindemann is way too awesome for anyone to try to copy.

  13. Thanks for this article — informative for a newcomer like me who is much interested in the cultural life of the country as a whole.

    The response to the topic is telling and (…all of a sudden (?) or am I too new here to know better than that (?)) there actually is such a thing happening as a blogosphere commentaries and debates on the pages of The Hanoi Grapevine, which makes it way more interesting to read as it gets interactive…

    One remark though if I may, re: “…Of course I will not refer to it as the “contemporary music” scene because the term “contemporary music” hasn’t even been properly defined and may need further research to deal with.”

    The term “contemporary” is self-explanatory and therefore ‘contemporary music/art/whatever” can not be defined outside its definition… so any type, genre, style of music produced in our present time is by definition contemporary.

  14. Thanks Mien so much for such an amazing article. I must clap hands for Mien – a young, sweet, small girl with a brave heart & straightforward attitude to raise her voice on the music scene in 2 big cities!!!

    What I like most about Mien’s article is the way she approach the subject matter – she try to provide as much as information as she could, then put such information into clear & easy-to-follow contents. I did not see any of her ideas, opinions, comparisons or conclusions as somewhat aggressive, uni-lateral, under- or over-estimated because those based on her feelings, knowledge & experience and she try to express such in neutral ways.

    With just nearly 8 months in HCMC, it’s hard for Mien to dig deeper and deeper into the “underground” of the music & art scenes in Saigon (she did not mention K13 cafe or any metal shows happened in Saigon recently or any programmes handled by Dose, Smirnoff), so I think this open forum is the as best as it could tool for Mien to receive positive feedback.

    Hope to hear more and more ideas from Hanoi Grapevine’s readers

  15. Hi Mien, I very much enjoyed your article. To clarify a few facts from our perspective. Yes, we focus more on the bigger more commercial artists. This has evolved from us striving to enrich the scene in the past 4 years as SSS and more as individuals. Unfortunately, simply finding new and diverse acts and relying on the local market to support has not worked. We constantly hear how expats and others complain that there is not enough choice or events going on, yet when it comes to the day of a show, many people do not vote with their feet and support either deciding to stay in or complaining that there may be a $5 0r $10 entry charge. We concentrate on high quality production and sound which can only be achieved by hiring professionals and good equipment. Our production costs always surpass the band fees as this is intrinsic in delivering a good show. Having this philosophy nurtures the reputation for bands coming to play here and the audience’s enjoyment of the show. I will even quote one expat on my asking if they were coming to our Bob Dylan gig, their response was “I’m more of a Neil Young fan myself”! Well Neil Young isn’t here, Dylan is and it’s that kind of attitude that could have made us doubt why we do what we do for no financial gain, often loss. We will pursue in the big shows and give the people here what they want. We then believe that creating a culture of concert goers, they will then enjoy and have more faith in coming to events of artists that they maybe not be so familiar with. There is absolutely no substitute or comparison in seeing live entertainment no matter how good your sound system is at home. I implore the people here to put their money and time where their mouth is and show support in numbers by attending the events that we spend so much time, passion and energy creating. Whether this is guys like the fabulous Cama in Hanoi or the smaller promoters throughout the country. For such a young and fantastic nation, some wonderful things could be created here.

  16. Hey Mien, good post that is getting people talking. Craig has already commented from SSS perspective and I agree with much about what he has to say. We are currently just back from Music Matters in Singapore and really pumped about the future of the Asian music scene and what that means to the type and amount of international music we are likely to be able to access in Vietnam.

    Just a couple of things to add to Craig’s comments:-

    1. No matter how good the quality of the music production or your sound system is at home, nothing can come close to the experience of hearing great music live. (a ‘retweet’ of Craig’s comment unless you missed it the first time.)
    2. If you want to see great live music in the future, someone has gotta pay. Whilst sponsors will underpin some things (thanks Coke and Samsung at SoundFest), in the end ticket sales MUST become more buoyant in Vietnam for the scene to grow.

    3. Everybody can help to transform the scene. It’s real easy. Use social media to spread the word, show up, pay and enjoy!

    4. To show that the proof is in the pudding, Saigon Sound System will be heading to Hanoi en masse to support CAMA and this Saturday’s CAMAFest. And we will be paying full freight for our tickets !!

    5. Live for Live !!!

    cheers Rod

  17. @ Craig and Rod and Saigon Sound System:

    Thanks so much for the interesting points. Of course we enjoy live music, we love it! Nothing is better than a live music concert, especially if the sound quality is perfect (I heard that the mtv exit show didn’t have the best sound quality, thus, even though they had all the most popular artists, people were not completely satisfied).

    However, from the audience’s point of view we still have to think about the cost, and you must know that Vietnamese people are not rich. For God’s sake, we do the same jobs as expats and get paid 1/3, so we have think when we spend. In Hanoi there are 2 popular music fests and Sound Stuff always manages to lower the ticket prices as much as possible. We have no idea how its organizers do that, maybe we don’t care either(!), we just see the numbers (i.e ticket price). And also Vietnamese people are not into taking “risks”. We are stuck in our own music background or with MTV music. Actually most of the bands featured in CAMA fests are unknown to Vietnamese audience, so a lot of us are not willing to pay because “no, I wont pay that much to see bands that I don’t know”. It’s just common Vietnamese psychology.. for now..

  18. We felt the ticket pricing for Soundfest was very reasonable for the amount of content (9 hours of entertainment and over 30 artists). Tickets were as cheap as 200,000 – 500,000 for some customers. We would certainly try and aim for this kind of pricing where we can for the large events. The ticketing model would work as an “Early Bird” planning where we would allocate a certain number of discounted tickets on a “first come, first serve” basis. We also strive to keep F & B pricing down (Food & Beverage) to ensure a great and manageable experience for the fans. Bob Dylan is not a good example for this business model as a great deal of the young here are not aware of him and his music, however there were many people of a certain age who could recognise the iconic relevance of him performing here. More of the Pop acts we will be doing will certainly be structured to allow as many fans as possible to have a great experience.

    SSS is here to develop this scene on an international level and, more importantly, on a local level. We have an “Artist Development Program” in the company and recognise the importance of exporting great Vietnamese talent and providing them with the resources and opportunities to work all over the world.

  19. Thanks for the reply phm. I am glad that you added “….for now” on the end of it. One of the greatest pleasures in life is going to a festival to see one artist and discovering a brand new one with a sound that is “slick as a piggy and three times as fat”.

    Interesting to hear your comments on the sound production at MTV Exit not being great. We were asked to consider involvement on the show but did not think that we could get the job done within the budget they had. I would point out that Exit is a charity and does not work on the same budgets as it’s big brother so respect for them for being able to do it at all.

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