In Hanoi, sounds of the past resonate amid noises of vulgar age

By Thuy Linh   October 28, 2016 | 11:00 am PT
In times of fast-food pop culture, good old music may bring you back to a purer past.

In our intensely mediated, globalized era, the practiced exuberance of life as shown in the show business environment everywhere can reach an unbearably annoying pitch.

It’s killing me every time I turn on TV and see another new reality show where people get on stage to sing and dance. To treat life as a stage or even as art, to take photos and try to capture every moment, to shine the spotlight on everything is an adolescent, vulgar value that many people are believing in these days.

Vietnam, with a young population, is fast becoming an integral part of the global show business. Indeed in recent years, Hanoians have been living high with a variety of offerings ranging from popular culture to high art -- a distinction that isn’t important as blurring boundaries is a motto of this age anyway. And though the number and scale of cultural events in Vietnam are still modest by international standards, there are enough for locals to choose from.

Free cultural events of good taste offered by foreign institutions such as the Goethe Institute, the French Institute and the Japan Foundation for instance have become beloved dishes in the cultural banquet. Local sponsors with money are also jumping in to provide Vietnamese audiences with “authentic” experiences such as events featuring Richard Clayderman in 2014, Kenny G in 2015, and classical French ballet earlier this year.

And this October, Hanoians, especially those born in the 1980s or earlier, were lucky to have the opportunities to see their idols perform live. Boney M and Chris Norman performed at the National Convention Center early this month, and Modern Talking will sing at the same venue in late November. And just a few days ago, the German rock band Scorpions delivered a set list of well-known old songs at a very interesting place: the over-one-thousand-year-old Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.


The German band Scorpions performed in Hanoi on October 23 as the headliner of the Monsoon Festival. The event was at an unusual venue for rock concerts: the Imperial Citadel. Photo by Giang Huy/VnExpress

The Scorpions’ show was part of the annual Monsoon Musical Festival, an initiative started two years ago by Nguyen Quoc Trung, a respected producer in the local music scene.

This festival, featuring many local and international acts, has become a big success, positively received by audiences, the media and cultural authorities, who allowed it to take place at the Imperial Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site usually reserved for only high-profile cultural events.

Dao Tram, who went to see the Scorpions and loved it, said attending a modern, Western rock concert within such a historical setting didn’t bring any jarring feeling. She simply loved the fact that the venue was so spacious.

Tram’s friend, who asked to be called by her nickname Hana, said the concert was so good in every way that it did justice to the dignified setting.

“Though they aren’t young, Scorpions still sang very well,” Hana said.

She said credit must be given to Trung, the music producer, for organizing such a high-quality festival and for never trying to aim for any cheap glitz that one may easily find in the showbiz today.

Outdoor musical festivals that run for a few days on end are not rare in other countries but in Vietnam, so far there has only been Monsoon, Hana said.

The Scorpions ticket alone cost VND660,000 or around $30, which was more expensive than a 4-day pass for last year’s festival. Most of the people who went to the concert were 30-somethings who could afford the cost and could keep their manners. Trung left nothing to chance. He constantly, shyly and politely reminded his audiences to pick up trash and be friendly to each other.

Born in 1983, Hana and her friends said they didn’t just enjoy the music but also the atmosphere, feeling a certain bond with strangers who grew up in the same era and were all familiar with old songs.

The two friends also loved the idea of opening up the Imperial Citadel, instead of being stiff-necked and conservative and keep it for history and tradition, and sometimes for young married couples to take photos.

If such a precious historical site can be used for great events like Monsoon, it can become a new cultural symbol that stands for the connection between history and modernity, in a good sense of the relationship.

The duo’s positive attitude about the best of pop culture, modern life and Vietnam forces me to search hard within myself to find if there is any place that remains untainted by skepticism and cynicism, which I blame on this crash, vulgar age.

There isn’t much innocence in me, but recently I did have a moment of sorts. I was at a decent hairdresser’s shop. The hairdresser was a capable one but I didn’t like the fact that he had increased the price for a cut by VND50,000. I was deciding in my mind that I wouldn’t come here frequently.

Then a shop assistant turned on the music.

It was a collection of old songs like the ballad “Big Big World” from Swedish singer Emilia, which was popular in Europe and Asia back in the late 90s.

For a moment, I felt a surge of strange, pure love for the song and its era, when I was in middle school and Hanoi wasn’t developing as much and there were far fewer entertainment programs and reality shows on TV.

The song reminded me that once upon a time, I didn’t hate pop music and showbiz and many other things too much. And that I could still find some small things that speak to me in some quiet corner somewhere.

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