Mobile karaoke in Saigon: music for some, torture for others

By Ha An, Huu Cong   July 13, 2020 | 06:29 pm PT
Mobile karaoke services allow drinkers/diners to give vent to their inner singer, but residents are singing from a different hymn sheet.

At 11 p.m., more than 10 tables at a restaurant on Go Vap District’s Pham Van Dong Street are packed with local diners. A young man, wearing a tight T-shirt with huge tattoos on his arms, is crooning a romantic song that is amplified by a mobile loudspeaker as his friend moves between tables trying to sell some sweetmeats.

One of the patrons pays him VND50,000 ($2.16) and asks for a particular song. Once the tattooed man is done, he hands over the microphone to his client, who, clueless about mic dynamics, sings into it as loudly as he can.

Later, the loudspeaker is taken to another table as more and more diners are motivated to show off their singing skills in the middle of the night. The more they pay the mobile karaoke vendor, the longer they can sing.

An obviously drunk man receives the microphone from a staff member who is applauding clients’ efforts with her colleagues. He chooses a song on his phone and starts singing. The thumping sounds of the prerecorded music can be heard hundreds of meters away.

As the drunk man tries to reach a higher pitch, his voice breaks and quickly turns annoying, but he is oblivious to the annoyance that he is causing.

A street karaoke loudspeaker on Saigon’s Pham Van Dong Street. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Bich.

A street karaoke loudspeaker on Saigon’s Pham Van Dong Street. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Bich.

"I sit here and wait for them to stop singing, so I can go to sleep. I am tortured every day," said Ngoc Mai, 38, owner of a grocery store nearby, adding that complaining about the "midnight karaoke program" with a bunch of drunk people was not likely to go smoothly.

Pham Van Dong Street is a popular "drinking street" in Saigon. Apart from mobile loudspeakers of candy vendors, there is also noise from several newly-opened beer pubs on the pavement. The owners of such establishments are given to placing loudspeakers on the pavements and even hiring DJs and installing colorful lighting systems to attract more patrons.

From around 7 p.m. till the wee hours of the morning, the street is a cacophony of local "singing programs" that set the residents on edge.

The sound of discordance

Not too far away, the famous Bui Vien Street in District 1, famous for its bars and pubs and nightlife, descends into a similar crescendo of loud music from many establishments vying for the patrons' attention. Outside, many youngsters sit next to the mobile loudspeakers, microphones in hand, singing to their heart’s content. At one table, a young woman garners kudos for her crooning of a romantic song and immediately next to them, four women sing even louder, organizing a lottery game.

All the music is turned off when officials of the Pham Ngu Lao Ward arrive at the scene.

During the three days of the weekend, local authorities, including police and urban security teams, are divided into several teams to tackle the issue of using mobile loudspeakers on Bui Vien Street. First, people are reminded of the rules and face administrative punishments. If they continue their violation, they are fined and the equipment confiscated, said Huynh Man, Vice Chairman of the Pham Ngu Lao Ward’s People Committee.

Mobile speakers confiscated by Pham Ngu Lao Ward’s People’s Committee. Photo by VnExress/Ngoc Bich.

Mobile speakers confiscated by Pham Ngu Lao Ward’s People’s Committee. Photo by VnExress/Ngoc Bich.

But handling these cases is not simple, Man added. The street is interconnected with other streets such as Pham Ngu Lao and Tran Hung Dao that form convenient escape routes for many people as soon as they espy local authorities.

"We have asked the Department of Natural Resources and Environment to support us and use decibel meters to decide on punishments," Man said.

Some neighborhoods have it worse because the revelers are at it all day long, not just in the evening, especially on weekends. They sing at parties, or even when they are bored and have nothing to do.

Phung Thanh Tu, 33, residing in Thu Duc District’s Linh Trung industrial park, says that her neighbors sometimes sing from 9 a.m. onwards, taking away her Sunday, which she needs for resting after a long week of hard work.

"The poorest ones are those having babies, they close their doors but cannot escape the noise. The children cry because they cannot sleep," Tu said, adding that when one of her neighbors intervened and talked to the drunk singers, an argument ensued and a fight broke out before others jumped in and stopped them.

The noise from the mobile loud speakers has reached higher authorities and the city’s legislature, the People’s Council, has discussed it in recent meetings.

To Thi Bich Chau, President of HCMC Fatherland Front Committee, which monitors the city government's activities and policies in public interest, said karaoke with mobile loudspeakers has affected people negatively, caused arguments and even deaths. She said one of the reasons for the situation was the lack of strict and resolute punishments from local authorities.

Huynh Thanh Nhan, Director of the municipal Department of Culture and Sports, said they had formed two inspection teams for noise management. But the department does not have the responsibility to measure the noise and has to hire another agent, as dealing with noise pollution is police’s responsibility. And when they act, the punishment is usually not strict, he said.

"If noise occurs in a neighborhood, the chairman of the local People’s Committee and head of local police deal with it," Nhan said, saying the problem has to be tackled decisively at the district level to prevent unnecessary conflicts.

Pham Toan Thang, Director of HCMC Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said that a law to control noise from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. took effect in 2013. The city has issued fines of VND100,000 – 300,000 ($4.3 - 13) in 46 cases of noise pollution in the first six months of 2020, he said.

He said his department will consult with the city’s People’s Committee and guide local districts on tackling the problem effectively.

Troubled residents are hoping this will happen soon and they can enjoy weekends without being stressed out by the noise caused by singers using mobile loudspeakers.

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