There are two things that any visitor to Hanoi will notice straight away as they make their way from Noi Bai International Airport to the city centre - there are an awful lot of motorbikes in this town and almost as many karaoke bars. If they look out of the window as their bus or taxi heads down Au Co and Nghi Tam streets they will be met with a seemingly endless wall of karaoke places on both sides of the street; a reminder that this activity is very much an integral part of modern Vietnamese culture.
For those unaccustomed to Vietnam or indeed Asia this can be a little perplexing, as karaoke in the West and karaoke in the East are entirely separate beasts. Saying the word to most Westerners will conjure up images of a lonely middle-aged woman standing in the corner of a pub, butchering her way through some sappy 80s love song to an audience of no more than two or three disinterested drinkers. The idea of karaoke went hand in hand with embarrassment and was something that most teenagers wouldn’t dream of doing as a group. Singing along to your favourite songs by yourself at home was one thing but any suggestion of going out and singing karaoke together would be met with ridicule. Karaoke, in short, is not cool.
In Vietnam, though, karaoke carries an altogether different meaning. Gone are any negative connotations or ideas of melancholy or desperation. Karaoke is seen as a celebration, an activity that can be enjoyed by people of any age and often used to mark a special occasion. I have been to numerous birthdays and end-of-year parties at karaoke bars. The word ‘bar’ in this case is something of a misnomer, as usually it is only the Westerners present that are drinking. The Vietnamese karaoke goers, especially the women, are more than happy sticking to soft drinks and the obligatory fruit platter, and while the odd beer may be consumed it is the exception rather than the rule.
This is something of a key distinction, as stirring up the courage to sing in front of a crowd requires some alcoholic assistance for most Westerners. However, Vietnamese need no such help - they are more than willing to grab the microphone and sing away. It certainly helps that more often than not they have wonderful voices but even those less than blessed in this department exhibit no hesitation when it comes to their turn. This sense of inclusion is a truly a wonderful thing as I am one of those unfortunately afflicted with a voice like a cat being skinned. Singing has never been of interest to me and keeping me away from the microphone has definitely been in the best interests of everyone else in the room. In Vietnam, however, I have been cajoled into taking the stage on several occasions and despite my utterly tone-deaf renditions of 90s pop ‘classics’ I received raucous applause and cheers of approval as if I had just delivered a performance worthy of winning ‘The Voice’. Karaoke in Vietnam is for everyone, regardless of age, gender, or even ability to sing. It is something that people do with friends, family or colleagues, during both the daytime and at night. Karaoke doesn’t have to be cool, it’s just fun.
One thing that’s important to note for anyone visiting Vietnam is that not all karaoke bars are created equal. They come in all shapes and sizes ranging from enormous monstrosities to seedy, dark little joints, and it is the latter you should be wary of. When I first arrived in Vietnam, staying in a hotel and with little or no Vietnamese to my name, I had just finished a night out with friends and sought the solace of my cosy hotel bed. I proceeded to get in a taxi and show the driver the address of my hotel. However, instead of being taken back to my comfortable bed I was driven to a late night karaoke bar and told I could get a ‘special service’. I soon realised exactly what kind of karaoke bar this was. I was tired and a more than a little angry and ordered the driver to take me home, which he duly did.
A few months later I happened to end up meeting a tour group from HCMC and spent a very enjoyable evening eating and drinking with them. As the night wore on someone suggested doing late night karaoke and I was more than happy to join in. We piled into a fleet of taxis and headed to the karaoke bar. When we pulled up I immediately recognised the place as the same one the less-than-scrupulous taxi driver had brought me to. I was a little hesitant but as I was with a large group of Vietnamese of both sexes I felt that things would remain above board. As it turned out, we had a great time singing, dancing and drinking and there was no mention of any ‘special service’. While my experience of karaoke in Vietnam has been overwhelmingly positive I would say that Westerners should tread carefully, especially if they are not in a group with Vietnamese as some places, particularly the ones open late, will try to sell you more than just a room with a microphone and a TV.
By the time I arrived in Vietnam I was already pretty familiar with the karaoke experience in Asia, having tried it out in China, Taiwan, and South Korea. While all countries share a lot of similarities there are some slight differences to be noted. Karaoke in China is very much a 24-hour activity and there was more than one occasion where karaoke was suggested at 5am. The Taiwanese take their karaoke as seriously as anyone. My friend informed me that her mother would spend the whole week perfecting certain songs before her weekly karaoke session with friends. The karaoke bars in South Korea, meanwhile, can be anything from tiny boxes designed for solo karaoke for the self-conscious to glass-walled rooms for the true exhibitionists. I would definitely recommend doing karaoke in Vietnam to any Westerner but the experience is much richer if you can go along with a group of Vietnamese. Now if they would only get some Western music that isn’t Westlife …