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Motorbike horns have become the trademark sound of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, but the warbling of karaoke has to be a close second. Swanky karaoke bars are a popular place to spend a night out in Vietnam but it seems that there’s truly no bad time or place to break out the microphone.
Karaoke is no joke in Vietnam. In much of the world, picking up a mic is a quick means to humiliate yourself but here it’s unabashedly and unironically embraced. Karaoke is an important part of any good Vietnamese bonding session and takes place anywhere and everywhere: work, home, school and even at funerals. It’s all about community and family, and it doesn’t matter whether you can sing or not.
Karaoke – which means ‘empty orchestra’ – started out in Japan in the 1970s. Drummer Daisuke Inoue was often asked for recordings of his performances to help the audience sing along. Inoue realised that there was money to be made and fashioned a machine that played songs for 100 yen (£0.70) a pop. Retrospectively, his invention is considered to be the first karaoke machine. Since Inoue didn’t patent his machine, technology giants quickly began to make similar products and karaoke machines began appearing all over Japan.
It wasn’t until the ’90s that karaoke began to spread throughout the rest of Asia, and eventually all over the world. In Vietnam, the pastime became popular when technological advances made it easy to record Vietnamese song lyrics over an empty vocal track. Karaoke proved a very popular way to relax and the pastime flourished all over the country. Karaoke bars popped up in major cities and continue to be popular locations for all types of occasions, from birthdays to corporate bonding events.
A visit to a karaoke bar is certainly a unique experience – although perhaps the term ‘karaoke palace’ would be more apt, since the decor tends to be wonderfully extravagant. One such example is Kingdom Karaoke in District 1, which is flamboyantly decked out with marble pillars and neoclassical European furniture. The booth walls are covered in faux tiger fur and a rather ostentatious chandelier dangles from the ceiling of the lobby. When wandering through the corridors, it’s possible to hear several different parties singing their hearts out with carefree abandon. Meanwhile, waiters hurry around, delivering fresh crates of beer. Alcohol isn’t always involved in Vietnamese karaoke but a night in a karaoke bar can be a decidedly boozy affair.
Although things often get wild inside karaoke bars, waiter Duc insists they are family-friendly. “Karaoke is for everyone,” he says. “For Vietnamese people, it is a way to relax and bond.” Indeed, karaoke bars do seem to be frequented by every generation, from toddlers to the elderly. It’s an opportunity for everyone to let loose, although there are still a few rules in place.
Pham Phuong Anh says that karaoke with her family is a strictly seated affair. “I only stand up and dance when I go to karaoke with foreign friends,” she says. “If I did that with my family, they would judge me. We just sing.” Her family don’t like any songs with curse words and stick to traditional ballads, she says.
The love that Vietnamese people harbour for karaoke can’t be confined to a semi-soundproof booth. It’s not uncommon to hear older ladies crooning into a microphone first thing in the morning as they open up their street food stalls, or see a group of friends arrive at a restaurant with their very own speaker in tow. Many street vendors keep their karaoke equipment handy should a lull in trade create the opportunity for a song or two. “We sing everywhere,” says Minh, an engineer from Ho Chi Minh City. “We don’t care! Karaoke is for anytime.”
Karaoke isn’t just for city-dwellers, either. In the countryside, it is sung everywhere from rowboats to beaches and waterfalls. On any given public holiday, natural sites are full of families accompanied by their trusty speaker, making the most of their time the best way they know how. Karaoke even makes an appearance at funerals from time to time. Vietnamese funerals tend to be a lively affair, often with music long into the night – and wherever there’s music in Vietnam, karaoke is never far behind.
The way karaoke is sung is wonderfully sincere. Instead of going over the top in the name of self-deprecation, Vietnamese people put their heart and soul into a song and give a diva-worthy performance that Mariah Carey would be proud of. They don’t shy away from the high notes and there’s no trace of embarrassment or irony as they clench their firsts and cast their eyes wistfully to the sky. No-one seems to care about the quality of the singing itself – it’s all about having a good time.
As for the most popular songs, slow, mushy ballads reign supreme. There’s a lot of My Heart Will Go On and it’s impossible to escape from Abba’s Happy New Year is around Tet holiday. However, the younger generation often favour cheesy western pop music and trendy Vietnamese musicians, such as rapper Son Tung M-TP, who recently collaborated with rapper Snoop Dogg.
It may have you reaching for your earplugs from time to time, but Vietnamese karaoke is about so much more than sounding good – in fact, it’s not about that at all. Whether you’re in a swanky bar or the midst of a street food dinner, it’s safe to say that when it comes to this cultural phenomenon, it’s truly the taking part that counts.