The cultural climate in Vietnam is more vibrant, exciting, and promis ing than ever. Traditional music and theater, first performed centuries ago, are being strongly promoted through cultural festivals held all around the country. Although the nation’s rich artistic heritage draws international audiences, major cities also offer night clubs and modern multiplexes. Stately concert halls stage opera recitals, even as local pop stars belt out the latest ballads on makeshift stages. Ho Chi Minh City’s midnight curfew is over, and a surfeit of bars and nightclubs tempt with live music and expertly mixed cocktails until the early hours of the morning. Water puppetry thrives in Hanoi, and so does jazz. Turntables and techno beats are common in small cities. Betting is legal but only on greyhounds and horses. With its many contrasts and contradictions, Vietnam offers a heady mix of entertainment options to all.
The official monthly magazine of the National Administration of Tourism, Travellive is packed with travel and lifestyle news from around the country, as is Vietnam Airlines’ in-flight magazine Heritage. For maximum coverage of leisure and lifestyle issues and events, as well as up-to- date listings, pick up The Word and Asia Life monthly magazines. Found free of charge in many restaurants, bars, and hotels, Vietnam Pathfinder has reviews and travel and culture stories from around the country. The national English-language newspaper, Viet Nam News, and the monthly Saigon Times feature sections dedicated to upcoming events in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
Buying tickets in advance is not yet the norm in Vietnam, but most hotels are very help ful, and will either book your tickets or pur chase them in advance for you. Online book- ing is rare but some cinemas are adopting the practice. It is usual for most Vietnamese and visi tors to buy tickets on arrival at the show’s venue.
Traditional Theater, Music, and Dance
Traditional music, dance, and theater are inextri cably linked in Vietnam, and one is usually incomplete without the other. Even as the nation races head- long toward modernization, these performing arts have been given great impetus by tourism and still thrive. Hanoi is regarded as the cultural heart of Vietnam. Among other things, it is the birthplace of the nation’s most delightfully idiosyncratic theat- rical format, water puppetry. The best place to see this unique art form, where marionettes enact wildly color- ful tales on a watery stage, is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi. The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater in Ho Chi Minh City holds daily performances, and Binh Quoi Tourist Village also includes water puppet shows in its range of cultural events, as does Nha Trang with its Water Puppet Theater, which has daily afternoon and evening shows. Various forms of theatrical arts are popular in Vietnam. The nation’s traditional theater can be categorized into three primary dramatic modes, hat boi, hat cheo, and cai luong. All three types are sung – hat means sing – and are distinctly operatic in form. Characterized by extravagant costumes and makeup, as well as highly stylized acting, hat boi or tuong is clearly influenced by Chinese theater but is Vietnamese in flavor. A pared-down and simplified version of hat boi is hat cheo. Similar to operetta, this also focuses on high drama and tragedy, but is leavened with humor. Cai luong, in contrast, originated in the early 20th century and is somewhat like a Broad way musical. The stage is elabo rately deco rated, and every scene is rife with melo- drama. Regardless of the story or song lyrics, it features a set number of tunes repre senting emotions such as happiness, sadness, suspicion, and so on. Avid theatergoers know all the melodies by heart. Today, traditional theater enjoys more widespread popu- larity in Hanoi than anywhere else in the country. Hat cheo performances are staged regularly at the Hanoi Cheo Theater, while the Golden Bell Theater features performances from various regions of the country in an hour-long show. On weekends, Den Ngoc Son presents excerpts from hat cheo plays. Also check the local listings for theater performances at the Temple of Literature. Apart from opera, Vietnam’s classical music features both vocal and instrumental compositions. Once subject to the strict regulations and conventions of Hue’s imperial court, formal music got a new lease of life under French- colonial rule. Three styles – bac (northern), trung (central), and nam (southern) – eventu- ally emerged. Vietnamese chamber music employs string, percussion, and wood- wind instruments, creating a distinctive sound. When used for traditional theater, brass is included in the orchestra to add dramatic resonance to the sound. Musicians play often in Ho Chi Minh City’s Independence Palace but their performances do not follow a set schedule. Like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, most cities and towns have prominent cultural centers and theaters. In Hoi An, the Hoi An Traditional Theatre hosts musical recitals and plays almost every night. Nguyen Hien Dinh Theater in Danang and Hue’s Biennial Arts festival, held in June every even- numbered year, keep ancient Vietnamese drama, dance, and music alive. Also in Hue, the Hon Chen Temple presents music and dance performances and recitals in the third and seventh lunar months.
Contemporary Music and Concerts
Vietnam’s most celebrated concert halls are the Opera House in Hanoi and the Municipal Theater in Ho Chi Minh City. They present orchestral music, Western and Asian opera, as well as pop music concerts. The Conservatory of Music in Ho Chi Minh City is home to the local symphony, and hosts classical music, opera, and jazz recitals regularly. Given the country’s balmy weather, the Vietnamese are extremely fond of outdoor concerts. In Ho Chi Minh City, the scenic Van Hoa Park is very popular, while Hanoians enjoy their favorite croon- ers around Hoan Kiem Lake. Most of these shows feature Vietnamese pop music, and on occasion, a chorus line dance by women in their traditional ao dai. Although these performances may be an acquired taste for most foreigners, the festive atmosphere is extremely infectious. Sports stadiums, such as Ho Chi Minh City’s Military Zone 7 Stadium, are also common concert venues. Young Vietnamese turn up in great numbers to watch the local stars perform live. Certain restaurants, bars, and fashion houses in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi also present lively concerts fairly often. These events are announced in the local media, but hotel concierges are also good sources of information. Maxim’s Club, one of the oldest such venues in Ho Chi Minh City, can be relied on for a fine meal and an enjoyable show. It showcases everything from string quartets and pop music to Vietnamese folk songs and the latest local rock acts.
Although there are many fine and ambitious playwrights producing insightful dramas and comedies, modern theater is a connoisseur’s art in this country. Plays, usually in Vietnamese, are generally staged in small, tucked-away theaters. One good venue for foreigners is the Ho Chi Minh City Drama Theater, where local works are presented with English subtitles. Hanoi’s Youth Theater is one of the best theater operations in the country. Its director, Le Hung, studied his craft in Moscow where he was inspired by Stanislavsky and Brecht. He now brings those teachings to bear on contemporary Vietnam. Many plays performed by the repertory group have been written by Le himself, while others are adaptations of works by Vietnamese and foreign playwrights. Most interesting are the modernized versions of hat cheo, which are staged occasionally.
Vietnamese movies are occa- sionally dubbed or subtitled for an English-speaking audience. Some movie halls in Hanoi, such as the National Cinema Theater and Cinematheque, are noteworthy venues for locally produced art and foreign-language films. In all major cities, CGV Cinemas feature the latest international releases. Foreign films are also very popular in smaller towns, although they are mostly seen on pirated video CDs and DVDs.
Nightclubs, Discos, and Bars
Even in the first few years of Vietnam’s economic reforms or doi moi, it seemed that the only legal hedonistic pur suit avail- able in Ho Chi Minh City was nursing a tepid beer in a backpacker hangout. Today, the city’s nightlife is picking up at an encouraging pace. Hien and Bob’s Place, one of the oldest bars around, set an example for a slew of other intimate little watering holes. While many bars in Ho Chi Minh City seem to come and go almost on a weekly basis, some old favorites such as Apocalypse Now are still going strong. This is the most famous nightclub in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City’s back packer district, in and around Pham Ngu Lao Street, boasts a string of dingy bars and lively clubs. Among them, 163 Cyclo Bar is a sports bar with a great view of the street. For a quiet drink one can head for La Fenetre Soleil, a cool spot to sip a cocktail and listen to a live band. Both Vasco’s and O’Brien’s provide cold beers along with filling bites to eat. Also worth a look is Blue Gecko, a popular bar, complete with a pool table and dart board. The Spotted Cow is an ex-pat Western-style bar that allows you to watch sports on its large screen as you down your beer. Carmen Bar is famous for its Latin and flamenco music, while Lush is a nightclub with music ranging from hip-hop to house. Greater sophistication can be found at rooftop bars in Dong Khoi Street’s posh hotels such as Rooftop Garden at the Rex.Live bands play music as guests watch the city go by below. The same goes for Saigon Saigon in the Caravelle ,Breeze Sky Bar, and Level 23, while for an evening of mellow live jazz, few venues can match the atmospheric Sax n Art. Hanoi may not be quite as glamorous as Ho Chi Minh City but its inhabitants know how to enjoy themselves. Tiny places where the local beer bia hoi is the specialty are very popular. Sadly, hip hangout Restaurant Bobby Chinn has now closed, the eponymous celebrity chef having moved to London, but for those who want to avoid the rough and ready, classical music on piano and violin is played at Ly Club. Seventeen Cowboys is all about the Wild West, and Le Pub is a great spot to spend some time relaxing. Most interesting, though, is Hanoi’s thriving jazz scene. A shift ing network of clubs can be tracked through the local media, but the top spot is the superb Binh Minh Jazz Club where local sax master Quyen Van Minh jams almost every night. In Hoi An, Tam Tam Café & Bar has a decor redolent of old Indochina, but a hip DJ spins at night. White Marble serves the town’s widest range of wines. Nha Trang’s Louisiane Brewhouse is a great place to spend an afternoon or evening, while La Bella Napoli serves the only glass of grappa in town. One of the best hang outs here is the Sailing Club, a laid-back bar by day and hip dance club by night. In Hue, the DMZ Bar oozes old-world charm, while the Why Not Bar is perfect for a long cocktail. Karaoke clubs are generally fronts for pros titution and are best avoided as the govern- ment is currently cracking down on these bars.
Without doubt, football is the national passion. Local teams and leagues are revered, and the country seems to come to a halt for the World Cup. Most major matches take place at Thong Nhat Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City and My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi. Following a close second is badminton, which the Vietnamese enjoy playing even more than they like to watch the national champions. Gambling is an integral part of Vietnamese customs and culture but is mostly illegal in the country. However, the state-run lottery, the Saigon Racing Club, and Lam Son Stadium, where greyhounds race, are above board.