HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Cultural Void

One of the biggest problems I have with Saigon is the major lack of cultural activities and outlets, particularly for a city of over 8 million. Once you lose interest in the "let's get shitfaced every night!" scene (and, if you're a normal person, you will), there's a very limited list of things to do next.

This isn't to say there's nothing going on here. For example, places like Blanchy's Tash and Lush regularly bring in (supposedly) big name DJ's, but these venues are far too small for the crowds they can attract, and if you only have a passing interest in dubstep and house, etc. (like me), such events are only worth going to every once and a while. I prefer live music with instruments, and that is one area where Saigon is sorely lacking.

Of course, since I grew up in New Orleans, one of the world's iconic music spots, I am a bit spoiled. Still, the pathetic music scene here would shock even someone from, say, Buffalo. Plenty of bars and restaurants have regularly-scheduled live music, but 99% of the bands are playing covers. There are some very talented musicians here, but for some reason almost no one does original music (if you want to check out a band here that actually does their own music, take a look: http://brettnewskiandthecorruption.tumblr.com/).

The covers were fun when I first moved here, but once you've heard 'Come Together' for the 47th time it starts to get a little old. Yoko and Acoustic, both in District 3, sometimes have original bands visit from overseas, but not often enough. Part of the problem here is infrastructure. There isn't any reason why major international acts should perform in Bangkok or Manila and not here, except that there aren't any venues that could hold even 1,000 people. The Hard Rock Cafe is probably the biggest place here (unless you hold something at the racetrack)...and that's not saying much. I don't know why there isn't a small or mid-size arena in Saigon, but someone should get on that ASAP.

Cinema is another area where Saigon falls short, though that isn't entirely its fault. Vietnamese audiences love big, loud, easily digestible movies, so we pretty much never get anything artistic or serious in theaters here. If you're a fan of summer blockbusters and cartoons, you're in luck though. The only way to see any of the Oscar contenders every year is to buy them at the bootleg DVD shops on Bui Vien, because they don't get released otherwise.

Fortunately this is an area where things are actually improving. deciBel, a restaurant/cafe on the northern edge of District 1, screens indie films from around the world every Wednesday. Twice a year entries to the international FutureShorts film festival are shown at a couple of cafes, and these always provide an eclectic night of short films. Here's one of my favorites from last week's event:

One of the best things about these screenings is that foreigners aren't the only ones involved. A few weeks ago deciBel aired 'Donnie Darko', a cult classic, and a ton of Vietnamese viewers showed up. I had lost hope in the Vietnamese taste in movies during my teaching days, when all of my students had lists of favorite movies that included garbage like 'The Green Hornet' or 'Transformers'. If there are locals out there who like 'Donnie Darko', perhaps there are brighter days ahead.

Finally we come to cultural outlets like museums. There's only one way to put it: museums in Saigon (and the country in general) blow. The War Remnants Museum will rip your guts out, but that doesn't mean it's a great institution. Everything else in the city - Reunification Palace, Art Museum, etc. - is utterly forgettable. The only museum in the country that I've heard is up to western snuff is the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi. Everything else is too jingoistic or amateur to be taken seriously, which is a real shame because there is a lot of history in this country, it just seems that no one from here really gives a shit about it. Even medium-sized cities in America and Europe can have amazing museums, whether they are about local history, art, or just something wacky, yet this country of almost 90 million can barely muster one half-decent exhibit.

So, no museums worth visiting, crappy movies in the theater, and the same music over and over again. What should I do on the weekend if I don't wanted get hammered or listen to electronica?

Postscript: You may be wondering why I left out 'traditional' Vietnamese cultural stuff. Sure, there are things like water puppet performances and stage shows. And places like the Temple of Literature in Hanoi and the Imperial Citadel in Hue. Sadly these things have become so tourismized (made up word) and catered towards guided group tours that you're more likely to get stampeded by a bus full of Koreans than learn much of anything at them. Anyway, I want to see what Vietnamese culture can do in the contemporary sense. This post comes off as pretty negative, but it is actually one of hope: there are so many young people here, surely they will start creating their own cultural scene sometime soon. Saigon is a big enough city to deserve it. Young Vietnamese can't listen to Justin Bieber and watch 'Madagascar' forever, right? Right? Please tell me I'm right.


  1. Hey are the movies in the cinema there in english with subtitles? or is it dubbed?
    Any themeparks there you've visited? Zoo or gardens? Karaoke? or maybe start your own band haha.

    1. Yea, American movies are in English with subtitles. They have dubbed a couple of animated movies, but those are rare.

      The only theme parks I know of are Dam Sen waterpark and Suoi Tien (spelling?). I haven't been to the latter but Dam Sen is fun for about an hour. The zoo is tiny, and I've heard that a lot of the time it's just bored teenagers throwing water bottles at the elephants and bears. Karaoke is great fun, but it also inevitably involves massive amounts of beer. Sadly, I don't know how to play any instruments, and you don't want to hear me sing, haha.

  2. Agreed, it is a shame about the lack of variety in the music scene. There will be a better market for it in future. When it comes to bigger acts, there are venues both indoor and outdoor that could potentially accommodate them. For example, the Bob Dylan concert had thousands of people in RMIT, or on a smaller scale you have the likes of Ratatat at Hi-Fi. Big concerts you can host at the stadium near the airport where Backstreet Boys played… it's more about what kind of acts could fill a venue that big in Saigon without making the ticket price too low.

    There are other cultural events from time to time, film festivals, world music festivals, etc., but a lot of people never hear about them because they're not promoted that well. For example, there was the European Film Festival a couple of months ago. I went to see one of the films in Dong Da cinema in District 5 (an independent movie from Ireland) a good crowd of local people there, particularly considering how bad the movie was.

    1. Those concerts are definitely good examples of what can be done here, along with Soundfest this summer at the racetrack in District 10, but they mostly cater to teenagers or people who only listen to pop (not Dylan, obviously). I'm sure things will improve in a few years.

      I remember hearing about that European festival, though I think I was traveling at the time. Promotion is a big problem: you always hear about DJs coming to the various clubs here, but I often don't hear about things I actually want to see until after the fact. It is always heartening to see locals at things like that.

  3. How does the war remnants museum rip your guts out? Do you actually believe all the propaganda they push at these venues?

    1. Well if you can look at the pictures of children with grotesque deformities thanks to Agent Orange without having an emotional reaction...more power to you, I guess.