HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Why Vietnam Can't Have Nice Things

Last night's Bourbon Street Jazz Festival was set to be one of the biggest events in Saigon this year. Somewhere around seven hour's worth of music on two stages. Musicians from New Orleans, Japan, and other countries. Types of food you can't usually find here. And all for charity, with proceeds going towards an organization that builds and distributes wheelchairs to poor, disabled Vietnamese.

When I arrived at 5pm there was already a big crowd, and it seemed obvious that this was going to be a huge success. Q4 looked great, with mock French Quarter-style facades and other appropriate decorations.

I watched Sugarbowl Blues perform, and they were excellent.

I also went straight for some food, trying both the jambalaya and gumbo, prepared by the team from Black Cat. While these obviously weren't as good as what I'm used to back in New Orleans, they were noble efforts, and I really enjoyed both. Well done guys.

Around 7, though, it started becoming clear that something was wrong. There hadn't been any music in a while, and everything was off schedule. A band called Flightwave finally came on, and in the middle of their first song my boss came up and said the police were there, and the festival was about to get shut down. After two more songs I noticed an angry-looking Vietnamese man making an X with his arms towards the stage, and the band immediately stopped playing and walked away. Everyone was confused.

I then heard that one of the stages had already been shut down. A couple of dance performances were put on at the stage I was by, but they were completely off schedule. We started seeing stone-faced police inside. Then Andy Forest, who had flown in from New Orleans to play and was the co-headliner, got onto the stage and announced what we all feared: the officials weren't allowing any more live music, only DJs or recordings. No one else would be playing that night. He had come all the way out here for nothing. Only two or three bands had performed before the cops arrived. People would be able to continue eating and drinkings, but the event was essentially ruined.

Everyone was disgusted, and rumors as to why the police were getting involved swirled. Some guessed the music was too loud, but Q4 is very well insulated and you can't hear anything outside of it. Plus it's in an industrial port section of District 4, so no one lives near it. Some said there were too many foreigners (there were at least 1,000 people there). Others speculated that the right people hadn't been bribed, or had been bribed but then decided they needed more once they saw how big the event was. This is a perfect illustration of why Vietnam can't have nice things.

This was an event for charity; a festival unlike anything that has been held here; a chance for Saigon (and Vietnam) to gain some recognition while helping people; and the authorities in their infinite wisdom decided to destroy it. Anyone who has lived here long enough knows this kind of bullshit happens all the time, but it seemed like everyone was stunned to see something for charity get punished. I've written a lot recently about the struggles of the music/entertainment scene here, but something I hadn't mentioned was the authorities. They talk a big game of turning this place into a powerhouse like Singapore or Bangkok, but that aspiration is laughable when they hold such a suffocating grip on culture. It's no wonder bands don't come here, why should they if they might not even be able to play? The police are so petty and greedy they seem to relish shutting things down simply to show that they can. Seeing the cops standing around Q4, looking smug, was infuriating. They are so ass-backwards, corrupt and uncultured it's disgusting. They should be ashamed of themselves for ruining the hard work of everyone who made the festival happen. There are a lot of very talented, very dedicated people here in Saigon, both expat and Vietnamese, trying to bring proper entertainment to the city, but with the authorities holding such a tight leash on culture it's going to be a big challenge to get things done. What a shame.

EDIT: Apparently there was some sort of technicality regarding licenses for the live bands, hence the police arriving. The amount of red tape required to do anything here is staggering, and it is easy to miss one little step.


  1. This was a well publicized event that was in the state papers and sponsored by some big names. Tickets were sold in advance. It's not as if the music was some sort of surprise. I can't help but see a dissonance here. Clearly the people up top either didn't care or they felt the event was a good idea. The shut down order coming from very high doesn't seem plausible but who knows. Tying to make sense of things around here can be a fools errand sometimes.

    What I see is a great shame. For a culture with such strong feelings about saving face, the order to shut down the music seems to run completely contrary to that. Did someone think that shutting it down would bring shame to the organizers and not the authorities? I get the feeling that this is another case of the left hand of the party not knowing what the right hand is doing. I also get the feeling someone at the police department will be demoted tomorrow morning. If this had happened several years ago perhaps it would not be striking everyone so strongly, but these days it just seems that there is really no excuse.

    People will be talking about this boneheaded move for awhile. I will be interested to see if and how this gets reported in the state papers.

    1. I agree with most of this, but I'd be very surprised if there was any mention of this in the paper. I don't think they care.

  2. Replies
    1. No point in us covering it - we write for expats, and expats know what the problem is.

  3. It's such a shame to see things like this happening in Vietnam knowing full well what Vietnamese people are capable of. The proof is in the pudding of the overseas community.
    Of course, since Vietnam is still under authoritarian rule, things like this are bound to happen. To the knowledgeable, that party has no legitimacy whatever, and its members and heirs are basically a bunch of uneducated thieves spitting rhetoric for free money. Oh well, hopefully one day Vietnam will be on par with the others.