Footloose in Hanoi

HANOI — On Bui Thi Xuan street in Hanoi, the karaoke bars start to fill up around 9 p.m. Crowds of 20-somethings — the boys in business clothes, girls in satin shirts, tight jeans and high heels — hop off of motorbikes and sashay in. From the rooms inside comes the muffled sound of syrupy Vietnamese pop, and the drone of off-key voices muffled by thick reverb.

But it’s not a good idea to try dancing in one of the city's thumping karaoke bars. The Vietnamese government is proposing to ban it.

If a Western country tried to ban dancing at popular clubs, the reaction would be predictable. Teenagers and club owners would be furious, and the government would be ridiculed. But in a Confucian society like Vietnam — where a new decree proposed by the Ministry of Culture and Information would make dancing at karaoke bars illegal — things aren’t quite so clear. The decree includes several measures to combat illegal drug use and prostitution, and for many Vietnamese, the idea that dancing in karaoke bars leads to vice seems logical.

“Maybe as a European, you don’t fully understand the difference between dancing in Vietnam and in Western countries,” said Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a National Assembly deputy who leads the Committee on Culture, Education and Youth. “In Vietnam, some people go dancing because they love to dance, they dance in a healthy way. But in some cases they dance for other purposes.”

If people want to dance, Thuyet says, they should go to a licensed discotheque. Dancing at karaoke bars tends to be a cover for kids using ecstasy and amphetamines, or adults hiring “dancers” for sexual services.

One might wonder why the government does not simply pursue drug use and prostitution more aggressively, rather than going after dancing. And indeed, at a karaoke bar in the Long Bien district last week, several young Vietnamese patrons found the proposed decree absurd.

“People can use drugs anywhere, anytime, they don’t have to go to karaoke bars,” said Nguyen Thu Ha, an 18-year-old high school student.

But young people can't go just anywhere for entertainment, said Pham Thu Huyen, a 19-year-old business student at Hanoi University. “Vietnamese young people have so few places for entertainment, so we have to come here to dance,” Huyen said. “If the government wants to ban it, they should create other places for us to dance. When the government cannot control something, they ban it.”

It’s true that Vietnamese youth have relatively few recreational opportunities. Assembly deputy Thuyet acknowledges that local governments fail to put enough money into sports facilities and cultural centers. When they do invest in culture, it tends to be staid, top-down and propagandistic. In some ways, Vietnam’s youth today resemble Western youth in the 1950s: a large bulge of teenagers, the first young generation ever in their country with free time and money to spend, and little idea what to do with it. Like Western teenagers in the 1950s, they scandalize their elders with drag-racing (motor scooters, not cars), frenzied dancing and drugs. But not everyone fits into this slacker generation framework.


“Nobody in my crew uses drugs,” said Nguyen Viet Thanh, the 35-year-old elder statesman of Hanoi’s breakdancing scene. Thanh’s “crew” placed sixth at last year’s breakdancing Battle of the Year in Asia. “If they use drugs, they can’t dance. They dance from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., five hours a day.”

Thanh rents a gym in a southern neighborhood of Hanoi that several local breakdancing crews use as a headquarters. Every evening, the gym fills up with teenagers in Kevin Garnett basketball jerseys, many with their hair teased into tight curls to mimic African-American styles.

Thanh said the ban on dancing in karaoke bars wouldn’t make much difference to him. He and his friends go to karaoke bars to sing. When they want to dance, they organize hip-hop shows — which these days, he said, is easy to do.

Meanwhile, some of Vietnam’s young people think the karaoke dancing ban is a good idea, such as 21-year-old singer Nguyen Thanh Huyen, who performs at several clubs around Hanoi.

“If I were an ordinary young person I might be against the decree, but I’m a singer and I have directly witnessed the things that go on in small bars and karaoke clubs,” Huyen said. “I think it should be banned.”

There is widespread sympathy in Vietnam for the idea that the government should help people restrain their worst instincts. Ta Thuy Minh, 25, who hosts the pop celebrity talk show “Van Tay” (“Fingerprint”) on Vietnamese TV, disagreed with the ban on dancing, but she said the decree’s other measures, like maintaining a midnight closing time for bars, karaoke clubs and discos, made sense.

“In Vietnam it’s different from Western countries. Most young people live with their parents,” Minh said. “People shut down the disco before midnight for young people because that’s time to go home.”

“I agree with the decree,” said the manager of one of Bui Thi Xuan street’s “family” karaoke clubs, where activities are more tame. (He declined to give his name when commenting on government policy, even though he agreed with it.) “If you allow dancing in karaoke rooms, it will create unhealthy situations, like young people using drugs.”

In a room upstairs, a group of workers from the computer and IT firm FPT were having a birthday party. Manager Pham Anh Tuan, 35, said the decree was a good idea.

“The decree should be very specific in distinguishing people from offices who go to karaoke to sing and relieve stress from people who go to karaoke just to dance,” Tuan said.

Then he volunteered perhaps the most concise explanation for the tendency of people in a Confucian society like Vietnam’s to support this sort of decree.

“If the government releases this decree,” Tuan said, “people should obey it.”

 More GlobalPost dispatches on Vietnam:

More powerful than a tall building

Down and out in Ho Chi Minh City

Lessons of Vietnam