Connect to share and comment

Footloose in Hanoi

Faced with a rise in drugs and prostitution, Vietnam bans .... dancing?

Revellers dance during the annual Zoukout dance party on Singapore's Sentosa Island attended by thousands of clubbers from all over the region, Dec. 14, 2008. Vietnam is considering banning dancing in karaoke bars, fearing it serves as a cover for drugs and prostitution. (Vivek Prakash/Reuters)

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.