There is a neo-Bohemianism which is developing in Vietnam, which I suspect is a continuation of the Bohemianism ethic the Vietnamese encountered during the country’s extended period as a French colony. The booming economy is beginning to create the wealth which inevitably begets leisure, and leisure goes hand in hand with having the time for creative pursuits. And this Bohemianism has for its current backdrop a setting akin to the world in which the American twentieth century avant-garde found itself, a world of imposed will and repression, a.k.a. the Communist Party of Vietnam.
For a time I worked for an office of the Saigon city government adapting Vietnamese traditional song to the jazz idiom and teaching my adaptations to a handpicked quintet of Vietnamese dilettantes cum rock stars, all of whom are infected with the less desirable trappings of hippiedom and the beats: sloth, debauchery, and occasional megalomania. There are some wonderful painters; Le Kinh Tai is especially good. Creative writing generally is born with no teeth and stays that way because the government censors everything. They censor the music and the painting too, but it’s easier to disguise non-verbal genres. All cultural activities have to be approved and licensed by the government. Once when I had to perform before the press and on television, I had to tell the government which songs I wanted to perform. So many writers are banned because of their views on the war. You also have to have somebody willing to vouch for you in case you start spouting off about how great democracies are and how everybody should live in one.
Music jobs are plentiful in Saigon, but most of them are for Vietnamese music in a style somewhere between 1920s French cabaret and the “Song of the Volga Boatmen.” Most of the gigs amount to indentured servitude. You can offer a Vietnamese trio twenty to thirty dollars per night seven nights a week for a year and they’ll be so happy, they’ll insist on signing a one-year contract so nobody else can steal their job. A trio usually comprises a piano, saxophone, and vocalist. The level of musicianship is generally very low, although there are a few exceptions. And there are plenty of outstanding traditional ensembles, but they are farther north. Saigon isn’t much more than a throbbing juggernaut of cottage industry, but it’s being transformed. The locals, ninety percent of which are transplanted Mekong delta peasants looking for work, are absolutely rabid about money and will do anything for a buck. The cities are almost unaffordable. An apartment at the center of town that rented for one hundred dollars two years ago rents for one thousand dollars now because everybody knows that the foreigners are on corporate expense accounts.
I’m curious to see how it all plays out over the next five to ten years. The Vietnamese market is still developing, as it tramples itself in its stampede towards capitalism.
Tim Brockett is an American expatriate writer, educator, and jazz musician performing throughout Asia since 2001. He has spent two years in the music community of Ho Chi Minh City.