At my favorite cafe in Da Nang, just a few blocks from my apartment, they play a wide range of music, but their favorite playlist consists entirely of American country music. They play it again and again. The highlight track—at least for me—is “Grown Ass Man”.
I think I’m the only one in the cafe who has any idea what this means.
I embarrassed Phil by knowing the lyrics to some generic country tune that was blasting through the supermarket in the new Da Nang mall, Vincom, when we were there on a Friday night a couple of weeks back. To put it more accurately, he was ashamed for me. Noticing this, I sang louder, projecting in his general direction. It’s liberating to have very little chance of knowing anybody at all in a public space, and to truly, deeply, not care if any of the people you know were to stumble across you, dancing through the instant noodle aisle. As I explained to Phil, I grew up in a farm town. Some country music was bound to seep in, even if through my subconscious.
The local beach bar, where I read in the afternoon from time to time, favors James Blunt albums. Full albums, played from start to finish. It’s probably the same album every time, but I can’t tell because all the songs sound the same.
A group of us went to a nicer restaurant in the city center for some live music last week. A Vietnamese cover band with rotating vocalists performed George Michael, The Beatles, The Doobie Brothers, The Carpenters, and The Cranberries, among other related artists. They didn’t have a full drum kit, and one of the guitarists was partial to using a Spanish flair, but we enjoyed their interpretation nonetheless. The vocalists in particular were on point, excellent imitators of vocal styles.
I guess you’d expect nothing less from a culture where karaoke is so integral a form of entertainment.
Beware, purists and karaoke haters, your ears will never be safe in Vietnam. Morning, afternoon, evening, karaoke may strike. All your antagonists need is a microphone and a speaker. Karaoke happens in restaurants and at home, and is highly common at celebrations that often spill out onto the streets.
I’ve heard some traditional Vietnamese music, but it’s more rare. It could be the neighborhood that I live in and the people I hang out with. But even one of my Vietnamese friends is a huge fan of Western music, particular Western pop music. He doesn’t understand why most of his friends from North America don’t listen to the popular music that is produced by North American artists. The Billboard top 10 can’t lie! People are listening to this music! Are they all in Asia? We try to explain to him him that many Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber fans are young, and that people who teach or play music, like many of his foreign friends, don’t tend to enjoy popular music.
He also reasons with us that Asia has a bigger population than North America. Case in point: the popularity of Westlife. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. Well, Westlife was an Irish boy band, formed in 1998 and disbanded in 2012, and they were apparently incredibly popular in Asia with teenagers. My Vietnamese friend played me their Uptown Girl cover. Then, I played him the Billy Joel version. He told me that he liked the Westlife cover better because “it’s the original to me.”
I wonder what Billy Joel would say to all of this? Is he aware? I guess he could spend all day, every day, marveling at the wide-ranging derivatives of his work—and trying to profit from them. But how crazy to imagine him sitting down to write the lyrics to one of his songs, say in a room alone in New York, then to think that a teenage Vietnamese boy sang those same words, maybe 15 years later, in his small Vietnamese countryside village along to a track recorded by an Irish boy band.
This brings me to an interesting piece of Vietnamese culture—intellectual property does not exist in the same way here as it does in the States. You can find the Apple logo on a blue jeans tag, or the Burger King logo appropriated with “Pho” in the place of “Burger” and “delicious” printed out beneath it on a t-shirt in the tourist shops (if it helps to see it, click here). Ripoff Ray Bans are everywhere, hung on large boards carried on the shoulders of women who wander through cafes—the Vietnamese version of the trench coat salesman. You’ll also hear songs that sound readily identifiable only to realize that they are, in fact, covers. I can’t imagine that the artists are receiving royalties for all of these derivative works. I am not preaching from on high. I’ve participated in this culture, too. I’ve purchased burned copies of DVDs at a shop set up just for this purpose. But what am I supposed to do? I’m addicted to Game of Thrones a few years behind the rest of the Western world, and HBO GO is not available in Vietnam. Their loss.
At first, I couldn’t get over the incongruity of the Western music and the Eastern architecture, food, everything else here.
But it’s starting to feel common. I’m not so exhausted by constantly processing everything. Some of it is only being processed subconsciously, to come up again in another grocery store in another time and place, likely to Phil’s chagrin.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.