Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. May, 2014
For some reason, when my new Vietnamese friend, Ivy, kept prodding me to sing, the only tune that came to me was “Timber” by Pitbull and Ke$ha. My seven-year-old daughter, Kasey, had recently downloaded the song on my iPhone and it’s one of those ditties that stations itself in your brain for an indefinite period of time.
“It’s going down; I’m yelling timber. You better run; you better dance.”
Even I could hear my pubescentesque squawk in “Timber” as I sang for Ivy and her enthusiastic boyfriend, Danny, while we stood on the banks of the Saigon River in District Two of Ho Chi Minh City. Although it was dark, I still looked around, hoping no one else was watching or, worse yet, listening. Usually, a few alcoholic beverages are required before I can do this kind of thing.
Completely sober, I cringed since we were at a spot where many couples came to gaze at the well-lit nighttime cityscape while they held hands and probably crooned in-tune love songs to each other. I knew karaoke was big in Asia, but a request for impromptu singing with no backup music and no reliably scrolling lyrics on a screen?
“Steph, that is wonderful!! Keep going,” Ivy said and hugged me as she did when, as a tour guide, she took me out sightseeing the first day I arrived in Saigon. Danny also praised my discordant vocal talents. “You sing very well,” he said nodding with what appeared to be one of the most sincere smiles I had ever seen. I couldn’t remember any more of the lyrics aside from the lengthy series of “oooooohs” in the chorus.
When I told Ivy I couldn’t recall the rest of the words, she said, “Sing another song!” Oh man, what was I in for?
Earplugs and earlier scarring
I’m a bit concerned about the Vietnamese. Frankly, I think they should focus less on wearing face masks to ward off air pollution while in motorscooter traffic, and instead, invest in some earplugs. Clearly, there is some hearing loss going on.
My unconfirmed diagnosis is based not only on Ivy and Danny’s request for me to sing, but also on the same scenario in other parts of the country where I had been asked again to “take it away” solo style. It was troubling every time.
Admittedly, some past incidents that involved singing in front of people have scarred me slightly. One goes back to a family road trip in a Dodge minivan. While wearing headphones, listening to my Walkman and thinking I was in complete harmony with Madonna, I belted out “Borderline” much like a vocal-chord-cracking teenage boy in the throes of puberty. So focused on my harmonizing with Madonna, I didn’t even realize my family was laughing hysterically at me. To this day, my sister still reminds me of that unfortunate moment of self-expression.
My confidence took yet another a hit when Kasey was about 18 months old. Holding and rocking her, I sang what I thought was an acceptable version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” After all, it seems hard to mess up this particular lullaby since it’s really a lyrical version of the ABC tune every single American learns early on in life. Evidently, it can be botched. While I gazed into Kasey’s eyes and hit “Diamond in the Sky,” Kasey said, “Stop! Stop!” Taken down by a toddler — that was harsh.
The Vietnamese connection to karaoke and the allure of “Hotel California”
It was just a matter of time, I figured, after arriving in Vietnam, before I would have to face my fear since the Vietnamese are kooky for karaoke. The singing bars seem almost as common as sidewalk pho joints. I consulted one of the guides, whom my friend Debbie and I had hired to take us to the countryside, about the popularity of karaoke.
“Yes, everyone likes karaoke,” confirmed 31-year-old Binh while we drove out of Saigon on our way to Tay Ninh province and passed by a large garish pink building with “Karaoke” emblazoned on its side wall.
Moments earlier, Binh had been singing softly in the front seat. It was a little odd, but when you are traveling in a place outside your home country, you assume just about any type of behavior can be considered normal.
“What kinds of songs do you like to sing, Binh?” Deb asked when he paused for a moment.
“I like Vietnamese love songs,” he confessed.
“Awww,” Deb and I both responded. This was an unexpected revelation because we discovered Binh had a very sarcastic sense of humor. When Deb and I had asked him if he had ever been to the Cao Dai temple, which we were headed to see, he said, “No.” When we reacted with surprise, he laughed and said, “Of course, I have been there maybe more than 100 times.”
“What about songs in English?” I prompted.
“Yes, songs by Dion Warwick. And ‘Hotel California,’” he responded.
“Really?” both Deb and I asked, mildly shocked. Out of all the songs in the English language repertoire he chose, “The Hotel California?” Really? The Eagles? I think I had read somewhere that this was a popular karaoke song in Korea as well.
Apparently, a cultural divide exists about the wonder of “Hotel California.” For example, in August, 2013, according to a USA Today article, a drunk American tourist was stabbed after picking a fight with a band at a karaoke bar in Thailand. The inebriated guy had gone ballistic because the band ignored his song request and opted instead to play “Hotel California.” The belligerent, soused tourist interrupted the epic song and then instigated a fatal fight outside the venue. He was killed with an iron rod.
“Welcome to the Hotel California,” Binh began, sounding remarkably close to Don Henley. He looked back at Debbie and me. Oh, lordy, does he want us to sing the chorus?
“Do you practice in the mirror, Binh?” I asked trying to derail a potential karaoke-in-the-car session.
“Yes,” he said and added that he had a karaoke machine at home.
Karaoke machines for all ages
Karaoke machines seemed to serve as major household appliances in Vietnam. While on the streets of Ho Chi Mihn City one afternoon, Deb and I passed an open ramshackle fix-it, repair store. In the midst of all kinds of gears, twisted metal and aluminum parts, the guy inside unabashedly sang a pop song along with his TV displaying scrolling lyrics. With the microphone, he actually drowned out the sound of incessant motorscooter beeping outside.
“Many shopkeepers sing karaoke to get people to come in their stores,” Binh remarked when we told him of the scene.
That was a new one: Karaoke as a persuasive technique.
Later in the trip, Deb and I discovered that karaoke was a pastime for all ages when we visited our friend Silk’s aunt and uncle. In a Zenish setting in beautiful Hoi An, we ate a traditional Vietnamese lunch at the house that Silk’s uncle designed and built.
Deb and I sat at a wooden table near a small alcove with an ascending shrine devoted to Silk’s ancestors. Candles, banners, incense and offerings of fruit flanked old black and white photos of distinguished, serious looking Vietnamese relatives. At the other end of table, sat a stack of papers and old notebooks. I wondered if they contained detailed genealogy notes, family trees or recollections of the revered relatives. Perhaps the historic journals contained reflections and stories about the colonial days, harrowing experiences of the Indochina War with France or even strategies of the resistance. I asked Silk about the writings.
“No, these are the melodies to the favorite karaoke songs that my uncle has written down.” I then noticed the karaoke machine in the corner of the room.
Like I said, the Vietnamese are serious about their karaoke.
So serious, in fact, that when Silk tried to take us to a karaoke bar in Hoi An, the two biggest bars were completely full — motorscooters and motorcycles lined every available spot in the parking lot — on a Tuesday night!
To be perfectly honest, I was a bit disappointed since I had worked up the courage to sing in front of people that seemed to have a vastly differing idea of quality singing. So far, my tone deaf singing had been embraced.
After the letdown and upon arriving back at our Hoi An Hotel, Deb went up to our room while I stayed in the lobby. A few of the female staff asked if we had enjoyed our evening. When I told them about our bad luck with karaoke, they asked if I would sing right in the foyer. Geez, what was it with this? Perhaps it was because of my pronunciation and dialect. From living in Southern California during my formative years, I could do an authentic Valley Girl just like some of today’s young poplets.
“Okay, I’d like to do a little number by Pitbull and Ke$ha.” I retrieved my iPhone and began playing the song.
“Oh, ‘Timber — that is an excellent song!” said Ngoc, who sported a chic asymmetrical haircut and wore a striking red ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese tunic dress with white silk trousers. I ignored the fact that my perspiration fueled fuzzy hair took on the height of a Miss Texas pageant contestant’s coiffure and that my soggy, wilted clothes still clung to me as a result of central Vietnam’s incessant humidity.
With a bit of confidence, I launched into what could easily be the theme song for a gyrating, lovestruck lumberjack. I figured by the time I reached Hanoi at the end of my trip, I’d be ready for “Hotel California.”