– Vietnamese Proverb
Dancing in the shadow of Lenin and Uncle Ho
HANOI - Twisting and turning with the beat, Nguyen Quoc Trung spins so quickly his legs create a blur of color, framing the statue of Lenin within his angular movements. Trung defies gravity and history as he moves deftly into another one-handed, upside-down position, keeping time with the music and the roar of traffic.
During the day, the plaza in front of the Lenin statue stands empty except for a few workers in conical hats taking a break or tourists clutching their maps. But at dusk, legions of teenagers descend on the plaza and transform it into the largest informal hip-hop gathering in the city.
The growing hip-hop phenomenon provides an apt symbol for the rapid pace of change in Vietnam, where almost two-thirds of the population is under 30. A burgeoning middle class has extra cash, access to MTV and the Internet, and a bustling free-market economy: ingredients for not only a cultural revolution, but an explosion of hip-hop.
But unlike pioneering American hip-hop with its early rap lyrics blaring out an underground message of protest, Vietnamese hip-hop is tamer, friendlier. Here, lyrics and graffiti hide no passionate cry for change. "Hip-hop [in Vietnam] is not politically threatening, it's just dress-up," said Jamie Maxtone-Graham, a photographer and former Fulbright scholar from New York who lives in Vietnam and studies youth culture in Hanoi. "It's listening to music, riding motorbikes . . . not saying anything that's dangerous or threatening." Maxtone-Graham compared hip-hop to other community activities like tai chi -- ways for groups of people interested in the same thing to come together and connect.
The presence of hip-hop shows that the closed borders which isolated the country for years have relaxed significantly. Today, teenagers scour the Internet for tips on hip-hop fashion, dancing and music from around the world. Though the music remains outside of the Vietnamese mainstream, evidence of hip-hop shows up everywhere in Hanoi: fashion stores like Boo Sk8 Shop, dance studios and community centers, and graffiti along the highway.
– Lil Knight, Rexona (Vietnamese hip-hop group)
At night, Lenin Plaza resembles a busy high school courtyard. Break-dancers reserve the corners while the skateboarders who do tricks on the base of the statue claim the central area. Stunt bikers stake out their domain to the right, avoiding an impromptu soccer game as they practice their wheelies. In another part a couple learns salsa dancing, and farther away an instructor gives a movement class. Each group keeps their music respectfully low so the beats don't clash. All around the park, couples sit on motorbikes watching the whirlwind of color and activity. In the surrounding streets, honking horns provide a thumping bass line for the scene.
The statue of Lenin serves as a stern reminder of the country's communist government. The twenty-foot-tall bronze statue, designed by Russian architect Garonii Isakovich is one of more than 300 monuments and buildings constructed by the Russians in Vietnam between 1955 and 1991. But the teenagers, in their shiny Yankees baseball hats, gather at the plaza for its central location and flat surfaces, regardless of the historical significance. "I just noticed [the statue]!" exclaimed Hoang Thuy Linh in surprise. "If he were alive, he would support us because it's a sport for young people," said the 20-year-old breakdancer as she rested between routines.
Traces of communism still echo through Hanoi via "Uncle Ho announcements," patriotic dispatches that blast music and government messages through the streets once or twice a day. But other visible communist presence has decreased in everyday affairs, residents say, unless someone is directly involved in bureaucratic paperwork. Net surfers can access YouTube, MySpace and even Internet porn, though pornography is technically prohibited. The government also blocks access to thousands of political or religious websites. In 2002 alone, at least six Vietnamese "cyber-dissidents" were arrested for crimes ranging from posting political essays to e-mailing "political opportunists" abroad, according to Foreign Policy in Focus, an American think tank. "Generations have grown up with the idea that things are displeasing to the government, so a lot of self-censorship goes on," explained one resident who wished to remain anonymous.
– Lil Knight, Rexona (Vietnamese hip hop group)
Self-censorship might account for part of the reason why lyrics from Vietnamese artists are apolitical and harmless compared with 1980s hip-hop in America. Vietnamese teenagers rap about "love, life, sometimes dance, school," according to 18-year-old Tang Quoc Anh, who goes by the rap name Mr. T.
Bui Minh Tri, covered in sweat after performing a routine with his break-dancing crew, summed up the difference between Vietnamese hip-hop and other parts of the world in one sentence. "Vietnamese hip-hop is clean," he said. "I see a lot of American people who are not really doing hip-hop but are wearing hip-hop style. But they don’t do the dance . . . Here we focus more on the dance and the art."
Hip-hop traces its roots back to America, to the Bronx in the late 1970s, when DJs manipulated reggae, funk, and popular music records to isolate the dance breaks and percussion parts. The four basic tenets of hip-hop are breakdancing, rap (sometimes called MCing), graffiti art, and disc jockeying. In America, the different aspects of hip-hop grew around the music. In Vietnam, break-dancing appeared first and the other elements followed. Though early Vietnamese hip-hop artists looked to America for the latest trends, fans now turn to other Asian countries such as Korea and Japan for their inspiration, Maxtone-Graham said.
– Vietnamese Proverb
"More of the kids that are from better families are into hip-hop. The kids that are lower down sell lighters on the street," said Paul Leck Davidson from Noi Zee Productions, an expatriate from England who co-founded Hanoi's only music promotion company a year ago. Among hip-hop fans, the money certainly shows. Everyone wears carefully coordinated, funky, colorful outfits. Graphic tees with nonsense English words are everywhere, as are suspenders, bright leggings, hats worn sideways, knock-off Louis Vuitton belts and fake Converse sneakers.
Vietnamese hip-hop doesn't carry the same "street cred" as other parts of the world. Outside the city, workers toiling seven days a week in rice paddies make around $125 per year. The hip-hop fans may live close to them geographically, but they inhabit a totally different world. A bottle of spray paint costs around 30,000 dong, or $2, an expense that is wildly out of reach for the country's poor.
– Lil Knight, Rexona
A small crowd gathers outside the sparsely-furnished dance studio near the Technology University of Hanoi. Inside, fifteen chiseled breakdancers are perfecting some of their fast-paced routines. Members of Big Toe Crew, Vietnam's most famous hip-hop group, showcase their moves, holding their bodies horizontally and using one arm to propel themselves in a circle, spinning on their heads for what seems like hours, synchronizing intricate footwork. Twelve-year-old Hoang Ky Anh literally bounces around the room, repeating his favorite maneuver: whirling in rapid circles with his feet in the air, a power move called an "air flare" in the United States. He break-dances for four hours straight, his gangly limbs never seeming to tire. Much younger than the other dancers, the shaggy-haired boy is one of the most popular members of Big Toe Crew. The audience screams when he takes center stage in performances.
Big Toe Crew started in 1992, after several Vietnamese students abroad came home with a new hobby. They taught all their friends the basic breakdance moves and started Big Toe Crew the same year. “Hip-hop is a very new dance and . . . it matches with Vietnamese youth flexibility and creativeness,” said Bui Minh Tri, a member of Big Toe Crew who has been "breaking" for five years.
"Now my country is open, the economy is developed, so they can go ... everywhere, go abroad outside Vietnam," said Nguyen Viet Thanh, the charismatic leader of Big Toe Crew, attired in the typical uniform of baggy sweatpants and a backwards hat. "They have a belief that they can do everything now. It’s good for the young teenagers," he says with quiet pride. After winning a prestigious breakdancing competition in China, Big Toe now performs for various sponsors and events.
– Kim, Play Freely (Vietnamese rapper)
Nguyen Duc Sinh watches with a mixture of surprise and amusement as four teenagers spray paint the words "Art Devil" in flourescent blue and green letters on the concrete wall next to a highway. The 37-year-old advertising agency employee isn't quite sure what to make of this newfangled activity. He thinks for a moment, studying the painting in progress. "I think old people will be happy to see such pictures," he finally says. "It's nice. It reflects the new trend of youngsters nowadays."
Tran Tuan Anh and his friends usually attract a crowd when they draw graffiti in broad daylight on the concrete walls lining Hanoi's busy highways. In the hour it takes the group to spray paint, or "burn," two pieces, almost 15 people have stopped to look and snap pictures on their cell phones, including businessmen, electrical workers, and even one uniformed official. Graffiti has only been around in Vietnam for the past four or five years, so the community is still getting accustomed to it. Though the act of graffiti is illegal, the fine is only 100,000 dong, or $6.25 -- about the cost of three cans of spray paint.
"I want to emphasize my personality through my paintings," said Pham Minh Hoang, 21, a graffiti artist with the Devils Day crew. "It's my passion, my hobby. Whenever I'm sad or happy I come to graffiti and I find my happiness there."
Anh, who goes by the graffiti name Zugi, oversees the design while his friends bring the drawing to life with color and shading. The stretches of concrete are blanketed with crew names and words like "special," "love," "I'm a king," "bad boy," and a few instances of English profanity. Zugi, like many other graffiti artists, prefers English words because they are simpler to illustrate without the accent marks of written Vietnamese.
Despite the foreign influences and English writing, the graffiti is uniquely Vietnamese. Hoang, of the Devil Days crew, recalled one of his friend's most successful pieces: a series about pigs, a very traditional Vietnamese topic. "If we can combine a little from Vietnamese culture and graffiti it is good -- there is no clash," he said.
Today, the only certainty in Vietnam is that tomorrow will be different. But the signs point to a bright future for hip-hop: the prestigious Hanoi Opera House, an ornate building from the French Colonial era and the self-proclaimed oldest opera house in Asia, recently featured its first hip-hop performance. Music stores now carry the albums of a few Vietnamese hip-hop artists, such as Lil' Knight, Young Uno, and Kim. Big Toe Crew finds its services in demand: companies selling everything from motorbikes to computers to Coca-Cola want them for performances at promotional events.
Though widespread acceptance of hip-hop may be years away in this fiercely traditional but evolving country, today’s fans seem to be creating a live soundtrack for the change they see everywhere. Hip-hop “is a real art, and sooner or later it will boom," said rapper Mr. T.