Closing Time: DIY in Saigon’s Music Scene

By: Kristian Goodchild

Has Ho Chi Minh City’s rapidly shifting culture spelled the end of staged shows and live music?

“The venues are all gone… Live music is dead, it’ll all be covers in a year, you watch…”

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It’s a familiar lament from London to Singapore and Saigon is no exception. Following the closure of super-venue Cable and the shift towards EDM nights from once-stalwarts of the live scene, Saigon Ranger, it appears the rock crowd is suffering under the commercialisation and marginalisation of its favourite venues.

Once you get used to the idea that you can find quality live music somewhere, that place can become a sanctuary. It becomes part of the cultural identity that you share with others who share your tastes in music. Indeed, such a place can begin to feel like a second home...

And, as those venues close and the club nights move in, as guitars give way to DJs and top 40 remixes, it’s easy to feel pushed aside in favour of the sort of clientele the venue owners are now more interested in courting... who like their bottle of Chivas with a side of Chainsmokers.

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You’d be justified in feeling down. The loss of any live venue is tragic, but the reality is, the live music scene in Saigon is as vibrant as ever, it’s just that the venues are no longer the focus.

Same Music, New Scene

Where once it was possible for music lovers to go to a favourite venue on the right night and be guaranteed the right kind of show, now they have to dig a little deeper. And with a little perseverance, if you look carefully enough, you’ll be able to find something suitable.

Post-hardcore band James and the Van der Beeks have seen it all. For over five years they’ve played all over Southeast Asia from their base in Saigon and have watched the landscape shift. As such, the current scarcity of venues doesn’t bother them too much, it just means they have to work a little harder. Guitarist Seamus explains, “If you’re a real band, you started with that DIY ethos already. [Whether that meant having to] call a bar owner, or make a show poster.”

Seamus also emphasises that while originals and English language music may currently be hard to find, there is still plenty of music happening around the city: “RFC, May Cay, YOKO and La Fenetre Soleil host all kinds of musicians, maybe not always playing new original music but the [LFS] Sunday jam still rocks,” he says.

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“The live music scene in general is pretty stable, but seems to get better after rainy season. There are thriving Vietnamese language music scenes that drive most of the events around. Maybe there has been a dip lately, musicians sometimes get tired of the same old [venues] and move cities or countries.”

Playing into the Aesthetic

However, many have criticised the lack of quality original music available today. Ex-Secret Asians bassist Hamish Hawkins says, “The rise in popularity of EDM is destroying live band venues. DIY gigs have always been around but seem to be the only real option nowadays.”

But is that such a bad thing? Punk, hardcore, rock and metal are all rooted in a street-level DIY ideology, underground ethos and grass- roots authenticity. Could it be that the removal of venue infrastructure may provoke bands to reinvigorate the music scene? Punk aficionado Ben Sturdy thinks so: “You can’t beat the rawness and enjoyment of a good old DIY gig. Saigon is slowly realising this.

“Soon the days of Vina-House and Westlife blaring from the over- cranked PA systems of motorbike sales centers will be surpassed with instrument-wielding local talent on every street corner...”

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It’s an optimistic vision, and one that would require a paradigm shift of sorts, but possible.

So how do you go about saving your musical life, and in doing so show that you, the consumer, want live music, original songs and the kind of nights that support creativity instead of repetition? Get active. When it comes to nightlife, your best vote is made with your wallet.

Banner image source: James and the Van der Beeks


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