It’s a Wednesday afternoon at the coffee spot on West Lake, and the teachers are sipping coconuts, already thinking about the night’s weekly ritual. When the dark sets in, you’ll see them cruising by on their motorbikes with guitars strapped to their backs, rolling into Hanoi Rock City (HRC) early to get their names on the list.
We all gather round under the red-and-blue lights and wait for them to sing for us, or tell us stories. We know by the end of the night, they’ll have made us dance.
“I’ve been teaching 20 hours a week, just to have some money on the weekends,” sings Ella Beth Walls, backed by six men on guitar, piano, saxophone, drums and bass. Ella has been hosting this event since the end of 2013, and lately, she’s seen a massive influx of artists in search of space to express themselves.
“Before, people came here on contract work, just to teach. But I think Hanoi is kind of getting a name for itself,” she says. “I feel like this is really the city of opportunity. If you have an idea and you’re passionate about it, this is the place that you can try [it out].”
For most of the artists in the room, this stage is a weekly release. “Every open-mic night is an opportunity to improve yourself musically,” says guitarist James Bennett, a web designer who can regularly be found jamming on HRC’s stage.
The mic is always open on Wednesdays, but the six-piece jam bands and the large audiences that come with them can be too much for quieter acts, like acoustic guitarists and poets.
“[It’s hard for] a girl with a ukulele to fill that room after a full band,” remarks Tyler Purdon, a singer-songwriter and regular at HRC. A month ago, he started his own open-mic on Tuesday nights at Spacebar, a co-working cafe and creative space in West Lake.
“I never used to perform in front of people, and it took my friend forcing me to perform at an open-mic to do it,” Tyler recalls.
In the words of local poet Lizzie Millard: “The adrenaline surges through me / Will I fly or drown in the sea? / It’s this intense rush / And I might stammer and blush / But my words will hopefully resonate / Whether you think I’m terrible / or awesomely great.”
Tyler’s open-mic nights are intimate, the way a jam in a friend’s living room might feel, and small enough that spoken-word artists get the attention they deserve.
“We’re trying to encourage more than just music,” says Ella.
She’s begun hosting monthly spoken-word nights on Sundays at Mojito Bar, and she’s not the only one striving to diversify the stage. Poet Paul Salnek started the Free Thoughts Art Variety Show last September, and it’s now held every other Monday at The Doors Cafe.
“It adds a totally new element,” he says, checking his list and greeting performers as they trickle in early for the show. “I don’t care if I’ve never met you before, you do whatever. You want to juggle beer bottles on stage? Then juggle beer bottles on stage. It’s not just [about] the music.”
Every show features a live painting by Nadja Pizzimenti, who quietly fills a canvas in the corner of the room while performers take the mic. She sees the show as a motivating force for her creativity. “Sometimes I really don’t want to paint, but I know I’ll feel amazing and accomplished by going to the show, so I do,” she says.
The Free Thoughts stage has seen everything from improvised sock puppet shows to a surprise performance by American comedian Shereen Kassam, who was passing through Hanoi on vacation and happened upon one of Paul’s posters.
“I think it’s going to continue to grow, and I hope it’s because people hear about Vietnam and Hanoi being a creative centre,” says Ella. “That’s the way that I want the city to go.”
Ho Chi Minh City
Singing in front of many people is never easy, but my colleague Sian, made herself sing a song on the stage of an open-mic night at Saigon Outcast a few months ago. The encouragement from a bunch of the performers and many of the audience helped. Although there were not many people that night, both performers and audience seemed relaxed and entertained.
Saigon Outcast is not the only venue in town hosting open-mics every Wednesday. According to Stewart Gatsi, the host of Unplugged Acoustic Thursdays at La Fenetre Soleil, there are a quite number of open-mics in Saigon, which are enough to fill up the week.
Starting with Comedy Open Mic every Monday at Two in One (143 Ton That Dam, Q1), the schedule continues with Acoustic Open Mic at Broma (41 Nguyen Hue, Q1) and Open Stage at Yoko Café (22 Nguyen Thi Dieu, Q3) every Tuesday, Jameson Jam Session at Saigon Outcast (188 Nguyen Van Huong, Q2) and Comedy Open Mic at Piu Piu (97 Hai Ba trung, Q1) every Wednesday, Unplugged Acoustic Thursday at La Fenetre Soleil (44 Ly Tu Trong, Q1), Open Mic Night at Moto Saigon (88 Street 23, Q7) every Friday and Sunday Open Mic at La Fenetre Soleil.
A Place to Show Your Passion
“I have a passion for music and have always pursued it,” says Stewart. “So I always try to go to different open-mics, and just let people hear my music.” He has been singing since 2008 and started playing guitar in 2013. Besides managing the event on Thursday at La Fenetre Soleil, he also performs solo acoustic at Saigon Outcast, Saigon Ranger, Acoustic Bar and Ruby Soho in District 7.
Tom Sanders, who I met at a reading night at Piu Piu hosted by Saigon Artbook last month, admits he loves performing.
“I think I perform more for myself than for other people. I feel lucky and happy when people come to see me,” he says. “Because I do hip-hop, comedy, poetry, short fiction, live readings, I can be at many different nights across the city and many more people can see me.”
An Unpressured Stage
Sian had three beers before getting on the stage that night. But once she had finished the first song, she wanted to sing a second.
“They’ve created an environment where it’s okay not to be perfect, it’s okay to f*** up,” she says. “No one is paying to see a professional musician — people come because they want to see something authentic and spontaneous happen.”
Unplugged Acoustic Thursdays has two parts including live acoustic solo performances and an open floor for amateurs who want to jam with the main artists.
“It’s a comfortable, relaxed environment for artists to be able to express themselves and grow without too much pressure,” Stewart explains.
Since performing on stage is not so pressured anymore, it becomes an ideal practicing space. And the more you practice, the better you get.
“There are a lot of hidden gems of musicians that I’ve come across. Brittany Petit is just one example,” says Stewart. “She went from this very shy open-mic singer to hosting the Jameson Acoustic Jam at Saigon Outcast.”
A Social Forum
An open-mic is not all about performing on stage. It’s a social space where people can share ideas and styles and think together, Tom says.
“People come because they are searching for the moment that they connect with and to meet other people who feel like them,” he adds.
Y-Kroc, a co-host of the Saigon Outcast open-mic, says people simply come to open-mics at their favourite venues to relax and enjoy.
“Part of the audience are my friends,” he explains, “They come mostly because of me.”
One of the beauties of an open-mic is the uniqueness. You cannot create the same open-mic twice, as every time musicians meet, something — the dynamic, the atmosphere, the instruments they play, the rhythms, where there mind is at — changes, Sian says.
“You can go to the same one every week,” she says. “But you’ll never be at the same event.”