Ballroom dancing has traditionally been the most popular form of recreational dance in Vietnam, but salsa is shimmying its way into parks, bars and studios in this country’s biggest cities.
Now, if you look in the right places in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, you can find crowded rooms with couples spinning and swaying in tandem, their movements radiating heat and passion for a dance transported from far-away continents.
There is a social salsa evening every day in Saigon, with some venues offering a crash course in the basic steps, so you can fake it until you make it. The salsa community is organised by a host of people connected to the five various salsa studios, and social coordinators through the online presence via the Facebook Salsa Saigon group.
Will Knight, who organises Salsateka UK with his partner Marta Bartosz, says: “In Vietnam there is a strong culture of family importance that translates to the salsa community and people really respect that. There’s friendly competition between us, but ultimately we’re a family and it’s all about supporting each other.”
On Mondays and Thursdays there are salsa and bachata nights at Cuba La Casa Del Mojito (91 Pasteur, Q1), on Tuesdays salsa is at The ZFloor (2 Ho Xuan Huong, Q3), Wednesday salsa is hosted by La Fenetre Soleil (44 Ly Tu Truong, Q1), Thursday night at Hard Rock Cafe (39 Le Duan, Q1), Friday social dancing can be found at Vertical Sky Bar (17 Ton Duc Thang Q1) from 9pm, Saturday is hosted by La Salsa, the oldest salsa club in HCMC, at their studio (212-214 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Q3), and Sunday rounds off the week with Mexican vibes at Khoi Thom (29 Ngo Thoi Nhiem, Q3).
Salsa dancing shares similarities with driving in Saigon; both demand a synchronized chaos from everyone involved, a long-lasting adrenaline rush, and you’ll probably end the night sweatier than you ever imagined possible.
Saigon-style salsa is still in its early stages comparative to other communities across the globe but it is certainly distinctive. As so many different styles are taught such as Cuban, LA, West Coast and New York, the Saigon scene has a healthy mix of combinations and crossovers. The dancers in the room may seem intimidating at first but the community is brimming with passion and enthusiastic to embrace new-comers with open arms — both literally and figuratively.
Many dancers have faced negativity from their friends and family after they have started dancing on the salsa scene. Owner of XSalsa and DJ, Luong Thien Chuong, says: “At first my parents didn’t support me, because I quit my job to start XSalsa back in 2006, but when they see I have full classes they’re impressed, and I’ve met a lot of good people.”
Some of this negativity surrounds the fact that many social nights are hosted in bars and clubs where non-dancers normally go to drink, but that is not quite the case within the salsa dancing scene.
“Most people salsa dancing don’t drink alcohol — not what people assume,” remarks Will Knight. “There’s an assumption that to dance with the passion we have there must be substances involved, but serious salseros only drink water. The bars don’t make much money from us at all.”
Friends and family of the dancers have changed their minds after seeing their dancers in action. Nguyen Trong Khoi of M.A.N. Mambo remembers when he first started dancing.
“I introduced many friends to the salsa scene, at first they didn’t understand it and had negative opinions about dancing, but now some of them have even become regulars,” he says.
Many voices within the social salsa dancing scene have expressed disappointment at the new restrictions on Nguyen Hue pedestrian street in District 1 that will directly impact the community. One dancer commented: “[Nguyen Hue] offered great exposure from the salsa community to people who normally would never see that style of dance before, and it gave us a free place to dance.”
The restrictions come as a response to activity on Nguyen Hue which has become a frequent spot for people to gather, play music, eat food, dance, skate and socialise without the drinking pressures of being at a bar or pub, or pressure to pay for food in a restaurant.
It is a shame that the salseros are losing a free, public venue to showcase their talents, but that won’t stop them from getting together for hours a week to develop their art form.
“The salsa community here reflects what this city has to offer; friendship, liberty, fun and warmth,” says Nicole Nguyen, a salsera from Hanoi who has been dancing for three years. “What sets Saigon style apart is the freedom and passion [from] the people and the vibe in here.”
Hanoi may not be as hot as Saigon, but you wouldn’t know the difference on the dance floor. A different salsa party rages every night in the capital; Tuesdays at S-Fire Studio (19 Nguyen Trai, Thanh Xuan), Thursdays at Spring Salsa (22 Ho Giam, Dong Da), Saturdays at The Artists (20 Hang Tre, Hoan Kiem), and La Bomba Bar for every other day of the week (46 Ngo Huyen, Hoan Kiem). Many salsa devotees know and follow the schedule dutifully.
But the most popular and packed salsa nights are held every Friday evening at Beso Latino, located in the same building as The Artists.
Marika Vilisaar, who goes to salsa parties up to five days per week, is a regular there.
“It’s like Alice in Wonderland,” she says of the atmosphere at Beso Latino. “You go to the elevator and then the elevator door opens and a totally different world opens up. It has a really beautiful vibe, people are dancing amazingly. They just enjoy the moment and that’s what I love about it.”
Encouraged by the large turnout, the studio opened a second salsa party on Saturday afternoons.
Do Sao Mai, the spunky, short-haired owner of Beso Latino, remembers the date well; Sep. 4, 2004. It was perhaps the first time Hanoi held a social salsa event, organised by the vice-ambassador of the Swiss embassy. Sao Mai had never seen anything like it and was mesmerised.
Despite describing herself as uncoordinated, she decided to enter a salsa competition that was being held the following year. She and her partner learnt the moves through YouTube. It was rote memorisation rather than learning the leading and following intricacies of salsa, but it was enough. They won.
After taking professional lessons and earning their stripes, they began giving lessons for VND5,000 per person — “just enough to pay the rent,” Sao Mai says. They aimed to popularise salsa, even if it meant working for next to nothing.
It wasn’t until many years later that she decided to make it a full-time career. Despite facing pressure from her parents, who used to think dancing was a waste of time, and from her then-husband, who persuaded her to stop dancing for two years, she quit her high-up position in a Vietnamese company and founded Beso Latino in 2014. She works alongside her original dance partner and also her new husband, whom she met, naturally, through salsa dancing.
They hold classes every day, and teach about 400 students in the Los Angeles style, which is most popular in Hanoi. Now, many Vietnamese are switching from ballroom dancing to salsa because it’s a more flexible dance that doesn’t require strict memorisation of the moves. It’s also more exciting as a social activity.
“If you dance with the same person over and over again, you get bored,” she says. “But if you dance with a new guy and you follow him, it’s a different chemistry between different people. That’s why salsa is so addictive because it’s a different reaction every dance. No dance is the same.”
This can’t-get-enough attitude has enabled other establishments to attract customers by hosting salsa events. The Artists Jazz Corner is the only place in the city that serves up live Latin music and a dance floor for salsa parties, which have been held regularly for the past two months.
“For our salsa party last week, some friends who are Cuban professional dancers who were in Vietnam for the Latin Professional Dancing Festival came by our pub,” says owner Tran Khue Anh. “When the music started, it blew their minds. They were surprised that Vietnam has a professional Latin band played by Vietnamese.”
However, The Artists is the exception rather than the rule. Sao Mai says Vietnamese tend to prefer dancing in a comfortable atmosphere like a studio, and few bars are willing to host salsa nights because they don’t profit much from serious dancers who only drink water.
Apart from the sensuality and glamour, the endorphin rush is what keeps salsa dancers chasing the next dance floor, next partner and the next beat.