Careless whisper

It was only recently that I heard Viet Nam’s national anthem and it was up until that point that I thought the anthem was probably George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper.’

Viet Nam loves Wham!’s music in a deep and enduring way – ‘Last Christmas’ plays all through November and December, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ is fun to dance to, but Careless Whisper is a perennial favourite. I don’t think a day goes past that I don’t catch the melody floating out of a car window or from a radio in a café. It is played everywhere, all the time.

I know every single lyric and am in the grip of a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with this song. I catch myself humming Careless Whisper in quiet moments; it has become the screensaver of my mind.

I was in a taxi rattling down Ha Ba Trung Street when it came on the radio, the driver joined in and naturally so did I. In those two and a half minutes I was harmonizing with a complete stranger and we were both completely into it. We arrived at my destination and I stayed in the car until we finished the chorus.

That isn’t to say that every Careless Whisper experience has been positive. In Viet Nam, being considered good at Karaoke isn’t so much based on singing ability, as much as sheer volume and enthusiasm… I’ve experienced some Careless Whisper renditions so loud and awful, I was half expecting the sound equipment to develop sentience and fight back against its torturers.

George Michael
“Tonight the music seems so loud…” I know George, it’s giving me a headache too. 

One of the items on my Viet Nam bucket list is to learn the Vietnamese version of Careless Whisper (included for your interest below), sing it at staff karaoke night and redeem myself for my appalling rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody at our work New Year’s Party. It doesn’t look too hard… right?

Careless Whisper

Mọi điều với anh sao quá mơ hồ

Nắm đôi tay bước lên sàn nhảy

Âm nhạc dường như đang tàn phai

Mọi điều trông thấy nơi hàng mi

Lại khiến anh nhớ về màn bạc

Mọi thứ thật buồn khi chia ly

Anh không bao giờ còn nhảy nữa

Nơi gót chân tội lỗi chẳng thể nào

Còn theo kịp vần điệu diết da

Dẫu anh vờ như chưa hề biết

Hẳn em đã không còn ngây ngô

Sẽ tốt hơn khi dối lừa bản thân

Để rồi gắng trở thành bạn em

Không màn đến những điều được trao

Anh sẽ không bao giờ nhảy nữa

Không còn nữa, được nhảy cùng em

Thời gian không thể nào trở lại

Lời vụng về nơi bạn tri âm

Gửi đến con tim và tâm hồn

Hững hờ có khi lại là tốt

Hơn cả sự thật lắm phủ phàng

Sau những điều em từng trông thấy

Mọi điều xen lẫn nỗi đắng cay

Giờ đây, anh sẽ ra sao đây

Khi con tim lấp đầy trống vắng?

Đêm nay tiếng nhạc mãi ngân vang

Hay lòng anh đang phải gào khóc

Anh chỉ muốn thầm nguyện ước sao

Không phải đứng trước đám đông này

Có thể điều đó sẽ tốt hơn

Khi những lời nói vô tình trao

Khiến ta tổn thương đến nhau

Đôi ta lẽ ra sống bên nhau

Những vũ điệu đam mê còn mãi

Nhưng giờ đây, ai nhảy cùng anh?

Xin em, hãy quay bước về bên

Giờ đây hẳn mọi điều đã hết

Chẳng thể nào nữa, phải không em

Như ngày xưa đôi ta có nhau…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Anh đã làm điều gì sai sao?

Khiến em phải bỏ anh cô quạnh…


Why are you laughing?

I get laughed at a lot. Most days actually. And I’m fine with it for a couple of reasons;

1. I was gifted more than my share of self-confidence and I’m quite happy being the centre of attention. Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m somewhere between Muhammad Ali and Kanye West on the Narcissism Continuum, but I’m certainly not crippled by social anxiety.

2. I’m completely aware that I’m very different to everyone around me and that is humorous for some people. If my very presence can bring some amusement into someone’s day, I’m going to count that as a positive. Feast your eyes, friends, and giggle away.

3. I know that I mess things up all the time and the mistakes I make are pretty funny. My attempts at speaking Vietnamese alone are enough to send anyone into a paroxysm of laughter. And the time I slipped on a block of fallen silken tofu and fell into a basket of frogs at my local market would have looked hilarious to anyone watching and everyone was watching. (No frogs were injured and I’m sure they were gently released back into some lovely, clean waterways later that day).

4. I’ve lived in Viet Nam long enough to know that Vietnamese people are generally a jovial bunch and are as quick to laugh at themselves as they are at others. Can’t complain if I’m being treated the same as everyone else.

5. I’ve recently learned that the Vietnamese word for ‘smiling’ can be the same word as for ‘laughing.’ In English being ‘laughed at’ and being ‘smiled at’ convey very different experiences, but maybe if there is less distinction in the Vietnamese language, there is less distinction in the Vietnamese mindset. Being ‘laughed at’ in Vietnamese might be as tender and charming as being ‘smiled at’ in English.

6. I remember that some people are just arseholes that will laugh at you out of unkindness and I try not to let it break my stride. Arseholery is not specific to a nationality and you’ll meet unkind people wherever you go. Enter your favourite self-affirming quotes here.

7. I’m generally laughing at myself too.

Louder and louder

It gets pretty noisy in Sai Gon; it is probably one of the first things you notice about the place. This isn’t unexpected considering there are about 8 million people living here. Everyone seems to be pretty good about tolerating other people’s noise, probably because they themselves are making as big a racket. It is just accepted that some joyful noise is necessary for marking births, weddings, and other wonderful occasions. Opening a new shop usually warrants a celebration, as does observing various national holidays. And noise is also needed to observe times of sadness– funerals, war anniversaries and remembrance days. These are just the basic reverberations of life in a city.

Dragon dancers, drums and a loud speaker are required for cafe openings.
Dragon dancers, drums and a loud speaker are required for cafe openings.

It is also quite acceptable for animals to chime in too; anyone who tells you that Roosters only crow at dawn is telling you a bare-faced lie. They screech whenever it gets too quiet for their liking, as do cats and dogs. After a while, you learn these different noises and they become part of the background murmur and growl of the city.

But there a growing backlash against the really unnecessary noise. Many stores are equipped with big internal and external speakers playing assorted, deafening music of dubious charm to attract customers. Cars and public buses use loud air horns, repeater horns and the audible turn indicators. Some motorcyclists seem to ride with their thumb constantly pressing on the horn.

Demolition and construction sites tend to operate at all hours of the day and night (particularly at night). Trucks and jackhammering will go on into the early hours of the morning, stop for a few hours and start again at dawn – for weeks on end.

I work in the very centre of Sai Gon and there is an entertainment space across the road from my office. There are events held there during the week; usually they are promotional events or the launch of a new product and sometimes it is a sporting match. They also hold music concerts from Friday to Sunday. They start the sound system tests just after lunch on Fridays and we settle in for three hours of the Vietnamese equivalent of “Test, Test, one two…”

Notice that everyone stops for a look - traffic flow be damned!
View from my workplace’s driveway. Notice that everyone stops for a look – traffic flow be damned!

Fines for noise pollution are very low and rarely enforced – I don’t think they do much to deter people.

Then there is the music. I recently attended a wedding and the entertainment was a singer whose sound system was ‘up to eleven.’*The music was so loud it was painful; I had to scream at the person next to me to pass the water. This wasn’t the first time I’d been stunned by the volume that music is played at, but this time I decided to get some answers.

I’ve asked a couple of people around the table why the music is so loud. They shrug.

I ask if they even like the music that loud. More shrugging and one person’s “Oh God, no. It is far too loud!”

Then I ask, why don’t we turn it down? Well we can’t lower the volume; my cousin’s wedding was last week and how would it look if we didn’t use at least the same volume?

I shrug.

I think perhaps the general noise pollution stems from people turning their music up so you could hear it over the motorbikes, the roosters, the construction sites, the shop openings, the market stalls and a sinister sound arms race began. Then a societal expectation formed that music should be played at decibels similar to a Led Zeppelin concert and here we are.

Everyone is vying to be heard and we are drowning in noise.

Viet Nam, let’s stop this madness and reset our concept of how loud is too loud. Let’s rediscover quiet times and relax for a moment; I think we could all use a bit of hush from time to time.

*A pretty solid ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ reference. If you don’t recognise it then you’ve never seen the movie or you have and you’ve forgotten it. In either case, I recommend watching it immediately.