It’s said that Vietnam picked up a taste for slapstick from the French, and a look around the local entertainment reveals a 1950s flavor to the mainstream product — lounge singers wearing suits, variety shows on television, neighborhood productions of traditional songs sung in traditional dress.

Vu Linh, famous cải lương singer, at a phòng trà (“tea room”) in Saigon

This is the type of entertainment practiced in the West before its loss of innocence, before people stopped seeing beauty in the banal — or worse, started to see the clichés of mainstream culture as mindnumbing by design, distracting from what people should really be paying attention to.

Vietnam hasn’t yet lost this belief in its sweet myths and balladry. It’s not so long ago that this belief was real, and essential to the country’s survival.

Without belief, Vietnam could not have prevailed over two world superpowers; without belief, it could not have dealt with the wartime loss of three million of its people (from 1945-75). This belief saw the country through its post-American War poverty and the economic miracle that occurred when the country opened itself to the world in 1986. These are not the songs of the beautiful, of the lucky few. These are songs of people who know and care for their listeners.

A neighborhood propaganda competition themed around “nice behavior in public places”

(Of course, the foregoing does not apply to the nose-jobbed V-poppers popular on the internet. For fans of this type of entertainment, scandal-catching is a sport, and schadenfreude is most definitely in effect.)

Karaoke at a newspaper’s anniversary party

(P.P.S. A lot of Vietnamese people think the classic songs performed at every national occasion are cheesy and unreflective of their lives. This is kind of what happens when 70% of your population is born in peacetime. Also, the wartime government made songs about love illegal for a while, so it’s a bit weird when these outlaw singers are officially celebrated, as has happened.)

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