Festivals are the paradise of those who live for the weekend. I tried reading through a mass of web-search numbers about them — US$4 billion spent on EDM shows worldwide, circa 2012; some HuffPo article saying 78 percent of Millenials would rather spend their money on ‘experiences’ over ‘things’ — then I put the computer away. It was time to head up to Hanoi for Quest.
Nov. 28 — 30
It was a quest getting to Quest. We started out too late, and were enjoying the countryside journey too much to speed through. We finished our beers at a roadside com place as twilight settled, and there were other complicating factors when we hit the slick of highway gravel at 50km/h.
We had planned on sleeping both nights in the lakeside tents Quest had clustered in one of those team-building campgrounds, right outside of Ba Vi National Park. Instead we passed the Friday 10km away, in a small town next to a military hospital. My passenger Duhwee was waiting for the one doctor on shift to suture the gash below his right knee, while I was holding my raw right arm away from my cream-coloured T-shirt, red-coloured antiseptic dripping on the waiting room floor and eventually my hotel sheets.
When we finally rattled in the next morning it was like a DIY dreamland. The grounds were strewn with climbable, tire-constructed geodesic domes; fairy-tale wooden bridges and more solidly built sundecks; three music areas in various stages of improvisation; psychedelic, two-dimensional owls; mountains towering over everything. The theme was ‘Cosmic Animals’ — a perfect match for the experienced festival-goer’s fancy dress wardrobe. People swam and drank, waiting for sunset.
But — before the all-night party, before Alton Miller’s headlining set of Detroit underground house, before the mellow Sunday afternoon scene of hula-hoops, Indian summer and subaudible bass — there was a sublime moment. In the smallest dance area, 1990s-era hip-hop bounced off a phalanx of teepees. People danced in between, trailing feathers and other festival tat. The sun crept towards the tips of the mountains and people walked slowly by the water’s edge, contemplating the moment at hand.
Saigon International Music Week
Nov. 26 — Dec. 4
Getting back to Saigon on Dec. 4, I dropped my bags off at home, and headed down to the last show of Loud Minority’s inaugural Saigon International Music Week — a confluence of the touring schedules of three well-established indie bands, with a Vietnamese showcase thrown in for good measure.
I got to Cargo Bar in time to crush a beer with the long lineup of people smoking outside. Local electronic act Space//Panther warmed up the audience for psychedelic headliners Jagwar Ma — the last of a festival slate that also included The Vaccines and The Lemonheads.
I looked all around this hip indie show for signs of a festival happening. People were dressed cool, the light show was overpowering and stadium-worthy. The buzz was audible.
But the most telling sign I saw was splashed all over the front doors — “SAIGON INTERNATIONAL MUSIC WEEK”. The sponsors right below the bands (sh*t, Word, get on your sponsoring game!). Budweiser’s angular bowtie backdrop complemented the clean lines of Cargo Bar’s latest space arrangement.
It’s a good thing I got in a cheeky 333 before check-in. The menu’s sole beer option reinforced what the lit-up displays and stage bookends claimed — that Budweiser is indeed “Made for Music” (although, super props on the Flor de Caña rum that now graces the menu!).
I remembered the 3am water shortage at Quest (not to mention running out of mulled wine!). Such shortages weren’t a problem here.
A couple years ago, Cargo Bar owner Rod Quinton gave me some insight into his ambitions — which had by then brought Bob Dylan to Vietnam and put on SoundFest Vietnam, the country’s biggest, most Vietnamese festival to this day. Both were very expensive, and Dylan taught Rod that he couldn’t do it alone.
When Coca-Cola and Samsung were brought onto SoundFest, it was to do things that the logistics here don’t otherwise allow. They brought K-pop superstars Big Bang over for a six-song performance — as well as a whole slew of foreign production talent — at a cost of several billion VND. It takes a lot of VND40,000 tickets to recoup that — far more than the 40,000 to 50,000 attendees bought.
And Loud Minority’s Damian Kilroy admitted as much at the end of the show. Before the obligatory thanks to the performers, crowd and staff, Damian said, “Thanks to Budweiser — whether you like their beer or not, they make this possible.”
Anyway, the show was great. At one point, Jagwar Ma’s lead singer said, “It’s amazing to be in here. What a trip. I didn’t think in our wildest dreams that we’d be playing in” — THINKING PAUSE — “Saigon.” Haha, whatever. They didn’t need to say anything. The dubby, tropical bass drops permeated this blissed-out crowd (Come Save Me — wow! This is a song that you need to have your internal organs subwoofed for!).
As a solid section of the crowd migrated to The Observatory’s new location next door to see guitarist Jono Ma’s DJ set, the clock hit midnight and we got a sense the party would never end.
Saigon Comic Con 2014
Just when I thought I had an understanding of the Vietnamese festival, Saigon Comic Con threw me a curveball. ‘Sexy’ Mario and Luigi tend to have that effect on people.
At the Star Movies HD booth, two lanky Vietnamese dudes were dressed in oversized Captain America and Iron Man costumes. They challenged passersby to feats of strength, like arm wrestling and sumo. A schoolgirl wandered by and somehow pulled Captain America out of his circle, winning a bit of branded swag. She was not in costume.
We finally found our way inside. This is where the concourse was, where most of the cosplayers hung out, met fans and posed for pictures.
This was the real heart of the festival, the real soul and gears — the kids who aren’t paid, with nothing to promote except their alter egos. They weren’t trying to build up grassroots support for midnight airings of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they were celebrating their favourite holiday, the one in which they get to dress up in fancy costumes.
It was Lady Thor’s first time in costume. She said, “I see this in the movie, so I decided to be Lady Thor.”
She’s with Deadpool — who’s totally my favourite cosplay character, after I saw 20 Deadpools wreak havoc photo op-wise on the floor of the New York Comic Con. They all had that goofy, ironic streak, those long black ovals around their eyes that made them look like slow lorises. This Deadpool seemed to have a similar sense of humour — and the fact that he couldn’t speak any English but could give the trademark double thumbs-up just endeared me more.
I chatted with Lady Thor a bit, about how much her friend loves Deadpool, how she sewed both of their costumes and about how excited they both were for this first-time-ever western comics dress-up opportunity. Then a gang of rifle-toting badasses demanded her attention. The zombie-war militants posed them for a photo, like real-life action figures — Lady Thor with hammer in mid-swing, Deadpool holding his hands up in deadpan alarm.
And then there were the serious types. The two super babes being posed by a reflector-wielding photographer, leotard on leotard, knife on gun. An arcane demon bride, with an attendant following her, holding up the tail of her wedding dress — another steadying the metal wing apparatus strapped to her back. The pro cosplayers, who pose for pictures all damn day.
Vani was dressed as Orlando Bloom’s character from Lord of the Rings, alongside her similarly dressed Team CAM cosplay group teammate, with whom she’d later do battle onstage (she lost).
“We’re very excited that Ho Chi Minh City has a comic con,” she said. “Some of our members have been waiting a long time for this. You see her” — she pointed to a jubilant, light stick-holding Nightwing — “she’s so excited.”
Ms. Fortune, from the League of Legends online game, hails from Tay Ninh, 90km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. She’d come to the city before for things like this — she and the friend cosplaying next to her are the only Tay Ninh natives who are into this stuff.
At the festival, they found some kindred spirits, not just in a vague sense. They were actually sitting with 10 other League of Legends cosplayers, who all love this stuff as much as they do.
“I think it’s in my blood,” she said.
“What’s Ms. Fortune like?” I asked.
“Shoot everybody,” she said, smiling. “She’s a hunter.”
And what did she think about the festival?
“This festival is a place for everybody to have friends,” she said. “This is the first time that Vietnam has a festival like this.”
Best Festival Surprise
Flor de Caña rum on pour at Cargo Bar — my favourite rum in the world. So what if they didn’t have the seven-year?
Tie — between the professional cosplayers of Team CAM, and my Saigonese friends who came to Quest with me, all dressed in matching wolf T-shirts we had printed at a local shop.
You Will Never Believe...
Actually, you’ll likely believe everything written here, unless you’re one of those distrustful, overly-scrutinising types. But the setting for Quest was pretty unbelievable — deep grooves reverberating off the mountains, skinny-dipping in the sea.