When Vietnamese comedian Uy Le came first in the 2018 Ho Chi Minh City heats of the Vietnam Amateur Comedy Competition in early January, there was a sense of jubilation. Uy had performed in the competition for two years running and had finished in the top three each time. This time round marked a watershed. He had come first.
Yet he remains modest.
“Three years ago I started as an outsider, particularly with the language and the cultural nuances,” he says. “I have worked hard to improve what I bring to the stage.”
What makes this special is that here you have a Vietnamese comedian performing stand-up comedy in his non-native language, English.
A Growing Presence
In terms of Vietnamese comics, Uy wasn’t alone. In the Ho Chi Minh City heats, which were organized by Saigon International Comedy, Vu Minh Tu finished an excellent third, while in Hanoi, put on by Stand-Up Hanoi, another seasoned Vietnamese performer, Nguyen Tuan Anh (Alex) came second.
Although none of these comics has made the transition from amateur to professional — the scene in this country is still in its infancy — over time the opportunity is certainly there.
Head to places like Singapore, and comedians such as Jinx Yeo, Rishi Budhrani, Fakkah Fuzz and Sharul Channa have emerged out of the local scene. This is to name but a few. Then there are pro comics like Turner Sparks (US), William Childress (US) and Brian Aylward (CAN) who cut their teeth in the comedy scenes in this region.
Yet in Vietnam, stand-up comedy remains unassuming. Unlike Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, there are no dedicated comedy clubs. Until three years ago, the comedy festivals overlooked Vietnam, and even now the focus of this year’s Magners International Comedy Festival in March and April is Ho Chi Minh City.
The promoters tend to put on shows once a month, and while some big professional names are starting to come through this country — most recently Phil Kay, Jojo Smith, Phil Nicol and Gina Yashere — audiences are still small. The most Saigon International Comedy has ever managed to get through the door is 180. Normally they hope for 80 to 120. Stand-Up Hanoi shoots for similar audience numbers.
Yet the tide is turning for this hemmed-in little haven of organised chaos.
It was around 2011 that comedy in Vietnam started to take its first steps, with amateur comedy emerging in Saigon and two promoters in Hanoi and Saigon bringing in pro comics from overseas.
Since then it’s grown from strength to strength, with international acts allowing amateurs to increase exposure, and new nights at venues around Hanoi and Saigon giving much needed stage time to comedians.
Laughs, Sweat and Tears
It’s Friday, Jan. 12 and 22 amateur comedians are preparing to take to the stage at Standing Bar in Hanoi. The tournament sponsor, Heart of Darkness, has done a tap takeover, with 19 of their finest craft beers flowing through the pumps. What could possibly go wrong?
Grown men and women getting up on stage to talk about fisting, sea horses and religion… that’s what.
“The comedy scene, like most things in Hanoi, is very fluid,” says Nathan Sproule, winner of the Hanoi heats at last year’s Vietnam Amateur Comedy Competition. “It changes all the time, but that’s because people change all the time.”
“Lots of new evenings are being set up by people all over,” he continues, “and more of us are starting to do the open mics at various events around town.
“It’s a very safe audience for comedy. People seem to appreciate it a lot that you have a talent and are generally getting on board with you.”
The Sky is the Limit
Stand-Up Hanoi together with Saigon International Comedy have been booking international acts for a number of years. By allowing amateur comics to perform on the same stage as seasoned pros, this has helped the local scene get recognition, and much needed stage time.
“The scene’s still embryonic, but it’s giving birth around now,” says Dan Dockery, the founder of Stand-Up Hanoi. “We’ve had a phenomenal year. A lot of people regionally were like, ‘How the hell did you do that?’”
The most fundamental reason for the scene growing so quickly is the promoters and comedians that keep putting on more shows, or perhaps it’s down to the audiences who keep showing up, getting drunk, and laughing at dick jokes.
“The fact that there are willing audiences is the most important thing,” says Fred Le, a contender at the Vietnam Amateur Comedy Competition in Hanoi. “So, people doing comedy are encouraged to keep doing it. Without audiences, we wouldn’t do it.”
If the present is anything to go by, then the future of comedy in this country is bright. The talent displayed by the 34 amateur comedians who graced the stage in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City at last month’s competition is evidence enough.
Now the top three comedians from each city have to think about performing in the finals which will be held at Standing Bar in Hanoi on Friday, Mar. 9.
“I’m really excited (and a little bit nervous),” says Uy Le. “I’m expecting a night full of surprises, as I’ve heard that the comedians from Hanoi have very unique styles. It’s also a great chance for me to immerse myself in a new scene. I can’t wait.”
The top three comedians from each city will perform in the finals to be held at Standing Bar in Hanoi on Friday, Mar. 9
Ho Chi Minh City
First place — Uy Le
Second place — Keith Howard
Third place — Vu Minh Tu
First place — Glyn Richards
Second place — Nguyen Tuan Anh (Alex)
Third place — Sara Butryn
For more information on the Vietnam Amateur Comedy Competition, go to the Facebook page of Stand-Up Hanoi or Saigon International Comedy. The tournament is sponsored by Heart of Darkness.
PHOTOS BY MARCUS LACEY AND BAO ZOAN