Any non-Vietnamese who has been to a cineplex in Hà Nội can warn you about your ability to actually hear the movie. We’ve been to the modern theaters that are becoming commonplace, and it’s a fairly challenging, if understandable, experience. Of course, that wasn’t my first reaction, which was one of astonishment, then annoyance.
First of all, American movies in Vietnam are equipped with Vietnamese subtitles. Vietnamese attending the movie have no interest in hearing the dialogue due to this added convenience; they can read what’s happening while texting or chatting with their friends on their cell phones. In fact, they can tell their friends all about the movie while they’re experiencing it, and do. It makes no difference that there is a fairly prominent movie admonishment about this before the actual movie starts, and glaring at them doesn’t have any affect either. Most of the American movies that show up there are action thrillers or Disney. There is no in-between.
The other puzzling habit, since many of these are hardly PG-13 films, is that Vietnamese love to bring their very young children to the movie! People are being decapitated and blown up, and little children are there to see it. And it could be a late show, it doesn’t matter: they are there as a family with the very youngest included in the proceedings. And of course everything that accompanies 2-year-old behavior (frequent bathroom breaks, talking, crying, kicking the seat in front of them) comes along for the ride.
We found out why this happens early in our visits: the concept of a babysitter, other than a woman in the family, doesn’t really exist. People will use family members to watch children, but that’s becoming more difficult as Vietnamese families begin to move apart in the current economic boom. Having a babysitter come to your home is, well, unheard of. First of all, it’s your home, and now you’ve invited a stranger into it. Second of all, what if they steal from you? What if they find out something about you they can share with the neighborhood? Or what if they come back later when you’re not there and do some mischief? The idea is rejected out of hand.
This notion of spying on each other is entirely common in Vietnam, due in part to the density of the population: you can’t really avoid seeing and knowing things about people who are that close to you physically. But it also goes back to the village culture where everyone gets into everyone else’s business as a matter of course, boredom, nosiness, and one-upmanship. So to just encourage that by bringing a stranger (e.g. a babysitter) into the mix seems absurd. Therefore, anywhere the parents go, unless a relative is willing to watch over them, the children are there too.
As a classical musician, I try to go to as many concerts as I can in Hà Nội, and there are many to choose from, many more than just a decade ago. Prices are usually very reasonable ($5-8) and the halls are generally quite good, thanks in part to building that the French did (see below for one example). Classical concerts of Western music (e.g. string quartets, solo performances, orchestral music) are becoming a burgeoning part of the culture, which is wonderful, as Vietnamese clearly love music of all kinds. And concert etiquette is slowly growing as well. However, I’ve also witnessed some pretty atrocious (by my high Western standards) behavior, and some of that again involves bringing tiny children, for the reasons explained above, to long and not very child-friendly concerts. And since parents have no experience to draw from, frequently children are darting around and talking or crying during the performance.
But that’s nothing, because often the adults are too! It’s not uncommon to see people in the front of the concert hall using entry and exit doors throughout the performance without a second thought or apologetic look. Or, the flower people will enthusiastically arrange the flowers, meant for the end of the concert, in the front row while the performance is happening, rustling paper and talking to one another. Or people will go right up onstage to get that perfect cell phone photo (or video!). Or someone has a very audible conversation with their friend. You get the picture.
But Vietnamese musicians and performers understand what they need to do to correct this situation, and educate their audience, and the behavior is changing. It’s truly exciting to see the throngs of Vietnamese at concerts, and an educational challenge to try not to judge their understandably unknowledgeable ways in the concert hall.