Unlike karaoke sessions in the States, where public humiliation, good-natured ribbing and not taking yourself too seriously are part of the rite of passage, in Vietnam karaoke is a very private, often tragedy-tinged affair — in part because a majority of Vietnamese music is inspired by heartbreak. There are few things more unfulfilling in Vietnam than listening to broken-heart ballads while drinking beer in a dim room and then walking out into the glaring subjection of the mid-day sun. But for some locals, this is one of the pinnacles of good times gone crazy.
The karaoke itself usually takes place with a group of peers in a private room, which is sometimes part of a hotel-like megaplex of karaoke rooms, complete with touchpad controls, plenty of Vietnamese heartbreak, an odd assortment of English songs, reverb-heavy microphones and a terrible sound system that is kept at an ear-bleeding volume. To make things fun, each song is scored, apparently based on how well the singer can nail the lyrics, which gives each participant the chance for bragging rights, provided he or she can score anywhere in the 90s (on a scale of 100). On the particular evening pictured above, I earned a badge of honor among my friends when I scored a perfect 100 on Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry” (the machine clearly giving undue favor to the night’s only native speaker singing the program’s only halfway-decent English-language tune). FYI: Trying to sing along to a Vietnamese song is maddeningly difficult.
Still, I’ve never caught the fever. After a half dozen or so karaoke sessions in various locations (from seedy settings to VIP luxury), I can definitively say that I’ve had my share of karaoke in Vietnam. Too much heartbreak does not a good time make.