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A Brief Primer Into the History of K-Pop Chế in Vietnam

My middle school memories are often peppered with the honking voices of adolescents chanting some silly chorus about household cleaning.

“Mày rửa chén, tao lau nhà” and the generation raised on Vietsubbed K-pop

In 2011, South Korean girl group 2NE1 made a comeback with their second studio album, pioneered by the title track “I Am The Best.” The song quickly became a hit in their homeland due to its message of self-affirmation. Young Vietnamese, caught in the middle of the K-pop craze sweeping across the region at the time, also embraced the song, but for different reasons.

The edgy style of the four girls and the catchy electro-pop melody filled a void that Vietnamese pop music, which was still struggling to find its identity at the time, lacked. Meeting the demand for groundbreaking pop, the song became omnipresent, blasting from every corner, from Nhaccuatui (a streaming platform) to my middle school's loudspeakers that previously only played patriotic songs.

During every break, my entire grade would enthusiastically dance when ‘I Am the Best’ came on. Many wanted to sing along but were held back by the fact that fewer than 1% of the students could pronounce the Korean lyrics correctly. Somehow, the chorus, “Nega jeil jal naga” morphed into “Mày rửa chén, tao lau nhà” which translates to “You wash the dishes, I'll sweep the house,” a quirky phrase that the kids cheerfully repeated. This was the tune that would become part of my high school years' soundtrack.

Much later, 2NE1 disbanded, and the members pursued solo careers. However, the iconic tracks and their unofficial versions continue to resonate among young people.

“On this occasion of New Year's Eve, we would like to welcome our domestic cleaning queen.”

Whether it is played at comedy shows or weddings, ‘I Am The Best’ is still considered the anthem of washing dishes and sweeping houses. Years later, when group leader CL returned to Vietnam to perform at a New Year's Eve concert, people excitedly whispered, “Ready to ‘wash dishes and sweep houses’ with our queen?’

In addition to ‘I Am the Best,’ many other K-pop songs of that era gained new identities upon arriving in Vietnam. With the creative touch of remix enthusiasts, tracks were subtitled and carefully dubbed with nonsensical lyrics that bore little relation to the original content but somehow fit the music remarkably well.

There was a time when people asked each other, “Ăn sáng chưa?” (Have you had breakfast yet?) to the tune of ‘A Boy’ by G-Dragon. They would “đưa nhau đi chơi xa, trên con xe tay ga” (go on trips, ride motorbikes) alongside Big Bang's ‘Fantastic Baby.’ And when Taeyang's ‘Ringa Linga’ chorus played, everyone would join in chanting, “Lên là lên, lên là lên!” (Up and up, up and up!).

“Lên Là Lên/Ringa Linga” — The ultimate club music for middle schoolers.

When reflecting on my “K-pop alternative” phase, I wonder what made these “K-pop chế” (K-pop parody songs) so popular. Young Vietnamese were eagerly consuming cultural products from Japan, Europe, and the US at the time, yet there were no Backstreet Boys or Westlife parodies. So how did we get here?

Tracing the history of Vietnamese-language adaptations

Throughout Vietnam's history, localizing foreign content has been a long-standing tradition essential for preserving knowledge through various times of turmoil. For instance, during colonial rule and periods of varying Chinese influence, language shifted and adapted. Via translations into Nôm script and Quốc Ngữ script, meanings were altered and lost, intentionally or not. From Truyền Kỳ Mạn Lục to The Tale of Kiều, imported works were transformed with names, settings, and events made to feel more “Vietnamese.” This localization made foreign elements more relatable to local audiences.

Having had significant exposure to foreign cultures, people in southern Vietnam before 1975 appreciated foreign songs with localized lyrics.

Such adaptations extended beyond literature, finding their way into theater and music. During colonial rule, new, powerful Western melodies became tools for stirring patriotism and anti-colonial sentiment.

Revolutionaries wrote Vietnamese lyrics to the tune of foreign songs to express their desire for independence. A notable example is ‘La Marseillaise,’ the French national anthem, which has spawn up to seven different Vietnamese versions with lyrics like “Hey, comrades! Forward to liberation day!” and “Citizens, rise up and answer the nation's call!”

Lam Trường was the face of translated Chinese-language pop.

The adapting of foreign material continued in the following decades as Vietnam encountered other cultures. In the south, Phạm Duy created Vietnamese versions of western songs like ‘You're the Most Beautiful Tonight’ and ‘When We Were Young.’ In the north, Soviet songs such as ‘A Million Roses’ and ‘Katyusha’ were also translated. By the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese pop adapted into Vietnamese had become hugely popular, producing timeless hits that defined the careers of artists like Lam Trường and Đan Trường.

However, during the 2000s, translated music lost its appeal for various reasons. Young people began listening to English songs in their original form, while Chinese pop music failed to keep up with new genres like hip-hop and EDM. Moreover, Vietnam joined the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which further complicated the translation and distribution of foreign songs.

Riding the Hallyu wave

As the era of translated music faded, Vietnamese audiences began to embrace a fresh breeze of culture — the Korean Wave, or Hallyu. Originating from the South Korean government's initiative to promote cultural industries globally, Hallyu aimed to enhance the nation's image by exporting its cultural assets.

As South Korea's comprehensive diplomatic partner, Vietnam quickly integrated Hallyu into daily life. Vietnam became the first Southeast Asian country to broadcast South Korean dramas on a national TV station. Korean fashion, hairstyles, and cosmetics became increasingly popular among urban youth. People in big cities started preferring “made in Korea” consumer products over those from Japan or America.

In the early Hallyu days, idol obsession became such a prominent issue that the Ministry of Education included “idol culture” in a national graduation exam.

However, when discussing Hallyu in Vietnam during the 2000s and 2010s, colloquially referred to as Gen 2, the most notable impact came from the music industry and the idol culture that accompanied it.

Unlike C-pop, South Korean music at the time was diverse in genres and appealed to a wide range of tastes. But unlike western music, the progressiveness of the Korean music industry was delivered through themes and expressions more relatable to Asians. It contained a measured openness, as seen in hip-hop music videos that embraced melodramatic cancer storylines typical of Korean dramas, catering to the tastes of a nation still learning the ropes of international integration.

A staple of school performances back then was not-so-polished K-pop cover dances.

Gen 2 is also considered the golden era of K-pop, as it gave rise to many groups now regarded as legends: TVXQ, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, Wonder Girls, Big Bang, etc. With generous production budgets and exceptional stage performance skills, the idol wave quickly captured the hearts of young Vietnamese. Issues of teen magazines like Hoa Học Trò and Mực Tím that featured K-pop artist posters were hot commodities. The catchy beats and choreography of popular K-pop songs, performed off-rhythm but enthusiastically by students, became fixtures in school assemblies and youth group meetings. Naturally, the torch of translated music was passed to Korean songs when local artists released Vietnamese versions of trending K-pop hits despite legal ambiguities.

Mom: “We have Lee Hyori at home.” The Lee Hyori we have at home:  

Vietnam's K-pop chế universe

With limited resources to access idols' official products like concert tickets, fan meetings, or even CDs, Vietnamese fans supported their idols through the internet, joining fan forums like 360KPOP and tirelessly streaming music videos.

In the early days, companies didn't provide subtitles. But fans who wanted to connect with idols had to feel both the visuals and the lyrics. Since Vietnamese cover versions weren't ideal, “Vietsub” music videos became popular. Fans fluent in Korean would translate lyrics, add Vietnamese subtitles, and re-upload them.

Big Bang's ‘Haru Haru’ music video is hip-hop inspired but still incorporates a dramatic cancer storyline typical of Korean dramas.

During this period, Vietnamese-subtitled K-pop music videos flooded the internet. Statistics show that 60% of the videos tagged with “Vietsub” were Korean-related. With K-pop closely tied to fandoms, fans did not merely want to consume the music but also interact with their idols and other enthusiasts.

Because fan meetings and official concerts were rarely held in Vietnam, translating and subtitling music videos and sharing them became a way for fans to recruit new members and lay the groundwork for their communities. From active fans promoting their idols to the innate trendy nature of the Hallyu wave, the hottest K-pop music videos at the time began to spread beyond the fandom. They were broadcast on mainstream TV channels and consistently appeared at the top of YouTube's recommendation lists, sparking curiosity and interest from casual viewers who weren't deeply invested in the artists' details and simply wanted to enjoy the music.

However, back then, Korean wasn't as widely spoken as English, and even the Romanized Korean syllables were challenging for people to sing along with. Thus, K-pop parody videos emerged to meet public demand, adjusting lyrics to be memorable and easy to sing. The original messages vanished, replaced by creative rewrites from fans and creators.

‘Oh! Chế,’ or ‘Oh! Parody,’ is considered the cornerstone of K-pop parody music.

In the early days, well-known K-pop parody songs often carried a negative connotation because they originated from anti-fan groups who sought to “throw shade” at specific artists. An example is ‘Oh!’ by Girls' Generation, or SNSD. Upon debut, the nine-member group quickly became a national phenomenon in Korea due to their fresh image and music.

In Vietnam, SNSD fans (including the author of this article!) were mostly marginalized because the group was constantly boycotted for ridiculous reasons, like being disrespectful to seniors, having plastic surgery, or interacting with male idols — rumors that were later proven unfounded. “Oh! Chế” transformed what was originally a lighthearted love song into one that attacked the female singers' looks and personalities:

Bụng em giờ rất thon / My waist is now so slim
Trông người em thật mí nhon / My body looks so petite
Hút bao nhiêu mỡ mà cũng phát biểu / But that's liposuction
Quá đáng anh thật là / You're such a jerk
Cứ phụ lòng của người ta / Messing with my heart
Mất bao nhiêu công em đi tu sửa lại đồ đấy. / You know I went under the knife to fix myself.

After ‘Oh! Chế,’ SNSD's sizable anti-fan contingent released more parody classics such as ‘Run Devil Run.’ Paradoxically, many people grew more interested in the group due to these parody songs, and even became K-pop fans because of the songs' sharp-tongued and sarcastic lyrics.

“Raise your hand if the Oh parody introduced you to K-pop.”

“I was even happily singing along because I thought it was a fan-made cover.”

The negativity of early K-pop parodies likely stemmed from young people's limited awareness of the internet, which was just beginning to be common in Vietnam in the 2000s and 2010s. At the same time, fandom culture strongly promoted parasocial relationships. Loyal fans felt they needed to protect their idols' reputations and achievements against any competition, even if that meant personally attacking other idols.

Fortunately, as young people learned to use the internet more responsibly, their perspective on female artists also softened as Gen 2 idols gradually established their careers. K-pop parody culture within the community evolved, shifting from mockery to humor. By incorporating relatable details like trà đá, bún chả, and motorbikes, idols became characters who felt closer to Vietnamese people. The parody lyrics were carefully crafted for rhythm and catchiness, making them singable like genuine songs. Thus, timeless choruses such as “Mày rửa chén, tao lau nhà” or “Lên là lên” became woven into the daily lives of millenials and Gen Z's.

With K-pop parodies, language differences were no longer a barrier. Instead, they distilled the work into its fundamental elements: fun moves and catchy sounds. Everyone could enjoy the music videos' entertainment value without needing to understand the lyrics. This created a blank canvas for anyone with a computer to unleash their creativity and convey personal messages and emotions, for better or worse.

Not just Vietsub, it's Nghệ-An-sub.

In recent years, with a booming economy, Vietnam has become a market of interest for the K-pop industry. Fan events like concerts and meet-and-greets are now organized in Vietnam, and some music videos even come with Vietnamese subtitles. Translation and parody lyrics have thus become less essential for fans to feel connected with the artists. The golden age of K-pop parody has become a nostalgic memory for Gen 2 fans. Even so, the legacy of K-pop parody music continues to inspire and be carried forward by a handful of current creators.

“I started listening to K-pop in 2012. The first K-pop songs I heard were ‘Oh Chế,’ ‘Haru Haru Chế,’ and ‘Em Yêu Ảo Lòi.’ These songs had a massive impact on me,” Bạch Ân Khoa, a longtime K-pop fan and remix master, told me. Bạch Ân Khoa is known for viral parody tracks like ‘Love Dive Tình Ái,’ a “collab” between IVE and Đàm Vĩnh Hưng. Khoa's other remixes also always include a random Vietnamese twist. With the support of AI tools, idols can sing duets with Bé Xuân Mai or even perform in a Nghệ An accent.

“The ideas just come naturally and serve no other purpose than to satisfy my passion, bring laughter, and spread my idol's songs to more people,” Khoa shared. “The Nghệ An series started with a friend, a NewJeans fan, who posted a video showcasing a Central Vietnamese accent. I thought, ‘What if K-pop idols sang in the Nghệ An dialect?’ It's also my way of promoting the region's special dialect to friends across the country.”

What goes around comes back around?

For the longest time, K-pop parodies reflected the influence of Korean culture on Vietnamese youth. Yet today, they're a demonstration of the creativity that young Vietnamese use to share their unique identity with the world.

The girls of IVE used Bạch Ân Khoa's parody song to thank their Vietnamese fans in a message in Vietnamese: “DIVE ơi, chúng ta kết lâu đài!” (“Hey DIVE, let's build a castle!”)

Imagine having your favorite artists quote you.

When BlackPink held the first Vietnam concert in Hanoi, the audience sang along enthusiastically to the chorus of ‘Flower’ in its Vietsub version called ‘Lửa Hận Thù.’ The performance by 60,000 Vietnamese fans left the artists astonished, and the international community praised Vietnam as probably the coolest fandom during BlackPink's tour. Recently, with the global rise of Hoàng Thùy Linh's ‘See Tình,’ Korean-subtitled versions have also started appearing all over South Korean social media.

The ‘Lửa Hận Thù’ performance that crowns Vietnam's fans as the coolest in the world.

As evidenced by Vietnam's history, no matter the era, fostering cultural exchange and integration is crucial when a nation opens its borders. Embracing and influencing each other's cultures between nations not only strengthens diplomatic relations but also enriches the cultural life of each country's citizens. After more than three decades of friendship and a decade filled with fond memories of Vietnamese K-pop parody music, could there be an opportunity for a “V-pop parody wave” to emerge in South Korea? I'm eagerly awaiting the answer.

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