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How Vietnamese Stand-up Comics Juggle Culture, Identity and Language on Stage

As a fan of stand-up comedy, I was curious when I found out that there was a burgeoning scene here in Saigon.

I had already been living in the city for a few months after having previously spent time in Hue and a year in the Mekong Delta city of My Tho. I was curious to see what angles and takes on life comics in the southern metropolis would have. To me, stand-up comedians have always been some of the smartest, most well-attuned people, giving us original reflections on society and helping us to swallow the most unpalatable of truths through the gift of laughter.

Upon arriving in Saigon, it was hard not to notice the cultural divide that sometimes exists between expats and locals. I was braced to enter the stand-up comedy community and find another insular expat scene with comics making cheap gags about local customs and culture  – I could almost hear Jerry Seinfeld’s voice in my head, “WHAT is the DEAL with TRAFFIC here? I mean, WHO eats NOODLES for BREAKFAST? WHO are these PEOPLE?”

Phuc, a 19-year-old law student, does stand-up as a reprieve from university life. Photo courtesy of Phuc.

Although I was a bit reticent at first, I had to find out what the scene was like for myself, and was pleased to discover a thriving community where both local and foreign comics from around the world are welcomed. The idea that stand-up comedy is not a tradition and is a relatively new phenomenon in Vietnam drew my attention to the local comics that make up the homegrown portion of the community. I wanted to find out more about them, what drives them and how their Vietnamese identities informed their comedy.

Phuc, who wishes only to go by his first name, is the youngest of the comics, and a bit of an anomaly. He’s a 19-year-old law student who has grown up in the city and works “blue,” meaning he covers adult subjects, which is a bit surprising for this self-proclaimed virgin.

He recently won third place in the Comedy Saigon Competition and has the accent of a native English speaker, a Boston accent like that of Bill Burr, one of his main comedic influences.

“There’s nothing in university that clicks with me,” he shares with Saigoneer. “I don’t like the people in there. I don’t like what I learn there. People in law school think I'm weird, and I do agree with them. I'm very eccentric basically. I just do my own thing. I read articles and come up with jokes. I walk around the house doing my bits. It’s crazy. I just talk to myself. I have interests and hobbies that nobody else likes.”

When asked if comedy is a form of relief from tedium and the restraints of society, Phuc says, “Kind of! Although I also use comedy as a really good network, I’ve made very little money out of it. I don’t do it for monetary reasons. It’s an escape.”

I was reminded of something Bill Hicks, the iconic American dark comic who died in 1994, famously said about the cathartic nature of comedy: “It’s supposed to be a fucking catharsis, man. It’s supposed to be a release from the fucking daily grind. I wish it worked for me!”

Tu, a Hanoian who uses comedy as an outlet for the negativity in her life. Photo courtesy of Tu.

Tu, a young woman from Hanoi who also competed in the Comedy Saigon Competition and shared first place, finds that this practice of purging negativity through stage performance is beneficial.

“I think it’s working!” she claims. “I have a healthy outlet to vent about what I’m thinking, or what I’m unhappy about, so I would say it’s working!”

Comedy and Family

A common thread among these comedians is that many seem to perform under the radar from their families. Uy Le, another local comic who shared first place with Tu at the aforementioned competition, says his family doesn’t know what is in his act.

“They don’t understand English,” he explains. “They’ve told me that they want to come, but I don’t really want them to, even if they understood what I was saying.”

Tu shared similar sentiments. “My father doesn’t know what I do. I sort of want to tell him. He doesn’t understand what this is. If I say that I dance or sing, it’s easy to understand. In Vietnam this kind of thing doesn’t really exist,” she says.  

Meanwhile, Phuc's family is a little less supportive: “My mom doesn’t think I'm funny. My mom doesn't know any English. My dad knows a little bit.” Since his jokes lean towards the raunchy side, it should come as no surprise that he doesn’t tell his parents the same jokes he uses on stage.

In a way, participating both in the world of stand-up comedy and traditional Vietnamese culture seems to be a sort of balancing act that forces these comics to straddle multiple worlds and identities.

Comedy and the Vietnamese Language

The consensus among these three performers is that culturally, Vietnamese humor presented as entertainment differs from such humor in the west. Phuc elaborates: “In Vietnam, swearing and [talking] about sex is very taboo, and the language is designed in such a way that if you talk about it, it’s very awkward. When you swear it’s different. When you talk about sex, it’s very weird.”

Uy, for his part, has found that performing in his native tongue is a challenge. “I tried doing stand-up comedy in Vietnamese, but I see myself censoring myself and telling jokes in a way that is less impactful because I feel like that’s more appropriate,” he says.

After a few attempts at doing jokes in Vietnamese, Uy has decided to stick to English for now.

Of the Vietnamese sense of humor and the language, Uy explains: “The language is a bit indirect. Every joke that I have done in English, when I try to translate it in Vietnamese it sounds very crude. Also, the darkness, a lot of people don’t get. It’s kind of strange, the concept of going to a show and watching someone perform stand-up because [the audience] takes every word seriously.”

Comedy and Identity

Cher, a Viet Kieu comic from California, offers another perspective. She is a mainstay of the stand-up comedy scene in Saigon, exploring the Vietnamese identity onstage through her character Xam Khang Da Ho, a fictional Vietnamese local.

Cher is currently performing in Northern California, but she shared her thoughts on the local scene. “It's a budding field [in] which we find ourselves with a distinct voice and point of view and narrative that is built in the context of how the country is developing, and the traditional historical views that have been relayed to us as Vietnamese, whether we are a part of a diaspora or we are native,” she explains.

The comic added that she feels a strong responsibility towards identity, while her on-stage persona helps her to explain this for audiences.

“In Vietnam these experiences aren't heard very much, so my aspirations are not only that they are affirmed to foreigners so that they can understand a point of view that they may not have already seen, but so that they can connect in the ways that I'm able to with the local population,” Cher says. “I really feel [a] connectedness with many aspects of people who have not grown up alongside as Vietnamese, and it’s that love that is blood deep.”

Cher, a Viet Kieu from California, thinks that Vietnam's stand-up comedy scene has so much potential to grow. Photo courtesy of Cher.

Although there’s a growing scene in Saigon and a strong contingent of Vietnamese comedians, most of the comics who spoke to Saigoneer said that they want to see more opportunities to perform, as well as more local representation on stage. Tu, the Hanoian, said: “I’d like to see more open mics, more opportunities to increase the number of our audience.”

Cher added: “Not to toot our own horn as an ethnicity or culture, but Vietnamese are some of the most funny fucking people I've ever met, and they're not on stage! My hope is that whatever challenges they face that I understand and identify with, whether it's poverty, education, or generational values and cultural pressure, that they have the courage with seeing these open mics, and saying I can do better than that idiot up there!”

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