On Tuesday we were invited at the last minute to a party being held by the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) for graduates of an educational program for directors of small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs). It started out innocent enough, at the banquet hall of a very popular restaurant here called Gia Vien. It’s the third time we’ve been there, even though it’s earned the nickname “The Rat Restaurant”, since the trees and garden area in the outdoor seating area is literally crawling with rats. It’s kind of crazy and pretty unnerving, but once you get past it, it’s not such a big deal. But the small trees actually shake with the movement of all the rats running around in them. I feel better if I think of them as little squirrels.
Anyway, the dinner was MC’d, as are all major events here, like weddings, big parties, etc., by a professional MC/announcer. Think of the host of an infomercial; that level of enthusiasm and same lack of profundity. He got up and said a few introductory words (I presume; I don’t understand Vietnamese) and a group of women dressed in traditional clothing and a couple of men got up and sang what sounded like a traditional song. Again, it could have been the national anthem, for all we knew, but I guess it didn’t matter. This was followed by individual songs on the part of some of the members of the singing group, and they started serving food.
And then the wine bottles rolled out, and holy s*. Apparently getting loaded is not only acceptable at these kinds of things, it’s quite aggressively encouraged. A director came by our table and proposed a toast, and we all stood up and toasted with him. Then another one did the same a few minutes later, without any concern for the fact that we had to immediately stop eating, take our napkins off our laps and put them on the table, and stand up to toast. At this point I thought to myself, “They aren’t really going to all come up to the table and toast, cause, like, that would be crazy …”
Well they’re crazy. Between 20-50 different people came up and toasted our table, some more than once, and one guy at least 3 times. The table behind us (“the party table”) sounded like a frat party, with people yelling the Vietnamese equivalent of “One, two, three … drink!” and downing glasses of wine as quickly as possible.
After all the power drinking, the somewhat-accompanied-by-a-live-keyboard karaoke started up. Select graduates of the program, all voluntarily and all announced by the MC beforehand, got up and sang their favorite songs with the most sincere looks on their faces you can imagine. Like if they were saying goodbye forever to their parents, wives, children, whatever. I’ve never seen anything like that before.
Just when things seemed to be on the verge of getting really out of control, the party abruptly stopped. This was around 9:30PM. Our VCCI liaison (I don’t know what else to call him) ushered us out and into an SUV driven by some guy we’d never met before. “Mr. X will drive you home,” was what we thought we heard, but after we passed the turn to go to the hotel, it was clear that the night was not over. We ended up being dropped off at the entrance of a building that said karaoke in neon lights on the left, and some kind of dance club in bigger neon lights on the right. Nobody knew why we were there, but some invisible hand guided us in the direction of the karaoke place. Once inside, one of our translators led us to a room as if it were all planned out, and mumbled something about the VCCI guy joining us later, which at that point was irrelevant.
I have a secret to tell you, which is a secret in the sense that I’ve told everybody I know about it but still nobody knows or cares or both: I am awesome at karaoke. It’s one of the reasons I’m considering staying here. Also the women are beautiful, but I’m getting off track.
This was the second time in a week we’d been to a karaoke place – we were at one last Friday and it was great, except for the fact that there were limited songs available to sing in English. This of course led to us English-speakers singing Vietnamese songs by reading the lyrics on the screen, which results in butchering much-loved local songs with no vocal resemblance to either the nuance of the language or the key, melody, rhythm, or whatever of the song itself.
Anyway, we found ourselves unexpectedly in a karaoke bar on the local government’s tab, with a book full of English songs (harder to come by than you think) and our own DJ. So what else to do but make it a Toto night! And that’s what we did. The Beatles, Doors, and Marvin Gaye seem to be popular with the international crowd, but you don’t see much in the way of Bon Jovi as you do in the States. Maybe it’s just ‘cause Jersey is across the river from where I live.
The VCCI did show up as I was in the middle of “Hold the Line” at full volume. It felt a little awkward and mildly unprofessional, but hey, it was his idea. After a while (and some more drinks) people loosened up more, including our host, who started dancing with everyone else when the couches were cleared once “Billy Jean” came on. I eventually got pulled, physically, by one of the non-English-speaking directors from the party into a much larger room, where one guy, surrounded by three women from the party, was singing some Vietnamese dance song at the top of his lungs.
When you do karaoke regularly, you get pretty good at it (notwithstanding natural talent like my own) and most of the folks here have naturally good singing voices or have just developed them after weekend upon weekend of karaoke.
At about 11:30 we were told it was time to pack up, which of course was disappointing because we were by then used to the idea that we were going to stay out and party, even though it was a school night.
I’d just like to point out that my job sent me here. Yeah – I don’t believe it either.