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  • From Tinseltown to Bollywood.

    Going to the movies is a popular pastime among the Saigonese. The local love affair with the silver screen has resulted in major cinema chains building modern multiplexes, much like the ones you would see in the West. Fortunately for cinephiles, ticket prices are reasonable and the facilities are generally top-notch. There are, however, a few telling differences when it comes to comparing Vietnamese and Western theatres that expats should be aware of, and we’re not only talking about sweet popcorn. International Korean cinema brands such as Lotte and CGV are well-established here Major cinema chains in HCMC all have modern, air-conditioned theatres with comfortable seats. The theatres screen 2D movies as well as 3D features, but there is currently no IMAX theatre anywhere in the city. The screen size varies from one location to the other, but in general they are smaller than those found in Western theatres. All of the theatres are equipped with surround sound, with most equipped to handle the modern Dolby Surround 7.1 cinema audio format. The somewhat smaller screen size is usually not a problem since the theatres are designed differently in Vietnam. Unlike the vast theatres that are common overseas, the ones here are fairly narrow and even those sitting at the very edge will have a comfortable viewing experience. Unfortunately, some local theatres tend to be disproportionately long, so sitting in one of the last rows is tantamount to watching the movie on a large TV screen in terms of the relative screen size to viewing distance. As in the West, going to the movies is a popular choice for a date, so the local cinemas offer couples seats alongside the regular single ones. Families with children will also appreciate child seating: all movie theatres have booster pillows for the young ones,

  • La rumba me está llamando...

    A hybrid of Spanish and African influences out of Cuba that has had an immeasurable influence on modern world dance culture, the rumba was already highly developed and wildly popular in Vietnam by the 1960s. It was considered a style suited to both young and old, whether in the salons or as a competitive sport, and many of the discotheques over the decades have not only played rumba but also considered it to be their signature style along with the cha cha, tango, Boston, and bebop. The development and dissemination of rumba is evidenced by the many Rumba songs that have been composed in Vietnam. Here , the rumba, bolero and the ballad are common musical styles for classical and country songs, mostly representing the 1960s and 70s era. Feeling the rhythm To this day, rumba still enjoys a small but loyal group of fans in cities like Hanoi and HCMC – however, in recent years, the people of Saigon have started to pay more attention to other modern exciting dances such as zumba, belly dancing, pole dancing, and so on. Rumba, seen by many as somewhat old and outdated, has gradually lost some of its former popularity, and now there are fewer and fewer clubs and schools specialising in this style. With HCMC changing on a daily basis, there’s little room left for nostalgia with all the modern fascination with novelty – and with the dancing schools making such exorbitant profits from more popular styles. The advent of the internet has enabled the groups that do still exist to connect and communicate relatively easily. Nowadays, there are several online rumba communities where self-taught fans of the dance connect and organise regular offline meetings. Rumba lovers in Saigon still have many chances to enjoy romantic rumba tunes at such places

  • The world’s most notorious risqué dance is apparently all about empowerment.

    At some point in the last decade or so, a highly suggestive form of dance escaped the domain of the strip clubs and entered popular culture. Incredibly, grinding one’s hips against an enormous rod is no longer considered an unsubtle display of eroticism, and indeed has become quite the trend – a fun, modern, and apparently wholesome form of rhythmic exercise. Who would have thought? Nowadays, pole dancing is commonly seen as the next step on from belly dancing, which became popular in Vietnam once it was recognised here that the frequent gyration of the hips can lead to a beautiful, toned, and flexible feminine form. Many women started to turn their attention to pole dancing as another stage in the quest for a perfect figure after its first appearance in Ho Chi Minh City in around 2010 or 2011. A means to an end Pole dancing is actually very highly regarded in HCMC, and beyond the basic “exotic” form, there are two other distinct styles taught here known as “empowerment” and “pole fitness”, which are both regarded as an aerobic workout for strength and muscle toning. Some students report that pole dancing provides many emotional benefits such as an increased feeling of self-confidence and wellbeing, increased energy, a higher level of bodily awareness, and a higher self-esteem. Proponents of the dance believe that it can make you feel stronger, taller, and more confident. Moreover, the dance is said to help increase flexibility, improve posture, and benefit one’s overall fitness. With such glowing recommendations, pole dancing has become a true phenomenon in Saigon. The number of women (and even men) enrolling in classes has been surprising. It’s still early days, however, and despite the best efforts of proponents, there still are strong associations between pole dancing and sordid night clubs

  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”

    One of the more unusual professions that recently landed on the Saigon scene is that of book reading and storytelling. Originally a service for the elderly, young children, and those with disabilities unable to read books for themselves, book reading services emerged in Hanoi in recent years in response to a demand amongst senior citizens who were sick, had blurred vision, or who found their children too busy to read books to them. Early childhood clients were rare at first, their parents hiring the storytellers as basic caregivers to read books and comics to their children and also help out with homework. Doing some light reading before bedtime Book readers are mostly students, teachers, and librarians who have an interest in books and in reading them to others. Some run the business themselves and rely on their personal networks to make money, while others form a group and help each other to do the work. Professional readers often do the job in their spare time, in summer, and on holidays. Some groups are originally self-employed and professionalise themselves as storytellers when they have more clients. They will hire students to work for them and create a small company specialising in book-reading services. Elderly storytelling clients often prefer classical books and foreign literature translated into Vietnamese. In general, they like to hear stories about history, culture, and families. Storytellers work in the early morning reading daily newspapers or in the evening reading other kinds of books. Not all of the elderly clients are – for whatever reason – unable to read books. Many do have the ability to read, but enjoy having someone read to them and to discuss the content and the stories with them. Some like to listen to books in foreign languages but cannot read them on their

  • Art on the surface of the water.

    Modern art forms sometimes spring from humble origins. This is the case with the unique Vietnamese performance art known to the world as water puppetry . Called múa rối nước in Vietnamese, the tradition emerged from the Red River Delta area in the northern stretches of Vietnam. The puppets are made of wood or bamboo and lacquered in vivid colour. They are handmade, and sometimes weigh up to 15 kg each. Water puppetry is said to have been invented by farmers back in the Ly dynasty (1010-1225). They are likely to have been responsible for the development of this form, probably in the attempt to tell stories about their traditions, customs, and daily lives to their children, and to express their dreams in life through stories. They took advantage of what they had around them, including bamboo to make puppets. It’s likely that the water element was used by force of necessity – working all day in the flooded rice paddies, the surface of the water was the only available stage. The use of a water stage did grant some advantages to the art form. The water helped people to control the puppets skilfully and also concealed the long sticks connecting the puppeteers with their puppets. This is the reason why the water used on modern puppet stages is always murky. Indoor water puppet performance The precise origins of water puppetry are a mystery to even the most dedicated of Vietnamese researchers, although it’s generally accepted that the style spread throughout the country after establishing itself in northern areas. Gradually, it became a traditional Vietnamese art and was brought to the stage. During the war era, water puppetry, along with many other art forms, helped the Vietnamese to express their determination, patriotism, and dreams of a peaceful future for the

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