The pied piper of protest songs has finally played post-war Vietnam
Thirty-five years, 11 months and 20 days after the Fall of Saigon, Bob Dylan – America’s foremost singer-songwriter and the reluctant voice of the Vietnam War protest era – played his first concert in Communist Vietnam at RMIT University’s campus in Ho Chi Minh City. A crowd of more than 8,000 carried folding chairs and picnic blankets across the ultra-modern grounds. Everywhere, like swarms of fireflies, were the softly glowing screens of iPhones.
At 8pm came the vaudeville voice-over: “The poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of promise of ’60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock; who donned makeup in the ’70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse; who emerged to ‘find Jesus’; who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s; and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.”
Dylan ascended the stage in a black suit jacket with gold buttons, tuxedo trousers with satin piping, a pink shirt with a bolo tie, and, most striking of all, a white wide-brimmed hat that acted like a visual magnet. He kept it on throughout the 18-song concert, which at two hours plus encore was generous for a 70-year-old legend. But even the formidable shadow cast by the hat’s brim couldn’t disguise Dylan’s incredible, craggy visage: he looked like a Rembrandt, a face out of deep time. A face, smiling frequently with a pinch of old man swagger, apparently having a very good time of it in the city formerly known as Saigon.
Touring steadily since the late ’80s on a so-called ‘Never Ending Tour’, Dylan kicked off this year’s 20-show Asia Pacific Tour with two historic firsts: Vietnam and Beijing, where Chinese government censors heavily vetted Dylan’s set list beforehand – nixing classic protest songs such as The Times They Are a-Changin’.
Dylan’s Ho Chi Minh show was organised by Saigon Sound System, Thanh Nien Media Company and the family of the late Trinh Cong Son, Vietnam’s most beloved singer-songwriter and the man Joan Baez once called the “Bob Dylan of Vietnam”. Dylan is reportedly a fan of Trinh Cong Son, who died 10 years ago this April, and the tribute was perhaps the raison d’être for him agreeing to play here. Many of Vietnam’s biggest stars performed: Mỹ Linh, Thanh Lam, Hồng Nhung, Cam Van, Quang Dũng, Dức Tuấn, saxophonist Trần Mạnh Tuấn and 2010 Vietnam Idol winner Uyên Linh.
“Before we started this, not a lot of Vietnamese knew who Dylan was,” said Saigon Sound System manager Rod Quinton, pointing out that an artist of Dylan’s stature has never before performed in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese men of the War generation stood alone near the front, their eyes riveted to Dylan and mouthing along, especially to Like a Rolling Stone.
Dylan had a few requests before consenting to come: no big welcome, a normal hotel room with two windows, and no filming or direct broadcasting. He requested chicken soup for dinner “and he liked it”, said local chef Bobby Chinn. Other demands: that the quality of the sound meet international standards and that concert seating not be classified as VIP or economy.
Opening with Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, from Slow Train Coming, Dylan played familiar tunes such as It Ain’t Me, Babe and Tangled Up In Blue, picking up his harmonica for a much-anticipated solo. Nevertheless, the bleeding heart of the concert was his mid-set performance of A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall: ‘I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans / I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard…’ Between Gaddafi, tsunamis and the meltdown at Fukushima, it seems the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, posthaste. But wasn’t this how the world appeared to Dylan in his protest, beatnik Long Ago, Far Away?
‘Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters / Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison / Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden… ‘
En route to the concert, we passed noodle stalls, an Axara Paris boutique, vacant lots overgrown with jungle-thick vegetation, and a suburban strip mall centred around a box store called Lotte Mart, an echo of the US Big Lots brand. I posited a question to the concert-going crowd: is Vietnam a communist country with a capitalist façade, or a capitalist country with a communist façade? An Asian-American acquaintance, looking mildly annoyed, took a swig from her Bia Saigon beer and said, “Is there really any difference?”
For his final encore, Dylan played Forever Young. As the docile crowd fanned out, I finally turned my back to the stage and took in the backdrop: three new apartment high-rises and looming between them a construction crane with its electronic readout flashing the company name in midnight blue. Above all this apparent peace and prosperity hung a timeless sliver of half-moon.