It’s past 10pm (and our bedtime), but we’re in Polygon Musik. It’s smoky, dark, and, to be honest, the kind of place we’d hate in Sydney. But the music’s actually good, the singers in tune, and the mix something you can feel and still keep your eardrums. How does Hanoi do this better than you, Sydney?
We’re here because our new friend Chilli, from Hanoi Queer, suggested we might like to check it out for Pacific Pride Choir. We’ve come straight from two hours’ rehearsal and a very warm welcome from Hanoi Voices, one of only about three choirs here. Polygon is close to the rehearsal venue, and it’s only 9.30pm, so we head out on foot to find the club.
This part of Hanoi is slowing down at the end of a very hot day: today the heat index was 45°C. We’re on the edge of downtown; the streets are dim and there are fewer taxis. Women are preparing bundles of vegetables and herbs which will be loaded onto wicker baskets and sold tomorrow. Moto are being wheeled into the ground-floor rooms of houses, and roller shutters are slowly and softly being pulled down for the night. We walk past groups of young men sitting on plastic stools, chatting and smoking.
There’s a knack to navigating in this town. Street addresses aren’t always what they seem, and Google Maps is fallible. It pays to open the online map in Facebook and follow that. After a few false steps, we find it, down a driveway and through a carpark. We hear Polygon before we see it. We enter a low-ceilinged room, pay the cover charge and follow the music. It’s smoky in there, and I think it’s safe to say we’re not the target market.
It’s been only a short walk, but a far cry, from Hanoi Voices. There, the room is full mostly of expats, auditioned singers, and good - as you’d expect under a conductor as expressive as Dong Quang Vinh (or David to us Aussies). Choirs aren’t really a thing in Vietnam, so there's no queer choir either.
The rehearsal at Erato Music School starts at 7pm. We sweat our way up the stairs (everything’s up stairs, here) and introduce ourselves. Then it’s off to help Steve bring some chairs down for rehearsal. David is delighted that Sarah's there as his wife Claire, who is also the pianist for the group, is sick. You know where this is going ... after a quick intro, we’re into warm-up, which consists of breathing exercises & vocalisations. David also invites Sarah to do some vocal warm-ups with the choir, before we launch into Karl Jenkins 'The Armed Man'. It’s moments like these you wish you had Antonio Fernandez in your back pocket!
(Mel notes: Sarah did a very creditable job and I’m impressed by my sight singing. Mind you it helps that I’m sitting next to en excellent soprano from Japan.)
Next it’s 'Funiculi, Funicula' and sadly, Sarah gets the sack (but oh, so politely). We finish with an arrangement of Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy’. Hanoi Voices are rehearsing for a performance on Friday 11 May in Hanoi Opera House, which is EU Day. Seems that ‘chorister brain’ is universal: performance notes for the week have been emailed, with dates and times. David’s gentle reminders are met with a mix of calm competence, mild confusion, and blank stares. The cat-herding skills of the choral director apply the world over.
Before Hanoi Voices (and a detour to Bar Betta, a sexy sprawling club with plenty of space for live music), we began in Hanoi Social Club with two members of Hanoi Queer. How do you get past that awkward stage of talking to someone you’ve never met? We start with experience - what's the experience of being LGBTQI+ in Vietnam? Interestingly for us, Eric tells us they feel safe in public; most issues arise in families and schools.
Hanoi Queer isn’t an advocacy group - there are plenty of those already in Hanoi. Instead, Hanoi Queer focuses on creating social opportunities for LGBTQI+ people to meet. Eric tell us that with each generation, it’s easier, too. The younger generation feels more comfortable expressing their identity. The middle generation, not so much: they tend to be more closeted. For 7 years now, there has been a Hanoi Pride week. Not quite your Mardi Gras-style event, rather 1,000-odd LGBTQI+ walking around Hoan Kiem Lake (well, the road is closed already anyway, right?). It’s not officially sanctioned, but then again, like the rest of the population, they’re just walking around the Lake, albeit with rainbow flags.
Eric tells us how the police stopped them. We listen, expecting trouble. The marchers replied that they were just walking round the lake, like everyone else. But it was their flags and banners the police didn’t like, and discussion ensued. Then, the march continued, peacefully by the sound of it - just with flags discreetly lowered.
Hanoi is a discreet town. People are reserved, and gentle. The warmth is there though, under the surface, along with a definite desire to do right by you. We agree that we can create a concert together, with the main focus being a chance to meet, make friends. We can even learn a song - we’ll find some V-pop (not too many verses, Mel notes), so our audience and new friends can sing with us.
The next Hanoi Pride will be a lantern parade, at the time of the autumn lantern festival - there’ll be lanterns anyway, right? So rainbow lanterns will only make things extra pretty. There are ways to do things here. We’re learning them, we think.