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1 Apr 2015

Welcoming 2015, Hanoi style: A New Year’s Eve traveller’s tale

‘Hanoi rocks, scooters roll, pedestrians just try to cross the road’

Regular readers of this column (who they, Dunk? Ed) may remember me writing a few years ago about how I’d never been to Vietnam, despite the offer of an all-expenses paid trip from the government back in the early 70s. As luck would have it I didn’t win the National Service VietLotto – the one lottery I’ve been very happy not to win – but since then I’ve often wondered what the country was like.

So, working on the basis of ‘If not now, then when?’ my gf and I booked some plane tickets. We parked the dog with its best friend for a few weeks, and then straight after the Christmas festivities we headed off into the sunset, Hanoi bound, for our first taste of the mysterious East.

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The old quarter of Hanoi was exactly what I imagined a busy Asian city to be like. Tiny streets crowded with people, day and night markets, the delicious smells of street food cooking on every corner, and an endless parade of motor scooters zapping around, seemingly with a total disregard for traffic rules, should there happen to be any!

Officially they drive on the right hand side of the road in Vietnam, but hey, if that’s a trifle inconvenient, then feel free to drive on the other side; if you’re lucky, people will get out of your way. After three weeks I had yet to see any scooter driver give even the slightest glance at the traffic bearing down on them when they entered from a side street. Small roads, main roads, even freeways, little 100 cc Vespas and Hondas would dart into the flow of traffic from both directions without either looking or stopping!

All around the city there are pedestrian crossing stripes painted on the road. Frankly I don’t know why they waste the paint, because no-one, I repeat no-one ever slows down or stops for you at all.

In a word, the traffic is total chaos. Yet it seems to work because all the locals know the rules of the game called ‘no-see chicken’ i.e, if I don’t see you then you’re not there!

For pedestrians the only way to cross the road is to play ‘no-see chicken’ yourself. Put your head down, step off the kerb and walk slowly to the other side. Do not look at the traffic, otherwise you’ve lost the game. If you don’t look, then the traffic will be forced to weave around you, and assuming you make it to the other side then you’ve won. Personally we always tried to grab hold of a couple of locals as a human shield for extra safety!

But I digress. After a couple of days an email arrived from Colin back at ARX, suggesting that I catch up with Stage Professional, our distributors in Vietnam, whose offices were luckily in Hanoi. So I made contact, and arranged for their product manager Hung to pick me up and go for a look around.

hung at the mixer

It was New Year’s Eve, and my gf was getting her hair done for the occasion, so I had about five or six hours to spare!

Hung met me in the hotel lobby at the agreed time, and said he had parked around the corner. I wondered to myself where he might have parked his car, since our little street was permanently gridlocked and appeared to have no space to park whatsoever. However, when we walked around the corner, I saw that Hung had neglected to mention that it wasn’t a car he had parked but his motor scooter, and the plan was for me to ride on the back through the chaotic city traffic! Still, always up for some excitement, I hopped on, grabbed the seat handles and off we went, whizzing through the streets.

To tell the truth, though, it was an excellent way to get around the city, with an ease and speed that a car could only dream of.

New Year’s Eve is a major celebration in Vietnam, and Stage Pro were doing the sound for five concert systems around the large lake at the centre of Hanoi.

The largest one was in the square outside the Opera House, near the newer part of the city. Three large circular video screens surrounded by moving lights formed the centrepiece of the stage, which would have been easily thirty or forty metres across, and twenty to thirty deep. Setting it up had already taken the best part of a week, and there was still a lot more to do before showtime.

Audio for the concert was being handled by a DiGiCo SD8 desk out front, sixteen or more d&b ‘J box’ cabinets hanging each side of the stage, as well as a whole warehouseful of subs underneath. There was obviously going to be some serious bottom end happening that night.

setup pre show

Since by now it was getting close to lunchtime, we wandered over to a café and had some delicious Phô (spicy beef and noodle soup, a staple of the Vietnamese diet) for lunch. Then it was back on the scooter and off to check out a couple of the other shows they were setting up.

When we returned to the hotel Hung told me if I wanted to go to the Opera House concert he would leave me an Access All Areas VIP pass on his way home so we could come down and watch the show in comfort. Sounded good so I said ‘yes please’.

At about 8.30pm we set off to walk the couple of kilometres or so to the Opera House. The city streets were starting to become crowded, and as we approached I could see that there was already a massive crowd filling the whole Town Square in front of the Opera House, and backing up the main street leading down to it.

It’s one thing to have a VIP pass; it’s quite a different thing to be able to get close enough to use it! Slowly we wriggled, squeezed and pushed our way through the crowded square. A risky business since as far as I could see we were the only Western faces there. Not a good look, really, as all the crowd could see were two non-Asians pushing their way to the front. Luckily my gf has dazzling blonde hair – something the locals don’t see very often – and the sea of jet-black hair parted miraculously as she walked through, waving the pass above her head.

gf with bling and VIP seat

The show was being sponsored by Yamaha motorbikes and Clear Men anti-dandruff shampoo. Seeing our pass as we got closer, the team of Yamaha girls rubber stamped our hands, and tied ribbons around our wrists, then took selfies of themselves with us!

We finally made it to the VIP area in front of the mixing position just as the official section of the show, with choirs, traditional dancers and awards, was finishing. No wonder the stage was so big, since there were at least a hundred people or more up there singing and dancing and waving to the crowd. The stage went dark as they paraded off, and then the popular music section of the show started in earnest.

But first, we had a word from the sponsor. With a deafening roar a Yamaha commercial suddenly filled all three video screens, the lights scanned the crowd and the music level went up to a point where the legs of my jeans were flapping in time with the kick drum!

Suddenly two motorbikes and riders zoomed up from the base of the stage and started doing figure-of-eight maneuvres on stage in time with the commercial’s backing track.

It was a super slick production, very loud and fat sounding, but not painfully so.

When the commercial finished, the show got well and truly underway, with a steady parade of local Vietnamese boy bands, girl groups, solo artists, DJ mixers, more motorbikes and more commercials, all loudified™*** to absolute maximum SPL! Something for everyone. As the countdown to midnight began, the crowd went crazy. When it hit 12 o’clock the air was full of confetti, streamers, crazy lights and screaming punters.

We started to leave as the barriers came down to form a giant mosh pit/dance floor and the DJ party got under way.

It had truly been a New Year’s Eve with a difference. Totally unable to understand a single word, we nevertheless had a great time watching a well-rehearsed, well-organised giant production. I gave it 10 out of 10 to everyone involved with it.

showtime!

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