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HO CHI MINH CITY -- There were two different Bob Dylan concerts Sunday night in Ho Chi Minh City. Well, not technically two. But certainly two broadly unique concert experiences for the 5,000 or so fans who turned out to hear Dylan's debut show in this Communist country.
The first concert was experienced by the majority of non-Vietnamese fans, including expats from France, England, Germany, Italy, Norway, and the United States. To this veritable NATO contingency of concertgoers, the setting and sounds must have felt fairly familiar and comforting for foreigners in a faraway land.
Dylan performed his 17-song set outdoors in a festival atmosphere, on a converted intramural sports field at the satellite branch of an Australian university located in the affluent southern outskirts of the city. The modern campus, set among Vietnamese versions of strip malls and mini McMansions, would not look out of place in Ohio, minus the palm trees that lined the well-manicured walking paths meandering up to the venue.
During the show, the western fans tended to soak up the decidedly upscale setting at the expense of the star attraction. From the imported beer booths and top-shelf liquor, to the gated VIP area with grazing tables, wine bottles, and black tablecloths, the vibe reminded me more at times of an international happy hour than a hard charging, straight ahead bluesy rock concert that Dylan did provide to those paying attention. And it would have been hard to pay no attention at all to the proceedings on stage, thanks to a high-tech lighting design and an overpowering but crystal clear sound mix that stood in stark contrast to the muddled sound and poor lighting produced at Dylan's Beijing show several days ago.
The more interesting concert to observe, however, was from the Vietnamese perspective. While the Vietnamese were the hosts of the evening, they were the decided minority of fans in attendance, probably because the cheapest ticket cost about half as much as an average monthly salary in Vietnam.
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The natives who did have the means to attend seemed to get their money's worth, in pictures at least. They took pictures by the hundreds, most of them, it appeared, having little do to with the legend on stage. Within a five minute window, I observed shots snapped of the beer tent, the porta-potties, the sound mixing booth, and even of myself. I couldn't help wondering where these pictures will end up in a country whose government blocks access to Facebook, the universal dumping ground for pictures that at the time seemed like a good idea.
The Vietnamese enthusiasm for all things related to a rock concert is understandable. This was the first large-scale Western rock show this country ever has hosted.
"I had to be here to see this in my country with my own eyes," said Phong Lu, 26, admittedly not a die-hard Dylan fan. "I know a couple of his songs, but mainly respect him for coming to our country, and for what he stands for," Lu added.
And just what does Dylan stand for in the eyes of the Vietnamese? That question, from my vantage point, was the most intriguing aspect of a night when the 69-year-old legend offered a relatively predictable, though workmanlike, performance.
"Dylan's songs told me in the '60s that young people in America wanted peace in Vietnam, just like we did. His songs made me feel a bond to the young Americans at a time when the bombs were flying," stated Nguyen Tri Dang, 62, a native of Ho Chi Minh City who has listened to Dylan peace anthems like "Blowin' in the Wind" for nearly 50 years, including during the war that decimated his country.
"The hearts of all people are similar, regardless of their government" observed Dang, "this is what Dylan's music proves to me as a Vietnamese person who lived through the war."
While Dylan's songs certainly provided a soundtrack to the marches and sit-ins of the anti-war movement in the United States, Dylan stayed far away from the movement himself. He didn't record a song until 1985 that directly addressed the Vietnam War. Though he performed at civil rights events throughout the country in the early '60s, he didn't play at a single anti-war event, instead living in relative isolation in upstate New York and recording roots and country music albums like Nashville Skyline, featuring a duet with Johnny Cash.
Even his limited statements on the war are ambiguous. In 1968, in response to an interviewer pressing him to agree with the anti-war activists, Dylan resisted, and responded "how do you know … I'm not for the war?"
While there may be some misunderstanding of Dylan's direct engagement in the affairs of Vietnam, the songs of Trinh Con Son that opened the concert provide a veritable guidebook to the conflicting emotions of the Vietnamese during and immediately following the war. Son, who died in 2001 (and had, according to the BBC, the second largest funeral ever in Vietnam, with only Ho Chi Minh attracting more mourners), was dubbed the "Dylan of Vietnam" -- by Joan Baez nonetheless -- for his poetic and socially conscious repertoire.
Before Dylan took the stage, an all-star cast of Vietnamese singers, including last year's Vietnam Idol champion Uyen Linh, took turns belting out Son's songs that dealt directly with difficult issues like the reunification of the country following the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.
"I came today because my parents taught me all of Trinh Con Son's songs and their meanings, he is a national hero," said Khoa Le, 22, from Denang.
But regardless of fans' distinct cultural motivations for partaking in Ho Chi Minh City's Dylan day festivities, by midway through the concert, East had met West in some corners of the sprawling venue.
Sofie Smed, 25, and Freja Docterhanser, 24, of Copenhagen were jitterbugging to the swinging beat of "The Levee's Gonna Break," a track off Dylan's 2006 album Modern Times.
Out of nowhere, Dung Hanh, 13, and Kim Ngan 11, of Saigon came darting up to the Danes and asked to dance with the couple, who happily obliged. For about three minutes the four formed an unlikely but touching lesson on the upside of multiculturalism.
Clearly the two young Vietnamese girls had their appetite whetted for more Western music, although perhaps not quite up to the quality of the tunes to which they were dancing.
"Next I want to see Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers," excitedly proclaimed an out of breath, sweaty, but all smiles Ngan.
It looks like rock and roll, in Vietnam, is here to stay.