Next year will mark 25 years since four schoolmates from Ho Chi Minh City – Son, Minh, Hung and Hoang – formed a rock band.
It was 1994, the lads had just graduated from high school, American punk rock band Green Day had released their second studio album Dookie in February, and just days later, US president Bill Clinton lifted a 19-year trade embargo off Vietnam that had been in place since the end of the war in 1975.
“We had just graduated from high school and we entered a music festival called Unplugged, which at the time was really famous in Vietnam,” recalls bass player and vocalist Son, of the birth of what would become one of Vietnam’s most well-known rock bands for the next decade, Little Wings.
“We played in the very last Unplugged competition in 1997 and won the grand prize that year, so the way we see it, Little Wings is still the champion,” he says proudly.
Although Green Day would ultimately become the band’s inspiration – “Green Day affected us the most,” says Son. “It was the spirit, the sound and the meaning of their songs” – in the early days, it was the king of pop who they looked up to.
“When we were 14,” say Son, now a film director who recently directed Vietnam’s most successful box office hit in history, Em Chua 18, “we wished that we could be famous like Michael Jackson and we were like, ‘One day, we’ll be famous like Michael Jackson and MTV Asia will spread our name.’”
Son’s comment draws laughter from the two remaining band members from the original Little Wings line up, Minh and Hung (Hoang left the band in 2000 to pursue a career in business) sitting alongside him at Biker Shield in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, a bar and restaurant that supports live music and where we’ve caught up to talk about the good old days of rock and what’s gone wrong with the scene in Vietnam since.
After all these years and despite a few hiccups along the way which caused the band to split briefly in 1997 “because we had an ego issue” causing arguments over who was going to write what songs and who was the “boss” of the band, they are clearly still the best of friends. The banter between them doesn’t stop during the interview.
“We were on the way though, to making it on MTV ,” says drummer-turned-lawyer Minh, who is also the owner of well-known Ho Chi Minh City live venue, Acoustic Bar, a mainstay of the live music scene here since 2007.
“It took 20 years but we did eventually make it on MTV Vietnam,” pipes up Son with a laugh.
Prior to 2000, none of the band members had undergone any formal music training, instead they gorged on a heady diet of big hair 80s rock that included the likes of Metallica, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard.
Like many before them, they tried their best to emulate those bands the best they could with the typical verve of young men that age only know.
They were also associated with other bands like Burned By The Sun and No Fucking Way that regularly played at Ho Chi Minh City’s only live venue supporting US and UK music, the now defunct Vasco’s.
“But after hearing Green Day for the first time with songs like When I Come Around and Welcome To Paradise, we turned to alternative rock,” says Minh.
“I remember when we first got together as a band,” explains Son, “obviously Vietnam didn’t have the internet, so it was really hard to find CDs and posters of rock bands. We would pool our money together to buy videos and recordings of rock songs. We didn’t even have photocopies of the album covers so we would borrow a CD cover and copy it. We copied every sketch on that Green Day Dookie album.”
Back then in the 90s, obtaining music, especially European and American rock music, which was frowned upon by authorities, was complicated.
Music stores, if there were any, were prohibited from selling it, and radio stations were government run, so it had to be bought on the black market, as Minh recalls:
“There was a young guy here called Hai who used to “import” the music on CDs. He used to bring them in by container ship, then he would copy the CD to cassette tapes and then we would buy them. It was the only way we could listen to music, especially the stuff we were into.”
Soon the boys became tired of the 80s sound, so they went searching for more than just big hair, tight leather pants and love ballads lamenting the heartbreaking loss of a lover.
While other Vietnamese bands continued to serve up the same old fare of heavy metal laced with stirring love ballads, Little Wings was moving on.
“We learnt the sound of the 80s, you know, Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, stuff like that,” explains Son, “but we were looking for something else, something more that represented the spirit of rock music, so we turned to Queen, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. When we heard them, we knew we’d found the cradle of rock and it was those bands that influenced our decision to try out for the Conservatory of Music here in Ho Chi Minh City.”
In 2000, all three members of the band gained entry into Ho Chi Minh City’s Conservatory of Music.
It was a surprising decision for what was perceived then as an ultra-conservative establishment reserved only for those wanting to become classically-trained musicians, not rock and roll superstar wannabes.
It was the first time a rock band had ever been accepted into the Conservatory.
Son and Hung would go on to study opera, while Minh would study percussion: “They didn’t even have a drum kit, only a xylophone,” recalls Minh.
“People thought we were just rockers who didn’t know how to compose music,” says Son, “so we had to prove ourselves, firstly to get into the school, and then secondly, to be capable of studying the history of music and analysing symphonies.
“We did the exam like everybody else and I think we were one of those cases where the examiners said, ‘Okay, these three boys are cool and they know their stuff.’”
However, two years into their four-year degree, Minh and Hung quit the Conservatory to focus more on their law studies (Hung is a lawyer, too), but also because “that was enough classical music for us.”
Meanwhile, Son was encouraged by his teachers to stick it out because they believed he had a rare voice.
It proved to be the right decision as he would ultimately go on to become valedictorian of his class.
“That experience revealed the differences in thinking we had,” explains Minh. “Hung and I thought that we had wasted two years already, so why waste anymore? And Son was thinking, if he quit now, he would’ve wasted those two years.”
It’s no wonder then the trio hold very strong opinions about the direction of rock music in Vietnam, a genre that has been tagged as problematic and is at odds with the status quo.
As a result, it has been given very little opportunity to develop and thrive at grassroots level. This explains why rock bands in Vietnam mostly play covers during live performances.
“I don’t think you can find great rock bands in China, Vietnam or Cuba because of the reputation of rock music in those countries,” says Minh.
“It’s had a detrimental effect on rock music here,” says Hung. “It’s about culture and developing a rock music culture, subcultures, we need some more right now. We have some indie bands now who have their own followers, which means they can do all their own original music and no covers, but still, there isn’t one professional rock band here because they all have to have day jobs.”
According to Hung, things aren’t likely to change soon in Vietnam’s rock music industry.
While other genres like hip-hop, rap, R&B, EDM and pop have gained a firm foothold in a country that takes music seriously and where you are never too far from a karaoke machine, Hung laments that things haven’t changed much in the 20 years that he’s been playing live music.
“We need greater knowledge in every aspect of the music industry right now,” he says. “Take for example, sound engineering, the production of songs, the writing of good songs. I’ve been playing music for the last 20 years and I still have the same problems as back then with the sound systems, there are still no decent sound engineers here.”
Whenever Little Wings played in large concerts (the biggest audience they played to at their height of popularity was 3,000 people), they always had to invite sound engineers from countries like Australia and Japan.
“The best thing we can hope for right now is knowledge,” says Hung philosophically.
These days, music for Little Wings is mostly about fun.
Occasionally they are coaxed back together like at a recent private party at Yoko, another inner city mainstay of live music in Ho Chi Minh City.
But their rockstar days are well and truly behind them, although they still play most Friday nights under the pseudonym Ly Le Quyen, a play on the band’s original name, but in Vietnamese language.
They all have families to take care of and are busy pursuing other interests. Hung is eager to start a new life abroad, while Son has a new film due out early next year and Minh plans to keep the doors of Acoustic open indefinitely.
But if they were to hit the stage tonight as Little Wings and it was the last gig they ever played together, what would be on their playlist?
Without hesitation, Hung leads the way as most charismatic frontmen of bands typically do and says: “We would do some of our original music and then the rest would be Green Day covers, because that would remind us of the really good times we had together.”
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow him on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Photos by Tan Rock & Mike Palumbo
Follow Tan Rock on Instagram at @tanrockphoto
Follow Mike on Instagram at @palumbo_photo
Acoustic Bar is at 6E1 Hem 6 Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. For more information, click here