While electronic music has been taking the world by storm for the past two decades, the scene in Vietnam has been hampered by police corruption, censorship, and crime. In a communist country where the government has its hands in everything, the 'underground' parties that do exist are a reality, not a buzzword.
Corruption and distrust in the law have hindered Vietnam's party scene. To throw a party, bars and hosts have to pay off local police to avoid getting shut down. In spite of that, Vietnam's import taxes are so high that few bars can afford real, branded alcohol and often opt for bootleg or "fake" liquor, which also risks penalties by police. When dinner costs less than two dollars, having to pay both DJs and cops make running a "legal" event more trouble than it's worth.
But for some promoters, DJs, and bar owners in Vietnam, it's not about the money.
In the more open-minded city of Ho Chi Minh (formerly known as Saigon), a city over 8,000 miles away from music meccas such as Berlin and Ibiza, an underground scene of quality electronic music is finally starting to emerge.
Heart Beat is a company based in Vietnam that brings resident DJs from Berghain in Berlin to Ho Chi Minh for techno events. With names like Etapp Kyle and Ed Davenport, Heart Beat intends to throw parties that stay true to the German techno sound. But with licensing trouble and legal hurdles, throwing illegal parties has been Heart Beat's only option. "In 2012, we were licensed with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism [in Vietnam], but technically you can't get a license that lasts later than midnight," says Paul Tonkes, one of the founders of Heart Beat, alongside his two friends from Germany.
"We had an event license, which was unique because the German consulate was sponsoring us. Normally, we wouldn't be able to get an event license because we'd have to pay 200,000 dong ($10 USD) per each track that the DJ plays. We'd have to give them [the Ministry] a list of every track a DJ intended on playing, which we would make up because you never know what a DJ is going to play. It would end up being $300 to $500 for the night just for copyrights. That's not the money going to the artist, either."
Despite legal constraints, Tonkes says that particular party ran well past midnight. They took their chances, embraced illegal connotations, and decided to not bother with licensing at all. Luckily, the party went unscathed.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Vietnam also requires a list of tracks and translated lyrics, which can be pretty hard with techno's brief and manipulated vocal samples. If you asked one of Berghain's DJ to provide you with a translated tracklist, chances are they'd laugh in your face.
In Vietnam, it's next to impossible to know what will make your party legal. Combating the unknown is just as impossible—Which cops do you pay off? What department do you go through? And in the end, regardless of your precautions, the police will do as they please.
"There's always a risk," says Tonkes. "There's always an authority somewhere that can say the paperwork isn't in order."
Jase Nguyen, a Vietnamese local, has been a promoter and DJ in Ho Chi Minh for nine years. His event series, The Beat, has brought international artists like Tokimonsta, Daedelus, and DJ Premier to Saigon. He says the corruption in the scene see is par for the course.
"[The government] wants to supervise everything," he says. "At its core, we are still a communist country. Technically, any gathering of more than five people is illegal. You need a license for it. They basically want money or they just want to shut down the party because the venue hasn't paid them enough."
The government's control goes as far as requiring females to dress "modestly" and comply with district-specific curfews. It should come as no surprise that drugs, too, are still very illegal. In northern Vietnam, it's even stricter. Citizens are expected to obey a midnight curfew, making it difficult to get a mere bowl of noodles past 10 PM. Naturally, cops have a constant eye on nightlife and clubbing, and yet, people are still trying to make it work.
Quest Festival is dance music festival based in northern Vietnam, just outside of Hanoi in Ba Vi National Park. Its distance from the city is done purposefully, as the organizers hope to avoid the hassle of authorities by hosting the party away from city centres. Over the past three years, Quest has grown from 300 attendees to now over 5,000. But even in the middle of the nowhere, few parties in Vietnam go on without police interference.
"We got raided by the police last year," says Luke Poulson, the creative director of Quest. "They literally came through the jungle, even though we had paid them off on three separate times to three different departments. They still came and shut the festival down for a few hours."
"They rushed everyone with flashlights," says Poulson. "They were all local police boys, like little village boys, and when they got there they didn't really know what was going on. They just kind of wandered around and wanted us to turn the music off. We got them all a beer they stayed until we sorted them out with some money."
Poulson says that even after acquiring Vietnamese partners, Quest Festival still runs into issues with red tape. "It continuously comes up, you just have to expect it," he says. "So many parties in Hanoi get shut down. You put so much effort into things and sometimes it really messes things up [for the future], but it's the ones that do work that makes it worth it. Quest has been like that. It's stressful, but it's worth it."
Unfortunately, distrust with police isn't the only treacherous hurdle for party fiends. In Vietnam, average people will take their own chances to con you of a quick buck.
In March, The Prodigy, a legendary electronic group from the UK, was supposed to play at Cargo Bar after a festival in Singapore got cancelled. The owners of Cargo Bar had been trying to snag DJs coming to South East Asia to perform at the bar and jumped at the chance to host The Prodigy. But when The Prodigy never showed up, Rod Quinton, the owner of Cargo Bar, realized they had been scammed by a faux-promoter. The bar lost thousands in an initial deposit, which was already more than they could afford.
"The reality of it was that it was dumb on our behalf," says Quinton. "We were opportunistic and so excited to have a band of that caliber coming to Vietnam and we got carried away. We pulled money from where we didn't have it and now we owe many people."
From party throwers to party goers–everyone is just trying to get by. For the guys in Vietnam fighting for their electronic parties, they don't seem too fazed by the issues at hand. Their parties will keep happening, whether they get busted or not.
"Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's hard," says Nguyen. "It really depends on who you're dealing with. Since there's corruption, you can play on your side with whatever you're doing. It's just one of the things of living in Vietnam."
Samie is on Twitter.