Bieber lookalike raises laughs in Vietnam

An Irishman’s Diary about a singular drama


The day I knew that the Vietnamese had a great sense of humour was the day I got robbed.

I had hailed a motorcycle taxi in downtown Hanoi – known phonetically as a say ohm – and had alighted from a skimpy 125cc Honda Dream to pay my fare of about 30,000 dong (or about €2 in transferable currency).

However the say ohm, so excited was he by my offer of a 100,000 note, that he decided to rip it out of my hand and skiddadle like he was auditioning for the cover of Bat Out Of Hell .

The punch line? The dimwit had been so excited by my 100,000 that he had forgotten he had lent me a fairly nice helmet which was worth roughly 250,000 dong or thereabouts.

Well did my Vietnamese friends laugh when I told them that one.

They rocked forward on their little chairs. They rocked backward on their little chairs. They slapped me on the back so hard that they caused internal bleeding.

“Hey, you funny guy,” they said. And what was the comedic bulls-eye that I had hit? The Vietnamese absolutely love someone being the butt of a joke. Even themselves.

Now on and off since 2006 I had rumbled t hat there was plenty in Hanoi to raise a laugh.

The traffic you have probably heard about with its red-light-stands-for-go insanity, the bikes that swim around each other like shoals of fish around the whale and the relentless horn-blaring as if each rider is auditioning to be the morse code dispatcher on the next voyage of the Titanic .

Less well known perhaps are the electricity blackouts and the wires that sometimes fall on the streets sparking like fireworks. Or the complete disregard for public safety in the way various workmen sit around huge manholes which are left gaping without a single strip of safety tape around them.

I pointed to one open manhole to a bunch of workers enjoying a beer on their coffee break. I did a tut tut expression which surely needed no translation.

Their response? As I’ve been told, I’m a funny guy.

But I thought I could put my insights to work. I knew some teachers and arty types from the local English language TV station and I suggested putting on a drama.

My idea was to call it An Ninh , which is the name of a daily paper of the headless-body-found-in-topless bar variety.

The plot was a sort of pastiche of The Front Page , except that the butt of the joke was a local Justin Bieber-type who my paper had justly accused of buying his hair in a shop selling protected species of wildlife.

With a friend translating my efforts into Vietnamese we managed to secure the use of a local school hall in which to display our amateur-hour acting

The read-through exposed cultural gaps. I had the plot hinging on a sudden electricity blackout but I was stumped when someone asked my how the audience would know the difference between a stage blackout and the real thing?

We had no problem filling the hall. If you asked a relative to come along they brought a relative. And then they brought a relative as well. At which point I’ll just insert the words etc etc.

They are not big into babysitting, the Vietnamese. All the kids come too and they run up and down the aisles like they were in the park.

If you want to get their attention you make lots of noise. And the less subtle the noise the better.

The biggest laugh came when the policeman accosted the angry singer with the words “Come out with your hair up”.

Making fun of the cops is a bit of a taboo in Nam. But just slip them 100,000 dong and they will go away.

In the end An Ninh ran for about two weeks and then the gang – all eight of us – went our separate ways.

It was Jean Cocteau who said that it was the sign of a fine person to be able to burst out laughing. In which case the Vietnamese are a very fine people indeed.

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