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Vietnamese Hip Hop Exposes North-South Divide

By Helen Clark

April 30th marked the start of a long public holiday in Vietnam—Reunification Day, or as some Americans still call it: the Fall of Saigon.

Vietnam has moved on astoundingly since its war days, but North-South spats can still pop up in the strangest places,

A few months ago, a group of expats in Hanoi recorded and released a rap song called “Oi Gioi Oi.” about the varied charms and spastic frustrations of the capital.

The song begins:

When your pho's too hot you say oi gioi oi

The stress is a lot, you say oi gioi oi

I'm like, “turn your left blinker off!” oi gioi oi, 

It's been on for ages, oi gioi oi

 

 

Oi gioi oi means, more or less, “oh my God” but can be used in nearly any situation.

The song, released online only, has well over 350,000 views on YouTube after only a few months—not bad for a group of unknown Brits, whose MC EP was called by one Vietnamese reporter “the foreigner with a big nose and clown face.” It’s gone viral among Vietnamese teenagers, has been covered by local newspapers and bloggers, and received thousands of comments on YouTube.

It’s not just the catchy riff and clever lyrics, however. The song has become an excuse to quarrel over north-south superiority. One line from the song, "North Vietnam, stand up let's go!" has been widely interpreted as a sneer at the south. 

Parochial backbiting is nothing new in Vietnam, existing long before the civil war or American War. Such arguments have been going on for hundreds of years, since the Dai Vet of the north first started pushing south. Of course, the same could be said for the United States or United Kingdom.  

In 2006, an online war of words made international news after a Saigon teenager named Crys complained of "hicks," poor service, and copycats in Hanoi in her blog, except she called it “Ha Loi,” a snarky jibe at the local pronunciation.

Crys was swiftly attacked. Her blog received 5000 posts and the argument played out around varied internet forums in the country. A former chief inspector of Vietnam's Ministry of Culture was quoted by the German press service DPA as saying, “I have to admit that there is a difference between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.”

In both cases, the arguments were tempered by moderates, who reminded everyone that they were all Vietnamese. It's a strategy the government has, at least officially, taken since 1975.

My talks with young Saigonese always always take a strange turn after I tell them I live in Hanoi.

 “Really? I’d never go there. I’m too scared. They’d steal from me, because I’m a southerner,” one youth told me. Many Hanoians like to believe their 1000-old city is more cultured and refined.

There’s a sharp north-south divide in beer culture also: Saigon people would never drink Bia Hanoi.

However, the irony for some of the angrier YouTube posters might be that although the lyrics celebrate Hanoi, the backing track, is a remix of a 1970s song by Duy Khanh, a famous southern singer.

Ian Paynton, MC EP’s real name, is bemused by the reaction. "I regret saying ‘north Vietnam stand up let's go’ but it was north with a small n. I guess I was including a typical element of hip hop—representing a region—but a small minority picked up on it and started bickering. I only said ‘north Vietnam’ because the song is about Hanoi and surrounding provinces."

Producer JC Smith says he chose Duy Khanh “purely for musical reasons, there's something about the sounds of the production of Vietnamese music at that time that made it more earthy and gritty.”

“In a sense, the use of the track was an accident. Of course, the irony was somewhat lost on people with a political axe to wield. What could better summarize the unity of a country's heritage more than when the sample's from an old southern track and the lyrics are a homage to Hanoi?”

*****

*****

Helen Clark is a Vietnamese-based freelance journalist. She has written for various publications including the Economist, TIME, and The Independent

(Photo courtesy of ilovesorbet.blogspot.com)

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