It is Tuesday night and 7Fridays bar is packed with a healthy mix of backpackers and Hanoi residents. There is an obvious split between the front and the back of the room. Backpackers wearing pineapple shirts sit on stools near the stage, beer bottles clutched between their knees. The locals, expats and a smattering of young Vietnamese people, perch at high tables near the back. They chat amicably in groups, calling out to friends who walk through the door.
Erick Garcia stands on the narrow stage, framed by the pool in the courtyard behind him, a microphone cord dangling from his hands. “You look at a Westerner and what they’re wearing, and you can pretty much gauge how long they’ve been in this country,” he says with a smirk.
“First stage, I call it the ‘clean cut.’ You’re wearing nice khaki pants and a pastel colored shirt. You have a real sense of overconfidence about yourself that’s just unbearable. You say things like, I could make a killing correcting menus here. No you can’t, you unbelievable asshole.”
Garcia, who last year placed second in the Vietnam Comedy Competition, can frequently be seen performing on Hanoi’s stand-up stages. From the United States, he began his stand-up career in New Orleans at the age of 21. He had been interested in comedy for years and says that when he finally got on stage for the first time, he was hooked.
Once Garcia decided to move abroad, he knew that having an existing comedy scene was an important factor in choosing his new home. “I wanted to make sure they had a comedy scene I could jump in on,” he says. “I was in contact with comedy people here before I was in contact with jobs.”
Stand-up was only just starting to catch on in Hanoi when Garcia arrived. In the beginning, there were only a handful of comedians, including two comic magicians, performing in the small community. When asked if they were any good, he laughingly replies, “We were available.”
At that time there were shows once a month at House of Son Tinh, and later CAMA ATK, run by Dan Dockery, who then opened the currently running Standing Bar. Garcia remembers, “I didn’t want to slow down and I didn’t want to take a step back, so every time Dan had a show I would immediately offer to host, because that was really the only comedy mic I had.”
Dockery had moved to Hanoi from the United Kingdom with the first wave of teachers in 1997. After teaching for a couple of years, he used his previous dining experience to open a series of restaurants and bars in Hanoi, as well as starting a motorbike tour company and an annual music festival.
In 2011, Dockery was approached with doing a comedy show at his bar, House of Son Tinh, featuring Aussie comedian, Roger Rooney.“I didn’t know that much about comedy. I’d certainly never hosted a comedy show. I had a stage. I had a PA. I had a room. It was the worst comedy show I had ever seen,” Dockery says. Rooney, from rural Australia, did not go over well with that night’s “educated” audience. “It was legendary. It was ridiculous. It was shite.”
But through that first show Dockery saw the potential for stand-up in Hanoi. An associate, Alastair Hill, created the Hanoi Comedy Collective, which to this day represents Hanoi’s local comedians. Comedians from Hong Kong began to perform shows in Hanoi a couple of times a year. The opening of Standing Bar saw Dockery pursuing more international comics to perform in Hanoi. He partnered with venues in Saigon and Cambodia to create a tour lineup, but with the cost of the performer’s flights and stay, Dockery says the shows barely broke even.
Over the years, venues in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong joined the lineup, so that international comedians now do a series of shows across Southeast Asia. But still, stand-up has been slow to catch on with the Vietnamese. “The scene still hasn’t exploded,” Dockery says. “Sometimes it feels like it will.”
Dockery claims the language barrier as one reason for this. “Locals have always been reluctant to come [see shows] because they think they won’t understand. Even people who speak really good English are reluctant, because comedy isn’t just language.” Accents, slang, and circumstantial humor mean that comedy can be difficult to translate.
Vietnamese comedian Minkus Nguyen said that while growing up in Hanoi he did not know that stand-up comedy even existed. “For many forms of art in Vietnam, there’s not much grass-root movement,” Minkus says. “People who go into the arts, comedy included, are people who go to art school to get proper training, and then they get involved professionally. There’s no real amateur scene.”
Minkus was introduced to stand-up comedy by a video clip of a touring comedian who was scheduled to perform in Hanoi. It prompted him to reach out to the Hanoi Comedy Collective, and he has been performing in Hanoi ever since.
Minkus, who onstage goes by the name Uncle Minkus, is one of only a few Vietnamese comics who regularly perform in Hanoi. “Over the years, there have been a few young Vietnamese who give it a go, but they quit pretty soon afterwards. I think they realize the amount of work and commitment that is required.”
Lacking a Vietnamese stand-up scene, Minkus writes all of his material for an English-speaking audience. He says, “When I think in English, jokes just come out suitable for the expat crowd. It’s not a conscious effort.”
Dockery guesses that about 20% of the audience at a Standing Bar show is Vietnamese. “The most common way Vietnamese people get interested [in stand-up] is through their foreign friends or foreign partners,” he says.
“I don’t want to be the ambassador for any creed, any agenda,” Minkus says. “I don’t want to be seen as Vietnamese, or as anything. I just want to tell jokes.”
Recent Washington D.C. transplant and queer female comedian Kelso Dowling says she appreciates Hanoi for its ability to be a home for performers of all backgrounds. “There’s a lot of opportunity here to have your voice heard because it is a very supportive community,” she says.
One thing Dowling likes about the Hanoi community is a seemingly more gender-balanced show lineup. “People say, ‘We need a woman comedian!’” she says. Get Outta The Kitchen, a stand-up show exclusively featuring and run by women, also performs monthly at The Click.
“Women already have to go on stage and be funnier because there’s this idea that women are less funny than men. There’s already a bar that you have to step up to,” Dowling says. She recalls one experience while performing in D.C. where male audience members made pointed comments after her set. But in Hanoi, she says, “People never point out that I’m a queer woman in comedy here. They just view me as a comedian, and that’s really nice.”
Last summer, Dowling, Garcia, Minkus and other local comedians performed at a showcase presented by Standing Bar. Dockery, who organized the show, wanted to provide local comedians with professional clips to help them book regional and international shows.
Dockery calls Hanoi a “frontier destination” for comedy. But still, he says, all of the international comics who perform here request to come back. He claims the audience as the main reason for this. “It’s very responsive,” he says. “It’s a good gender balance. There’s enough nationalities- you can play with that too. People don’t heckle. People are generally on time. People shut the fuck up. [Performers] like Hanoi.”
Standing Bar’s upcoming show, featuring professional comedian, Iliza Shlesinger, is one way Dockery is trying to put Hanoi’s comedy scene on the map. He’s hoping an A-list comic such as Shlesinger, who has had a Netflix special, will help draw out curious members of the Vietnamese community who have not yet given stand up comedy a chance. “I’d like to make comedy more accessible to a broader audience,” he says. “Especially young Vietnamese. Otherwise we’re stuck with Tuesdays at [7Fridays] and Thursdays at Standing Bar, and that’s what it’s going to be like for the next five years.”
Dockery also hopes that with the slowly increasing number of Vietnamese comedians performing in both Hanoi and Saigon, a Vietnamese-language show can happen in the near future. “It’s been eight long years so far,” he says. “Sometimes I think we’re just before our time.”
“Comedy would be boring if we all did the same shit,” Garcia says. “Everything thrives in diversity of thought. Comedy is no different.”
Iliza Shlesinger will be performing on February 20 at the Youth Theatre. Show starts at 8 p.m. For upcoming local performances, follow Stand-Up Hanoi and The Hanoi Comedy Collective on Facebook.
170 Phố Trấn Vũ, Trúc Bạch, Ba Đinh, Hanoi
6 p.m. -midnight
+84 24 3266 8057
22 Quảng An, Tây Hồ, Hanoi
+84 24 6666 218
Lane 76 Đường Tô Ngọc Vân, Quảng An, Tây Hồ, Hanoi
9 a.m.-11 p.m.
+84 96 9401 941