When you think of Vietnam, a few things probably come to mind: motorbikes, pho and, of course, the ao dai. Maybe you don’t know it by name, but you definitely recognise it by sight: the traditional Vietnamese outfit characterised by a tight fit, hip-length slits and high collar. Now you can learn more about the history of this iconic garb, along with traditional Vietnamese music, at the Ao Dai Museum’s Si Hoang Show on Saigon’s walking street Nguyen Hue every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
When I went to the show last Sunday, I didn’t know what to expect, probably because I didn’t know much about the ao dai to begin with. In my six months in Ho Chi Minh City, I had, of course, seen many women sporting the long, colourful dress, famously described as the garment that “covers everything and hides nothing”.
More often than not, ao dais would be used as work uniforms, for women working in banks, hotels and Vietnamese restaurants. I had begun to think that the ao dai was simply a vestige of an older time. The Si Hoang Show, however, proved me wrong.
Ao Dais for Days
As you enter the dimly lit, rectangular room with depictions of Vietnamese daily scenes of yore on the wall, you’ll first notice its unique setup. The very long and narrow room seats the audience on either side of something that could best be described as a catwalk interspersed with columns. At the far end of the room, a stage is set up for the musical performers.
The audience is seated only a few metres away from the action. The Si Hoang Show visibly aims to bridge the gap between the spectators and the performers.
As the show began, the presenters explained in both Vietnamese and English that the ao dai, which first made an appearance in Vietnamese culture in the 17th century, has shifted and bent along with the times. At one point in the segmented show, a variety of people wearing ao dais from different historical periods highlighted just how malleable this piece of clothing is.
At first we saw the roots of the costume, which were steeped in imperial China. Next, the feudal era, where peasants and merchants wore a thicker ao dai to protect themselves from Vietnam’s harsh elements. The real fun came, however, when we saw the more modern ao dais.
Towards the middle of the program, the distance between the audience and the performers was truly bridged. A dozen actors streamed into the catwalk, and a panorama of a rural marketplace was built before our eyes. Suddenly smiling vendors handed us bread, sweet taro snacks and other staples of Vietnamese culinary history. And at the heart of the action was, of course, the variety of ao dais the performers donned.
History Through Music
However, the Si Hoang Show isn’t just a fashion show – far from it. I also got to see a lot more musical talent than you would at the local karaoke bar. At the Si Hoang Show, truly talented performers showcased instruments that have been engrained in Vietnamese culture for centuries in the many different tribes all over Vietnam. I had never seen these before, but I’m glad I did.
The show began, for example, with a woman playing a dan k’ni: a bamboo instrument used by the Jarai people in the Central Highlands. In a remarkable performance, the musician used her mouth as a resonator to make the instrument mimic certain tones. Her melody was haunting and ethereal, and something you would never experience in a typical Vietnamese tour.
The most notable, and definitely the most memorable, moment of the night had to be when the dan da was brought to the stage. As our presenter told us, the dan da is an ancient instrument that is today only found behind the glass walls of a museum. However, at the Si Hoang Show, history gets new life.
I can best describe this ancient instrument as a stone xylophone. An incredibly exuberant musician wielding two small hammers delivered a show-stopping performance on the solid dan da. It’s my own personal opinion that the dan da should be brought back to mainstream music, such was this man’s performance.
Of course, no show is perfect. If I had to give one critique, it would be the amount of actual history provided to the audience. Although short speeches were given before each segment of the show (one or two segments didn’t have an English translation, it should be mentioned), they didn’t provide too much historical context, preferring to give the audience a general portrayal of the tone instead.
Leaving the show, I was in awe of ao dais, but didn’t know too many more facts about them or their history. However, if you want to see a fun and unique performance that highlights some of the features of Vietnam’s rich cultural history you don’t usually see, you can find no better than the Si Hoang Show.
All photos by: Nhân Đức
Address: Saigon House, 2nd floor, 77 Nguyen Hue, District 1
Tel: (+84) 08 6683 2740