HO CHI MINH CITY (AFP) — It is early evening and another night of singing has begun in earnest at Style Karaoke, a plush club where high-flyers in Vietnam’s commercial capital come to let off steam.
Music blasts from behind the glass doors of the small rooms where groups gather to sing and, as the rhythm takes hold, to dance.
And that, the communist government says, is the problem.
It wants to ban dancing at karaoke bars in what reports have said is a bid to limit drug use.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism posted the proposed ban on its website last month and invited public comment on the move, its latest attempt to clamp down on lawlessness at the popular singing venues.
But at Style and other neon-lit clubs on Su Van Hanh street, the heart of karaoke entertainment in the city formerly known as Saigon, the proposal is dismissed as unworkable.
“I think it’s not feasible because these people who go to karaoke want to relieve their stress,” says Dang Duy Thanh, the gel-haired manager of Style.
“If we just force them to stay there singing without feeling comfortable, that’s not right”.
Le Anh Tuyen, head of the culture ministry’s legal department, reportedly sees things differently.
Tuyen, who five years ago warned that karaoke was linked to prostitution, was quoted by the VietnamNet news website last month as saying the drug ecstasy would be used in karaoke rooms if dancing was not banned.
“Ecstasy always goes with wine and music,” he said. “In my opinion, karaoke is a cultural activity which is always latent with social evils.”
Tuyen did not respond to AFP’s requests for an interview.
Ecstasy became popular around the world at “rave” dance parties.
Tuyen told VietnamNet the government has statistics about the use of ecstasy at karaoke bars, but the report gave no data.
“I’m sure the real number of cases is higher than in our statistics. Evils will not be prevented without banning dancing,” he was quoted as saying. “In our country, karaoke often goes with ecstasy and prostitution.”
Karaoke workers on Su Van Hanh street said ecstasy could be found in some clubs — but not theirs.
“Not all karaokes allow the use of ecstasy,” says Thanh, whose club targets middle to higher-class customers and charges about double the room rate of nearby singing clubs like Karaoke K-T.
“This is what we call ‘family karaoke’,” said Pham Ngoc Khanh, 40, a staffer at K-T.
He said the business, open for several years, has a loyal following of civil servants, students and workers.
“It is not karaoke with what we call ‘social evils’.”
Clubs in other parts of the city might be more prone to vice, he said.
“It’s not right to ban us from dancing in karaoke clubs,” said one K-T customer, who arrived with a laptop bag on his shoulder. “Maybe they should ban dance bars where they have prostitutes. If they just make a general ban on dancing in karaokes, it’s not reasonable.”
The customer declined to give his name.
Khanh, the K-T worker, said karaoke was a popular form of entertainment and a ban on dancing would be “a bit strange” for customers trying to relax.
Karaoke was introduced to Vietnam in the early 1990s. The bars are now found throughout the socially conservative nation, even in remote mountainous villages.
“It’s impossible” to ban dancing, says Dang Duc Han, standing in a T-shirt, his arms folded, outside the Karaoke 64 club he manages.
If people feel in the mood they will dance, Han says as customers ride up on their motorcycles, and a child with a toy bicycle brushes against his leg.
In 2006 Vietnam banned alcohol in karaoke bars — but in practice drinking continues — while a year earlier it stopped issuing licences for bars, karaoke parlours and dance halls.
Earlier draft legislation even called for karaoke clubs to be shut down, after Tuyen said many served as brothels.
In his interview with VietnamNet, Tuyen admitted inspectors were not able to check karaoke clubs very often and said “people themselves must obey the rules”.
Khanh, of Karaoke K-T, said officials have lost touch with reality.
“They have been sitting in a high position for quite some time,” he said. “They are not realistic.”
Ngo Thi Bao Ngoc, 28, a black-stockinged staffer at the Style club, said that as the number of karaokes proliferates, authorities have a hard time controlling them.
“They get confused and they don’t know how to deal with it,” she said.
Serious business owners will not want ecstasy on their premises because it damages their reputation while bringing no benefit, and banning dancing would not work, Ngoc said.
“Dancing is understandable. There is no reason to ban it,” she said.