When Cold War-Era Vietnam Felt the Beat of the ABBA Tambourine
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Even this isolated nation decided to dance, jive and have the time of their life with Sweden’s most fabulous foursome.
By Isabelle Taft
Australian Paula Simcocks arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in December 1984 to celebrate the holidays with her husband’s family. During Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, they watched as “The Year of the Buffalo was heralded with a television skit, welcoming all good things and chasing out all things evil which was depicted as a Western hippie youth.” She noted, however, that hostility toward foreign culture was far from universal. Case in point: On the same trip, she saw ABBA songs performed on state television.
At the time, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world, internationally isolated and still struggling to rebuild after a war that had killed three million of its people. The U.S. trade embargo had crippled commerce, and the Communist authorities were deeply suspicious of Western music. Nonetheless, Vietnam in 1984 was home to many who regarded the Swedish foursome as a favorite band. One of few Western groups officially tolerated in the ’80s, ABBA’s popularity persists in Vietnam, a symbol of how international trends can penetrate even the most policed areas.
Vietnam’s Communist government at the time was deeply suspicious of Western music, especially American rock ’n’ roll that had grown popular during the war. Troops in South Vietnam played bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival in bars and on the radio, and local musicians like the CBC Band covered Ray Charles and the Beatles before writing their own songs in Vietnamese. After the war, the Communist Party conducted a purge of Western-influenced music, confiscating hundreds of thousands of song scores, tapes and books and sending musicians who had participated in the “decadent culture” of the Republic of Vietnam to re-education camps, writes musicologist Barley Norton in his article “Music and Censorship in Vietnam Since 1954.”
Though Western music at large had acquired the taint of political danger, the Vietnamese government considered one country a uniquely firm friend: Sweden, the first Western country to establish diplomatic relations with North Vietnam in 1969. Prime Minister Olof Palme infuriated Americans by marching at an antiwar rally with the North Vietnamese ambassador and comparing Nixon’s bombing of North Vietnam to “Nazi massacres in World War II,” the New York Times reported in 1973.
The Swedes were also early providers of development aid to Vietnam. One initiative, the Bai Bang paper mill, became a controversial Swedish aid project — and may have contributed to the proliferation of ABBA in Vietnam. The mill’s construction phase, from 1975 to 1983, overlapped almost exactly with ABBA’s active years. As work on the mill dragged on and construction costs quadrupled, Swedish engineers took up residence in the small village 55 miles northwest of Hanoi. They brought Swedish culture with them, including pine trees and wooden houses they built on a hill in the village. Bai Bang residents dubbed the area “Swedish Camp.”
Kurt Bergstrom, a Swedish engineer who first came to Vietnam in the late 1970s to help build the mill, recalls that at Swedish Camp’s peak, up to 600 people lived in the community. During vacations, they traveled to cities like Bangkok and Manila, where ABBA cover bands were a nightlife staple, and where they bought tapes they couldn’t get in Vietnam
“Everybody had a music player in their house and, of course, ABBA was popular at that time,” said Bergstrom, who still lives in Hanoi.
At a time of high suspicion for Western things, the Swedes had a very different status.
Martin Rama, former World Bank economist
Bergstrom can’t remember whether musical exchanges with Vietnamese colleagues were a part of life at Bai Bang, but it’s likely that the mill itself, a generous undertaking, contributed to the spirit of tolerance with which Vietnamese officials greeted ABBA.
“I think what is remarkable is not so much that [ABBA’s music] came, it’s that it was tolerated,” says Martin Rama, who served as the World Bank’s lead economist for Vietnam from 2002 to 2010. “At a time of high suspicion for Western things, the Swedes had a very different status.”
ABBA’s music became part of wedding celebrations and other occasions that called for upbeat, novel sounds. After economic reforms known as doi moi started in 1986, people watched ABBA music videos on new color televisions. Pham Tung Lam, media, communications and political adviser at the Swedish embassy in Hanoi, recalls that when a neighbor bought a video player in the 1980s, everyone would gather to admire ABBA’s shiny suits and the knee-high boots worn by Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. They were like “another world,” Lam says. Reforms continued and the U.S. dropped its trade embargo in 1995. Vietnamese consumers had even more access to music from all over the world. The teenagers who listened to ABBA grew up to raise children who watched the Backstreet Boys’ music videos on Vietnamese MTV.
While ABBA never played in Vietnam — the Backstreet Boys notably did in 2011 — the Swedish group retains a special place in Vietnamese hearts. During the 1980s, the song “Happy New Year” was added to official Lunar New Year’s television programming. Every year, a live broadcast includes interviews with people all over the country, a greeting from the president … and ABBA’s immortal lyrics: “May we all have a vision now and then/ Of a world where every neighbor is a friend.”
“It reminds people that ABBA is there, even on our most special moment of the year, between the old and the new,” Lam says. The song is ABBA’s most enduring legacy in the country — one that puzzles outsiders but is generally taken for granted in Vietnam, where it is a Tet tradition, part of office parties, gatherings at home and karaoke outings during the holiday.
As English has become more common, however, bleak lyrics like “Here we are, me and you/ Feeling lost and feeling blue” have come under scrutiny. Newspaper columns pointing out that the song is not actually happy at all are now a Tet staple of their own. “This Tet, I’m not singing ‘Happy New Year’ anymore,” ran a 2015 editorial in one Vietnamese newspaper. Lam said he has heard calls for Vietnam to embrace a new and genuinely cheerful Tet song. These are usually met with shrugs. Traditions, no matter how improbable, die hard.
- Isabelle Taft, OZY AuthorContact Isabelle Taft