Finding a balance

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They will lose their venue soon but the daredevils of the Ho Chi Minh City Circus love their profession too much to quit hanging, swirling, and flying high.

Quoc Co still shudders when he thinks of the accident he and his younger brother had when they were performing in Taiwan two months ago.

"Quoc Nghiep was doing a headstand on my head as I was climbing a step. I slipped and my brother fell straight to the ground and lost consciousness," Co told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"I felt my neck crack and thought I would die," Nghiep said.

Too keen by half, the fraternal acrobatic strongmen have put the mishap behind them and continue to perform the dangerous stunt every weekend at the big top in District 1's September 23rd Park without the slightest look of fear on their faces.

Nor is there a trace of anxiety in the eyes of their fellow artists even though the Ho Chi Minh City Circus has no permanent home and the acrobats get paid less than VND3 million (US$170) a month for risking their lives in the name of entertainment.

'No guarantee'

Nguyen Thi Hoa gives a big smile after she comes back to earth and a hearty reception of cheers and shouts, mostly from the kids in the Sunday night audience.

She has just completed a Corde Lisse, a spectacular routine on cotton ropes or silks that combines held postures and drops.

There is no safety net or safety line as she relies on her own strength and ability to keep herself from falling.

Although Hoa is used to the danger even at the tender age of 19, she still feels a little anxious when she's on the ropes.

"There is no guarantee of safety in the circus. I have fallen many times in rehearsal but nothing bad has happened in front of the public," she said.

To Phuong Lien, another aerialist of skill and courage, Lady Luck is her best friend.

"The technicians often discover a loose knot, frayed rope or broken screw just before my act. They fix the problem on the quiet and only tell me after I have finished.

"Without luck, I wouldn't be sitting here now," she said.

Le Tri Tuong, the number two administrator of the HCMC Circus, gave several reasons for the absence of safety nets and lines.

"For one thing, the acts are not as dangerous as they look. Moreover, the acrobats practice painstakingly and hone their skills to make sure they don't have an accident.

"Anyway, a safety net might put the audience off," he said.

Tuong has a point here as Sam, an English tourist, told Thanh Nien Weekly after the Sunday show how the lurking sense of danger only added to the excitement.

His friend Kerry felt the same: "I was thrilled yet really scared for the acrobats at the same time," she said.


Neither the risky nature of their work nor their lowly pay can deter the denizens of the big top from their chosen profession.

Each member of the troupe makes VND1-2 million ($56-112) a month plus extras from ticket sales on Saturday and Sunday nights.

Since admission to the circus is VND50,000 ($2.80) for adults and VND30,000 ($1.68) for children, and given that there are fewer than 150 people in the audience on a typical night, there is little money left over from the two weekly shows to share among the performers.

The artists have to do more than just make ends meet. Brothers Quoc Co and Quoc Nghiep, to give one example, must stick to a special and expensive dietary regime to maintain their strength and muscle tone, and the cost of that comes out of their joint pocket.

They and their fellow artists supplement their circus income by performing in bars, variety shows and assorted events. The occasional foreign tour is another source of dough.

The HCMC Circus was formed in November 1986 and currently has 70 human performers along with 40 elephants, bears, boas, monkeys, dogs and other animals divided into two groups: the veterans in Mat troi do (Red sun) and the young performers and the animals in Bau troi xanh (Blue sky).

In those nearly 23 years, the circus has never had a fixed venue, deputy chief Tuong told Thanh Nien Weekly.

After being shunted around for years, they finally seemed to have settled down in 2000 when they were given a large space in September 23rd Park.

Yet only six years later, the circus was forced to move again, this time to makeshift digs at the other end of the park, on the Pham Ngu Lao Street side.

The circus will be moving again soon and pitching the big top in a new location, though Tuong wouldn't say where or when.

Surprisingly, the HCMC Circus is one of the few artistic groups in the city to make a profit, according to Tuong.

Still, there's precious little money for essentials like replacing worn-out gear, buying new equipment and maintaining a sufficient number of performing animals like elephants, dogs and monkeys.

The only show in town

Despite the hardship, the artists practice, rehearse, innovate, and rejuvenate old acts every day from eight in the morning until well into the afternoon.

They are wedded to their ring. Hoa is staying put as she doesn't know how to do anything else while Co tried to run his father's herbal medicine shop for a spell but eventually returned to his "destined" career under the big top.

Lien, who was born in 1979 but still has the body of a 16-year-old, has been performing for 12 years and says the circus has become a part of her body and mind.

None is more committed than Phi Vu, who has been a clown, unicyclist, daring trapeze artist and teacher of his craft for 32 of his 46 years and is the troupe's first Meritorious Artist.

His love of the circus and passion for his work are evident for all to see. They are what keep him in and above the ring every weekend, though the circus' recent success abroad plays a part too.

"I have been through tougher times. Life is much easier and more settled now. The foreign tours help a lot," he said.

Vu is not put off by the empty seats every time he steps into the ring.

"The number of people in the audience is not important. What matters is that the people who are there enjoy themselves. It's great to see the wide eyes and big smiles of the kids."


The reputation of the HCMC Circus comes from its enthusiastic reception outside Vietnam. In the past five years, it has entertained audiences in many cities in France, Belgium, Taiwan and elsewhere.

"The French are wild about us. We have to bow three or four times before we can leave the ring. Every one of our shows is sold out, and we are always invited to come back the following year," said Meritorious Artist Thai Ngoc Anh.

The troupe has won a pile of national and international awards including a silver trophy at the 1997 International Circus Festival in Hanoi and a bronze medal in North Korea in 2000.

Brothers Quoc Co and Quoc Nghiep will be in Hanoi from October 5 competing against other up-and-coming strongmen and acrobats from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They should shine in the international arena.

Still, more must be done to pull in Vietnamese crowds, as circus boss Ho Van Thanh is all too well aware.

"In order to attract audiences at home, we must be more creative, apply international know-how and come up with an effective marketing strategy," Thanh said.

"Going abroad does more than just advertise Vietnam. It's a priceless learning opportunity as our artists can find out about the latest developments in the circus world and incorporate what they learn into their acts to wow local audiences."

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