The Saigon skies opened up last Sunday unleashing an oppressive blast of sticky heat on the waterlogged town. The sun came following a week of endless rain. But the streets were surprisingly quiet. In Tao Dan Park, following the break in the midday heat, kids usually frolic, women exercise and couples canoodle. But at 3 p.m., following the end of the midday heat, only a few lonesome old folks ambled down largely empty pathways.
One block away, it seemed that the whole town was trying to cram itself into the Galaxy Theater on Nguyen Du Street. Anxious young teenagers cut one another off as they inched their way into the packed parking lot. Children ran in hysterical packs toward the theater at such a rapid rate that the sliding glass doors remained permanently open, straining the lobby air conditioners as they struggled to cool the flood of anxious customers.
After a nail-biting half-hour wait, members of this mob grabbed tickets to Kung Fu Panda 2 and happily forked over VND120,000 (US$7) for VIP seating.
"It's like a proverbial wildfire," said Brian Hall, CEO of Megastar Media Joint-Venture Company the film's sole distributor in Vietnam. "Everybody's talking about it. Everybody wants to see it."
Since it was released on June 1, the film has reached a kind of apex in Vietnam's film history.
Hall broke things down like this: Cinema has been in Vietnam for 70 years. Western films have only really been allowed in the country for the past eight. The first film to officially gross VND200,000,000 ($1 million) in Vietnam was Avatar, in 2009.
"It took about nine weeks," he said. "It took Kung Fu Panda 2 just five days [to gross $1 million]."
The money brought in by the film represents a proverbial drop in the bucket. (The film raked in $47 million in the United States during its opening weekend).
But the hysteria represents a new outward-looking culture.
"Let's call it what it really is, it's a western attempt to try to embrace eastern culture," Hall said. But that nod to something vaguely Asian has drawn droves of Vietnamese into the theaters to watch a 90-minute, subtitled cartoon about an obese panda on a quest through China.
Kung Fu Panda (the original) never made a million dollars. But that was three years ago. Since then, Hall says, there are more cinemas and sharper, more aggressive marketing.
Megastar only imported six copies of Kung Fu Panda which they ran, endlessly, for ten weeks. This time, he said, they brought 30.
Megastar began promoting the film four months before its release, said Dang Thi Thu Hien, the film's marketing director in Vietnam.
In April, Vietnamese celebrities and models were sent to Glendale, California to interview the voice-over stars (including Angelina Joile and Jack Black) and record a special message for Vietnamese children.
"Xin chào Viá»‡t Nam," the two stars say into the camera. "Please come see Kung Fu Panda 2."
By the time it came out, Hien said, "there was a fever for tickets."
Indeed, companies throughout the city (including state-owned firms) were rewarding their employees with VIP seats to Kung Fu Panda 2.
Hall described its release as "the convergence of a perfect storm of cultural events."
The public debut was set for International Children's Day an 86-year-old Swiss creation that became a big hit in the former Soviet bloc.
The holiday obliges Vietnamese adults to give children in their neighborhood and family gifts. Youth groups traditionally take kids camping for the weekend. Parents take them on picnics.
Older Saigon residents recall days when they walked freely in the streets and played in numerous vacant lots. But now there are few spaces for children to play. Children start school early and typically remain in supplemental courses throughout the summer.
These days, a trip to an icy cinema for a Hollywood movie appears to have largely replaced those practices.
"The schools all let out a couple weeks ago," Hall said. "Everyone's in this really free period of "˜wow let's have fun, what else is there to do in Vietnam? Let's go see Kung Fu Panda 2!"