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A new variety show brings foreigners closer to Vietnamese folk culture

The stage arrangement of the Trung Sisters' revolution was good and impressive with lifelike mock-ups of the elephants which are bought from
New Zealand. The Hon Viet (The Soul of Vietnam) show will be performed monthly at 5 p.m. on the 15th and 23rd at the Ho Chi Minh Opera House with ticket prices ranging from VND100,000-180,000 and VND300,000.

After months of preparation and postponement, Hon Viet (The Soul of Vietnam) finally premiered at the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House on November 15.

The front square of Vietnam's premier performing arts venue was filled with vendors selling the country's famous sidewalk noshes including banh beo (floating fern-shaped cake with fish-sauce,) tau hu ngot (soya cake with ginger syrup) and che (sweet bean soup).

The local street-food chefs said that it was their first time they took their craft off the road and onto the steps of the Opera House.

The show's producer, Mekong Artists Company, was praised for bringing guests the true flavors of daily life instead of hiring a famous restaurant to cater the show.

Several foreigners busied themselves taking photographs and enjoying the delicious food. It was a perfect, and unique opening ceremony for this kind of cultural festival.

The show was divided into historical episodes, beginning with the legend of the Trung Sisters, who became the first empresses of Vietnam in 40 A.D. after expelling a Chinese invasion. They met their demise three years later when the Chinese re-occupied Vietnam and the pair committed suicide rather than surrendering. The fairy tale of Cuoi flying to the moon with his miraculous banyan tree was next, followed by folk songs from the Northern, the Central and the Southern regions of Vietnam.

A modern mix of electronic music and traditional local instruments came together for five famous songs from five different continents, which wrapped up the one-hour long show. The event cost over VND500 million to put on and nearly 62 circus performers, dancers and musicians participated.

The show will be performed monthly at 5 p.m. on the 15th and 23rd at the same location with ticket prices ranging from VND100,000-180,000 and VND300,000.

Not "˜spicy' enough?

Linh Huyen, a former cai luong (reformed southern theater) actress and director now with Mekong Artists, said that she and her colleagues nurtured the idea of putting on a show featuring Vietnamese cultural art and history for three years before this production came together.

"The show aims to give a chance for foreign tourists to discover the cultural treasures of Vietnam," she told Thanh Nien Weekly. The treasures are wrapped up in many kinds of folk arts, history and fairy tales. The more you know about them, the more you respect and preserve them. This is also the show's message to the local youth, who will inherit the national fortune, but seem to forget their important responsibility to preserve it."

Huyen is also one of the two hosts of the show, which is presented in English and Vietnamese. The other emcee is Thanh Dien, a senior cai luong actor.

However, some locals who attended the first showing said that it still didn't completely connect with the audience.

"To tell the truth, the show will be more attractive if it is more succinct, not such as a "˜hotpot' as it was," said Lien Chi, a subeditor at San Khau (Stage) newspaper. "I think the historical slices and the revolution of the Trung Sisters were good and impressive with lifelike mock-ups of the elephants and queens. But it has no connection with the following fairy tale about Cuoi and his magic banyan tree. The circus acts breaking into the folk games are excellent, but some of the cast seemed to forget their moves. That made the performance poorly coordinated and unprofessional. If the producer can surmount the shortcomings, the show will surely be a better success."

Chau An, a linguistics student, said the show's English script was not correct and illogical.

"The hosts did not chime in together at the right moments. The English script must be re-written because of several mistakes, and it was not in line with the Vietnamese," An said. "They also did not have any explanation in English about the origins of the stories and the songs performed on stage. Moreover, only the host spoke English, and in some scenes, the actors spoke only Vietnamese. If the foreigners have no brochures with short introductions about each turn in the show, they will become lost."

However, many foreigners found the show a joy, a fact proved by their non-stop applause and peals of laughter.

A Canadian tourist named Curtis told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that he really liked the show, although it was not very professionally done.

"This is my first visit to Vietnam. Formerly, I was in Cambodia and attended a cultural show there. It was not as interesting as this Vietnamese show. I did have some questions about some scenes, but the Vietnamese culture in the show impressed me a lot. I want to discover more," he told the newspaper, holding to he (Vietnamese edible toy figurines) in his hand, a gift given to him by some local artists.

In spite of some shortcomings that can be overcome easily, the show is a big step toward more properly introducing foreigners to the less-accessible aspects of Vietnamese culture.

Huyen said Mekong Artists is now working to collaborate with local tourism companies to improve the show and bring in more travelers to see it.

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