Hip-hoppers of Hanoi

by AFP/Tran Thi Minh Ha, Jan 19, 2007 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Hanoi, January, 2007 - When Vietnamese teenager Nguyen Manh Nam first started breakdancing, he didn't dare tell his parents about his passion for the hip-hop culture born on the city streets of far-away America. "I persuaded my father by showing him breakdance films I downloaded from the Internet," said the dreadlocked 17-year-old. "Little by little, he grew to like it. Now he even practices it a bit when I'm not at home."

This week, Nam's parents and thousands more will get the chance to see him and members of the "Big Toe Crew," the communist country's first and best known hip-hop dance group, make their big-stage debut on a national tour. Together with Niels "Storm" Robitzky from Berlin and French partner Sebastien Ramirez, they will interpret Vietnam's infamously chaotic street traffic in the high-energy dance and video performance "Xe Co" (Vehicles).

"At first the traffic here looks like total chaos," said Robitzky, a dancer and choreographer. "But there is an order to it, and it's very dynamic, and that's what we try to get across in our performance."

For the Vietnamese group, the opening show in the capital's Soviet-built Friendship Palace is a coming-out performance of sorts for a cultural movement that still turns heads and raises eyebrows here.

"Hip-hop was introduced to Vietnam by students who had studied abroad," said Nguyen Viet Thanh, 33, the leader of the group that has grown since 1992 from five to 30 dancers with about 30 more unofficial members.

"Hip-hop is my biggest hobby. People first thought it was just for fun, just a fashion. My family thought I would follow it for maybe two or three years... but now things have changed."

State censors Monday gave the go-ahead for shows in Hanoi, Danang and Ho Chi Minh City on a tour supported by the French and German cultural institutes that has no political message but may still challenge some audiences.

The group's only girl, Sao Mai, 16, with a shock of pink hair, said: "Many people, especially adults, look at girls like us in a negative way because they don't know why we love this kind of dance and how interesting it is.

"I told myself that I could stand those looks, so I feel ok now."  Peroxide-blonde Bui Minh Tri, 18, said he had a hard time convincing his parents that hip-hop is his passion.

"They shouted at me quite a lot," he said. "They said they would forbid me to breakdance if I failed my studies. It took them about a year to accept it. "Everybody looks at me when I'm out with blond hair like this. I'm used to it. I die my hair like this, and my clothes are different, but I'm a good boy. I want to show everyone that apperance says nothing about our nature."

"I wouldn't think of them as rebels," said Robitzky about the group of dance partners and friends. "They're just normal human beings. They just want to express themselves like everybody else."

* * * * *