In the United States, Vietnamese food and TV shows are still mostly frozen in time from the 1970s and ‘80s. Diaspora meme pages are flooded with jokes about Paris By Night, but modern Vietnamese shows are rarely mentioned.
Music is certainly no different. Besides the rare few that go TikTok viral, finding contemporary Vietnamese music sometimes takes going down endless Youtube holes, scrolling quickly past Vietnam War-themed Spotify playlists and spending way too much time figuring out how to navigate Zing MP3.
When I stumbled across Vietnamese pop punk one day in 2020, the nostalgia of my middle-school emo phase merged with my yearning to know more about modern Vietnam — and how young Vietnamese Gen-Zers are making global music trends their own. So down the rabbit hole I went.
The most well-known pop punk band in Vietnam is certainly 7Uppercuts, who released their debut album in 2018. Their Vietnamese and English songs are punchy and rebellious, like the aptly-titled “Duma Song,” and cross between genres, like “Wave Alpha" featuring rapper Cam.
Across Vietnam, the pop punk scene — and the fandom — is growing exponentially. One corner of the internet is a microcosm of this: Fans created the Facebook group 7UPPERCUTS DUMAPOSTING in January 2020 to chat about one of the country’s only pop punk bands at the time. But by February 2021, the admins changed the name of the group to include 7UPPERCUTS & FRIENDS’ DUMAPOSTING to acclimate for the growing number of new bands. They referenced groups like Đá Số Tới, Taiyoken, Stupiz Kiz and Do It Dad, three of which were founded during 2020.
Nearly 13,000 members post fan art and memes, share videos of song covers and organize concert meet-ups (pre-covid). 7Uppercuts even created the music video for “No Internet" by posting in the group and asking for videos of fans holding up signs of different lyrics.
And the love for pop punk isn’t isolated within the genre. Singer Lena, whose discography usually includes bubblegum pop and chill indie, released two mosh-ready pop punk songs in 2019. Just last month, rapper Seachains (who’s collaborated with 7Uppercuts before) performed a rap-infused pop punk song on the popular reality competition show Rap Việt.
One of the newest groups is Đá Số Tới, a Ho Chi Minh City based band formed in 2020, whose members all met from having the same music teacher. Hiển Lê, the bassist, video chatted with me while out at a billiards hall with friends: “The lockdown has just ended so we have to enjoy this time,” he said.
There’s been chatter of a pop punk remixed revival in the U.S., but Đá Số Tới has gone back to the genre’s core roots: The peak 2000s era of Vans Warped Tour, skateboarding and tie-dye t-shirts. Lê listened to lots of Blink-182 growing up, and it’s evident in Đá Số Tới’s sound: It’s bouncy and rambunctious, with plenty of gang vocals and ska elements, for youth who have enough energy to mosh for an entire concert and not be sore the next day. And of course, they have the band name to match.
“[Đá Số Tới] sounds really energetic, like activating your accelerator when you ride your motorbike. You speed up, and that's our band name,” Lê said.
Being in a band during the covid lockdown hasn’t been so bad, he said. The band played the virtual ALLACCESS music festival (essentially, playing instruments from their own homes and editing the videos together.)
“It's just time for our band to look back at what we have achieved and we can still do music online with our bandmates,” he said. “The worst thing is that we cannot participate in any music concerts. That's all the loss.”
While Lê and I were video chatting on Zoom, I jumped back in my seat when the bassist from 7Uppercuts, Aki, surprisingly leaned into the camera multiple times with a billiards cue in hand, jokingly shouting one-liners like “Interview me, I’m more famous than him!”
Vietnam’s biggest pop punk bands are so intertwined, catching all of the members in each others’ music videos, song production credits and even in the background of Zoom calls is pretty much expected. (I even tried to make a flow chart of all the connections, but it quickly became out of date because new connections kept coming.)
Kiệt Trần, under the name Wavestorm Studio, has produced for multiple bands in the scene over the years, including 7Uppercuts and Đá Số Tới. Last year, he formed his own 3-piece pop punk band, Jaigon Orchestra, which quite literally sounds like it has an entire orchestra playing along.
One of their recent tracks, Người Yêu Mới, is a grand proclamation of love, starting with jazzy piano and finger snapping until it explodes into epic horns and a snare drum stolen right out of a marching band’s repertoire. Trần says it only took him 30 minutes to write the song, “after [he] met a girl who I thought was the most beautiful in this world.”
Its sequel, the post-breakup ballad Người Yêu Cũ, begins with simple acoustic guitar, until Trần starts wailing over now-melodramatic horns and electric guitar riffs. These slow intros are a purposeful songwriting tool for Trần.
“It's just a standard structure to create a song which has a slower and more low-key intro so that the chorus could serve as the climax to the entire song,” Trần said. “But for me it's just an excuse to weave the symphony sound into my songs because I really enjoy listening to symphonies.”
Trần has played in metal and hardcore bands in the past, with more aggressive riffs and harsher lyrics. But the joys of pop punk matches his mindset now.
“The music that I perform reflects my personality and emotions at certain milestones in life,” he said. In past bands, “I was going through a murky time in life and those were created as a result. But once I've overcome that stage, I just want to bring the happy melodies via pop punk tunes to the world.”