Live music in Saigon has had a challenging recent history. Saigon Outcast, The Observatory and the now departed Cargo have met mixed fortunes in their time, but each has at one point or another been seen as a hub for events and live music in Saigon.
Linh Nguyen is the owner of Saigon Outcast, as well as Soma Art Lounge and Rogue Saigon.
Dan Bi Mong has overseen the birth and rebirth of house and techno music haven The Observatory, now in its third life. Rod Quinton opened and ran Cargo between 2012 and 2016, until local redevelopment plans forced them to vacate the premises which these days is little more than rubble. His partner for many of those heady nights at Cargo was Damian Kilroy, the brains, heart and soul behind promoters Loud Minority.
The quartet are now collaborating on Coracle Music Festival in Ho Tram, where they’ve decided to take the party out of the city and onto the beach in November. We caught up with them at Linh Nguyen’s District 1 rooftop bar Rogue Saigon, in Saigon’s old financial district, to hear their thoughts on the state of live music in Saigon.
Linh, Dan and Rod—each of you runs or has run a venue for live music in Saigon. Can you describe your venues for someone who’s never been?
Rod Quinton: Cargo was my venue. Originally it was just a huge warehouse in the District 4 docks area. It was one of the biggest indoor spaces available for live music in Saigon. It hosted flea markets, beer festivals, New Year’s parties, and live concerts. Some of the biggest bands we hosted, with the help of Damian here, were Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Wild Beasts, Mac De Marco, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, The Vaccines and Oddisee.
Linh Nguyen: I have three venues—Saigon Outcast, Soma Art Lounge and Rogue. Outcast is a place where people come to do activities like rock climbing, skating, graffiti, art workshops, even music video shoots. At the weekends we have events like beer and food festivals and charity events.
Later I opened up Rogue, a relaxed craft beer and cocktail bar with a great rooftop view of Bitexco tower and the old part of town here. We have live music on weekends, but it’s not big enough to host a full band.
That’s where Soma comes in; it’s an indoor, late night place, where we can have a full band and not deal with noise complaints. I build venues to be versatile.
Dan Bi Mong: The Observatory started in 2013 in the heart of District 1 by Pham Ngu Lao park. We stayed there one year, but noise complaints became an issue, so we found a second space in District 4, right by Cargo in the docks. We originally wanted a holistic space, with a non-commercial gallery, but it kind of naturally turned into a nightclub as we made our name hosting international DJs every week.
We spent three years there and built our reputation as a late night venue for live music in Saigon. But a couple of months after Cargo closed we had to do the same. After a short break, we have reopened on Cach Mang Thang Tam street. It’s also predominantly a house and techno music venue but the rooftop makes a great spot for sundown drinks.
Cargo closed, The Observatory is on its third location, and Outcast has evolved considerably since opening. Could you briefly describe your journey as events-space founders or event organizers?
Linh Nguyen: Saigon Outcast hit the ground running with graffiti and skateboarding events. But we’ve had to evolve constantly. Over time we’ve become more family orientated as building developments around us have limited our scope for late-night concerts. That’s why we’ve been catering more for food and drink festivals. A few years ago when there was Cargo, The Observatory and Outcast—that was a golden period. Now with Cargo gone and our own events evolved, it’s great that the Observatory is back and flying the flag for live music in Saigon.
Dan Bi Mong: There have been some downs with The Observatory, but it’s the ups that I remember more. The alternative music scene is still really young with lots of potential, and we’re starting to see it progress. To see the changes that we’re going through makes it as exciting now as it was the first day.
Damian Kilroy: I came to Vietnam in 2010, but had put on shows when I lived in Croatia. I missed being involved in live music and noticed that a lot of interesting acts were visiting the region playing Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok…but not here. So, I messaged all my contacts about potentially including Vietnam as part of any Asia tour.
I knew Saigon Sound System had brought Bob Dylan here, so I looked them up and got in touch with Rod. It was nice to meet someone who had the same attitude, and he had just secured the lease for Cargo at that time, so we had a venue as well. We did over twenty shows together at Cargo and I think we were just starting to get somewhere when sadly it closed down.
On the plus side, there are a lot more local bands, like Ngot and Ca Hoi Hoang, making their own music now and there is more of an audience for that, which is encouraging. But there aren’t enough bona fide venues for live music in Saigon, so for now we need to take the party outside of the city.
What do artists think of Vietnam as a place to play live?
Damian Kilroy: They always want to come back! There was a video of Oddisee saying that Vietnam was the best place he’d ever played!
Rod Quinton: It’s such a great place to host people. They can see why we all love Vietnam. You have the show, then you end up sitting on a street corner somewhere having drinks with them, having a very uniquely Vietnamese experience…
Damian Kilroy: …There was an old Bia Hoi on Thi Sach street and we took Wild Beasts there. They had just come from Singapore and they told us that they’d never seen anything like this before. They befriended some old guys who had no English and just drank with them. They had a great time.
What benefit to Vietnamese culture does bringing in international artists offer?
Damian Kilroy: Variety. There are almost 100 million people in this country. Not everyone likes Maroon 5 and Ed Sheeran. There is a growing number of people looking for a counter-culture.
When I’ve spoken with Vietnamese people who came to some of our shows, most said they had never seen a show like it before. I always remember Peter Hook, from New Order, talking about seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, and saying it was like a light being switched on. I’d like more young people to be exposed to good live music and in turn get that light bulb moment.
Linh Nguyen: I think local talents can take it and learn from it. Even if we brought regional acts from places like Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, not necessarily Western artists, there would be a great exchange—Vietnamese bands and artists going over there and them coming here.
Dan Bi Mong: At the moment, we’re offering this type of event as an alternative, but maybe over time it will become more normal. But we cannot have a superior opinion of our own tastes. We are not here to impose anything, but to give an alternative.
Actually one of our regular customers is a female in her forties, an engineer. Three years ago she walked into The Observatory with some friends at random. She had never heard about house or techno music. She had that lightbulb moment, as Damian put it. Now she comes all the time by herself at 9 pm just to dance, even if nobody is there!
What advice would you give someone planning to open a new venue?
Linh Nguyen: I think it would need to be somewhere accessible, District 3 or 4, if not 1, with good soundproofing, and they would have to have bands on from Thursday through until Sunday—it’s a lot of work.
Somewhere like Yoko Cafe is a great example—but a bigger place would be perfect. That’s hard because most properties here are houses, for a bigger space you need a warehouse.
Rod Quinton: We are all very supportive of new venues. The competition is healthy and I do believe that we all benefit from growing the scene. It’s a bit like the craft beer scene—we all talk to each other and bounce off each other trading ideas. That’s why we’re collaborating on Coracle Music festival.
Dan Bi Mong: The more venues I see opening the happier I am. For a long time we were one of the only ones putting on shows on a regular basis. Now we have more places and it’s nice to see a different dynamic. Of course, there is competition between us but we try to work together. It’s a tough job, and doesn’t always turn a profit, so you need a real love for what you’re doing. But the more the scene grows, the more everyone will benefit.
How was your relationship with the other organizers of Coracle Music Festival before deciding to collaborate on the event? Whose idea was it to hold the festival?
Linh Nguyen: It was Damian’s idea. He told me about it when I visited him in Vung Tau, and I said immediately that I wanted to get involved. I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for what they do, so I’m glad I’m working on this project with them.
Dan Bi Mong: This is our first time all working together—the four of us—but we have each worked together separately. I’ve helped bring DJ’s to Cargo in the past.
Rod Quinton: Damian and I worked very closely back in the Cargo days of course. All of us have a lot of respect for each other, and I’ve had some of my best nights at these guys’ venues, like John Morales at Observatory—that was a wild night!
Damian Kilroy: There is a lot of respect but we each do different things. The kind of music that The Observatory does, that’s what they’re really good at. I could not book a DJ stage, but I do know how to put bands on. It makes sense to ask the people who are good at these things to be involved.
Rod Quinton: Collaboration is so important. The more we help each other the better in the long-term. The scene will win in the end.
What would you like people leaving Coracle Music Festival to say?
Dan Bi Mong: I hope they’ll feel that this has been something special that has not happened before in this part of the country. There’s Quest and Equation festival in the north, but to have a really great festival in south Vietnam would be huge.
Linh Nguyen: “Amazing!” We want to put on something very minimalistic and simple, but amazing. Just a fantastic location by the sea, with great music, great food, great drinks and great people…