Dad always told me over the dinner table, “we are working class, we’re not the class of thinking people, we are construction site collies, it’s time you boys realised that…” And my brother and I both became musicians!
This is Vietnam’s Renovation Generation. In episode one we’re talking to Vũ Đinh Trọng Thắng. Lead singer of the indie rock group Ngọt, born in 1995. The band write wistful songs about things like invisible girlfriends and salmon. We invited Thắng to talk about family pressure, personal philosophy, rising fame and what he’s hoping for in the next decade.
PART 1: Family
His Dad sadly passed away 3 years ago. Without his Dad’s critical eye watching over him now, his relationship with playing and writing music has changed.
He didn’t want me to play music during times of exams and things like that. After he passed away I actually had more opportunity to play music. Playing music kind of helps me to think a lot.
Today, he tries to hide his rock ‘n roll activities from his Mum.
It kinda shocks her a lot to listen to some of my songs. I just want her to stay with the old image she has of me, until it’s too late.
Ideally, Thắng would prefer to live away from home and family.
It’s not a really common thing in Vietnam for kids to live far away from parents. but I always demand some personal space to think and all that.
PART 2: Music, bands and girls
Thắng started his musical career in high school with a 60s cover band, which gave him a good idea of how not to be in a band.
I was a singer back then, and they made me practise really hard for that song, but when I go on stage they said “let’s have my friend go on stage and sing this one!” So in the end I was only singing 3 songs in a 10-song gig.
So he got out of that band, and in the meantime, pursued creative activities with his best friend, like making video games, coding, drawing…
At the end I started to say OK we focus on music now, now I’m in charge.
Learning from past mistakes in that 60s cover band, he realised he needed a band manager…
I have to be my own band manager, because no one would do that for me.
His responsibilities included fixing amps, organising band practices, recording and mastering tracks. He even roped his girlfriend into band administration.
She worked with the crowd funding project and answering emails now.
I organise music events in Hanoi, and I first met Thắng a couple of years ago when he played at my venue, aged 18. Back then every member of Ngọt had wide-rimmed glasses and extreme stage awkwardness. Thắng was the only one who looked to the audience rather than his instrument. This is a clip from them playing at CAMA ATK.
Back when I first met Thắng, he came across wiser than his actual age. His girlfriend Họa My might have something to do with that. Their relationship is very unusual for his generation.
For the point that she’s six years older than me, I really love how she’s teaching me a lot. I always think we make a good team. She has a really good taste, what is like and what is not, and every song that she shows me amazes me.. And I learn something from that.
We met at a trà đá – tiny tea restaurant – call it sidewalk tea right – and after that when we are in a relationship we would go to places like that a lot.
When planning for the future of Ngọt, Thắng has a clear idea how he thinks they can succeed.
Part 3: Hopes and Dreams
I don’t really have any plans because I don’t want to see my plans shatter. I’m a pretty pessimist guy. I’m just really sure about keep making music, keep writing songs. Every week we have three days of practise and every day we started to understand each other a little bit better.
Ngọt are really special in Hanoi for the fact that they write their own songs, and they have ambition to play outside of Hanoi. 2015 was the first year Ngọt travelled to the South of Vietnam to play a festival. Thắng’s rise to fame has been happening through the gigs he’s been playing, and via YouTube, when he heard people around the country covering his songs and putting them online.
It’s not your song anymore, it’s just the song and.. it’s crazy to see that one day some thought in your brain starts to become an actual product that people use.
Based on older successful Vietnamese bands, Ngọt have to impress audiences overseas, before they can get the recognition they deserve in their own country.
People started to realise that there’s this little country in the coast of Asia somewhere… It worked with South Korea and K-Pop…
But the musical infrastructure of Vietnam can’t really compare to South Korea. Practice spaces, recording studios, labels, …- all of these are few and far between.
So before our time was up chatting to Thắng, we wanted him to play us something.
I started writing songs with this idea that I didn’t like to write about love songs a lot. Because there were so many love songs around that were singing about broken relationships and all that, I’m kinda tired of that. So my goal when I first started was to write bright sounds but talking about dark political shit. But after that I really wanted to prove that it’s not that I can’t write love songs, it’s just that I don’t want to.
This song has added to Ngọt’s growing popularity online.
I write about an imaginary girlfriend, it went viral online. So it’s the most viewed song on YouTube, by my band.
The Renovation Generation is produced by me Eliza Lomas, Fabiola Buchele and Trang Nghiem. It’s an & Of Other Things production.