Gone were the days of timing one’s bathroom dash exactly during commercial breaks and gathering around a neighbor’s old television set, the only one in the entire alley, to relish every minute of a hot soap opera.
The arrival of Netflix in Vietnam wasn’t accompanied by much fanfare: three years ago, the streaming giant announced a worldwide expansion to 130 countries, including Vietnam, bringing its reach to 190 nations. Even now, Netflix is still largely unknown among the local population, who are content with the hours of entertainment they can extract from Facebook and YouTube. But that might change soon.
Just last month, Netflix quietly launched a Vietnamese-language interface with more locally produced movies popping up over time, such as the action smash hit Hai Phuong and LGBT flick Yeu. Still, when it comes to series, Netflix’s library is woefully lacking. It dabbled in some luscious Saigon food porn in an episode of the documentary Street Food, but to date, the only Vietnamese-produced show available is Hau Due Mat Troi, a remake of the South Korean drama Descendants of the Sun.
If the original went on to be a regional phenomenon whose rights were bought by 32 countries, the Vietnamese remake is at best an exercise in good-looking mediocrity, and at worst a gross disservice to local television shows. I am aware that Netflix is not a bastion of cinematic excellence; in fact, as the service diversifies, it has churned out some truly horrendous train wrecks. But, for the first-ever Vietnamese representative, in my opinion we could do much better than Hau Due Mat Troi, especially when local show producers are fully capable of creating original stories that are rooted in Vietnamese culture.
Which brings us to the following list of series that shaped the local pop culture landscape of 2000s Vietnam. A decade later, what was once hip has turned vintage; cringe-worthy, dorky moments have become endearing; and Top 40 soundtracks are now nostalgia fodder. The series span from 1997 to 2008, so there are technical limitations to their viewing format, but they all share shining qualities like compelling scripts, distinctly Vietnam settings and memorable writing that has resulted in some iconic lines and moments. The list is mostly based in southern Vietnam, as I am most familiar with shows from this region; moreover, it’s by no means exhaustive. Let us know about the Vietnamese series of your childhood that should be available for everyone to see.
1. Dat Phuong Nam (Song of the South), 1997
Directed by Nguyen Vinh Son | Produced by TFS
Adapted from the novel Dat Rung Phuong Nam by Doan Gioi, Dat Phuong Nam is a period piece set in the Mekong Delta during the decades after 1945 when the southern region was under French occupation. The story is told via the perspective of 12-year-old An, who became an orphan after his mother was killed during a bombing. An’s quest to find his father becomes a canvas reflecting the trials and tribulations of residents of the delta and the secret campaign by revolutionaries to overthrow oppressors. Political intrigue, resistance and compassion in the face of hardships are some overarching themes driving the narrative forward.
An has no parents, but is taken care of by scores of strangers throughout his time on the street — the epitome of southern hospitality, a treasured quality that still characterizes Mekong Delta residents today. The sterling script creates meaningful, natural dialogues that flesh out characters as real people and not just caricatures. Amid sequences of violence and backstabbing, viewers are also treated to the picturesque landscapes of the Mekong, with a vast sky filled with egrets and rivers churning with alluvium. Dat Phuong Nam is also one of the few series that were released in English on DVD.
2. Kinh Van Hoa (Kaleidoscope), 2004
Directed by Nguyen Minh Chung and Do Tu Hai | Produced by TFS
Though it’s often considered a children’s series, Kinh Van Hoa’s wacky shenanigans might appeal to teens, young adults and even adults who are young at heart. Much of the show’s appeal is thanks to the script, which is based on Kinh Van Hoa, a set of stories by Nguyen Nhat Anh — think R. L. Stine’s Fear Street, but more adventure-centric and less macabre. The main trio, Quy, Tieu Long and Hanh, are high school students with a knack for uncovering secrets and playing detective whose dynamic bears a surprising resemblance to that of the Harry Potter series: an audacious mastermind, a klutzy sidekick and a know-it-all geek. Young viewers might find the life of the trio quite relatable while, for older members of the audience, the series might serve to subvert their common belief that Vietnamese children are mindless bookworms that only pay attention to schoolwork and video games. Quy, Tieu Long and Hanh, despite their age-appropriate flaws, are good people at heart who have shown from time to time that they’re inquisitive, altruistic and surprisingly crafty.
3. Doc Tinh (Hills of Love), 2005
Directed by Luu Trong Ninh
In the 2010s, the romanticization of Da Lat is in full force, driven by feature films like Thang Nam Ruc Ro or music videos such as ‘Mo’ by Vu Cat Tuong. But for urban Vietnamese of the mid-2000s, Doc Tinh was the original attraction that sowed the seeds of the “Da Lat fever.” It helped sell the idea of the sleepy resort town as a prime destination to fall in and out of love while looking fashionably cozy in autumn layers.
A Shakespearean tale of two rival families whose deep entanglement becomes even more convoluted when their children meet, fight and even fall in love — all set amid the wistful fog of Da Lat. With a cast filled with fresh faces and fashion models, the series boasts one of the most charismatic casts of this list and catapulted some of its actors to a level of stardom that remains today. Fans of South Korean soap operas won’t be disappointed as there’s something for everyone to clutch their pearls about, from a scandalous May-December romance to several love triangles.
4. Huong Phu Sa (The Scent of Silt), 2006
Directed by Vo Tan Binh | Produced by TFS
From the pine trees of Da Lat, in 2006, we come back to the riverine hamlets of the Mekong Delta in the 2006 hit Huong Phu Sa. Filmed in Ben Tre Province, the show chronicles the events and love lives of a famed artisan family who specializes in building wooden boats . Hoang, the oldest son, rejects the family tradition and moves to Saigon to start a company, leaving the business in the hands of Ut Nho, the middle daughter. Ut Nho’s love interest is Viet, an artsy engineer with a majestic hairdo, who is also involved with Ut Rang, the youngest daughter. Saucy!
A quality that makes Huong Phu Sa stand out is a conscious effort to always keep the setting in mind, from script-writing to cinematography. Who can forget the iconic kiss, dubbed the “mud kiss” by fans, between Ut Nho and Viet while swimming in a lotus pond. The series presents a modern, dynamic side of the delta where young locals wear skirts, jeans and go on date nights, instead of the often backward and rural image commonly associated with southern Vietnam. Ultimately, in this age of worsening climate fears, it serves as a reminder that, despite future water-pocalypse projections, perhaps the people of the Mekong will be okay, as they have thrived amid rivers and flooding for centuries.
5. Mui Ngo Gai (Scent of Culantro), 2006
Directed by Kim Hyo-joong, Han Chul-soo, Chu Thien and Tran Huu Phuc | Produced by Vifa and CJ Media
Mui Ngo Gai was a television series of many firsts. At the end of airing, it was the longest-running Vietnamese show ever created, at 106 episodes. It was also the first collaborative effort between Vietnamese and South Korean producers and the first local series filmed entirely in a dedicated studio in District 9. As the name suggests, phở is a central theme of the show, a common thread that runs through the life story of Vy, the main character from when she was young through well into her adulthood. Vy had a rough childhood, but while working as a waitress at a phở restaurant, she grows fond of the dish and aspires to make her national food more available all over the world.
Mui Ngo Gai was first written by Korean scriptwriters, who spent months living in Vietnam to familiarize themselves with the setting, then localized by Vietnamese writers, so its grasp on local culture is more nuanced than Hau Due Mat Troi. Still, it contains several melodramatic tropes that are hallmarks of Korean soaps, including illegitimate children, corporate takeovers and of course, labyrinthine relationship networks. The show, however, also benefits from the Korean attention to detail in production and costume design and a cast chock-full of Saigon’s finest theater actors and actresses.
6. Bong Dung Muon Khoc (Suddenly Want to Cry), 2008
Directed by Vu Ngoc Dang | Produced by BHD
Apart from providing one of the most popular memes of 2008, Bong Dung Muon Khoc marked the rise of quirkiness in Vietnamese cinema and TV. After two decades of schmaltzy Korean and Taiwanese histrionics, viewers were looking for something new, and Bong Dung Muon Khoc was like a breath of fresh air into an otherwise stale TV landscape. The main couple is a pair of mismatched lovers with a healthy dose of manic pixie dream girl.
Nam is nowhere near your average swoon-worthy male lead: he’s lazy, argumentative and hedonistic to the point that he was evicted by his parents for partying too much. Truc sells old books in a public park in Saigon, but she’s illiterate. She always wears an áo dài and leaves her hair untied. And if that’s not enough to reinforce her status as a manic pixie dream girl, she’s also honest, innocent and doesn’t know how to lie. Truc allows Nam to take refuge in her “home,” which is an abandoned house with makeshift furniture and mossy walls, and slowly they begin to connect as she teaches him about the realities of life. The plot is admittedly ridiculous, but the chemistry between Truc and Nam is so charming and believable that it turns Bong Dung Muon Khoc into 2008’s biggest pop culture phenomenon.
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