“Personally I can’t think of many instances where I’ve felt unsafe, but I’d also agree Birdcage, Savage and Sidewalk all have more sympathetic elements, so when we were attacked, I just thought someone’s chair had broken.” Hanoi-based American drag performer McKaylah Jo recounts the recent incident that saw bottles thrown from outside Bia Tay Ta this March – oddly enough, no suspects were apprehended. These sort of attacks are unfortunately not an anomaly for the LGBT community in Vietnam, although it is rare for foreigners to experience them. A 2009 study by the Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment (iSEE) found 4.5% of the 3200 LGBT people surveyed had experienced violent homophobic abuse and 6.5% had lost their job as a result of discrimination.
“We kept hearing loud crashes and it was only on the third crash that it kinda ran though my mind that something bad was happening, it was ok though – it was isolated, nobody panicked and they [the venue] made an announcement, but it was never solved – we never knew who it was or if it came from a place of hate.”
“It was quite scary,” adds AnnieTagonist – a fellow American drag queen living in Hanoi. “I thought it was just a balloon popping, but then it happened over and over again, it really disrupted the show, but it was good that there were so many supportive people there that night.”
Homosexuality has never technically been a crime in Vietnam, however it has also never really been an accepted facet of society – forced, instead, to exist in the shadows. Progress here has lurched forward a few steps, only to get dragged back a few more. Sadly, there still exists little to no legal framework protecting the rights of LGBT people against discrimination, but that has done little to deter the community finding enclaves of support within Hanoi’s nightlife. So when this beautiful, swirling mess of a city erupts into nightly merriment, where do the LGBT community find refuge?
“I definitely feel most comfortable in drag at Savage, it’s very secluded and they’ve always been welcoming to people from diverse backgrounds, even when I first arrived here, I’d go out in effeminate clothing and they really encouraged me, Savage is definitely my favourite in terms of inclusivity.” This is Lavender, who – hailing from Ireland – has been prominent in the Hanoi drag scene since its inception in January 2018. It’s a notion that AnnieTagonist agrees with. “Absolutely, but Sidewalk is great too – they’ve hosted our drag events in the past, at least I know that the owners are very open to LGBT people coming in.”
“You wanna feel safe,” ZaZazellia – a Vietnamese star in the drag show – agrees. “You need to know that the owners are behind you if something happens and at Savage, Sidewalk and let’s not forget Bia Tay Ta, we know the owners will have our back, same goes for Birdcage too.” Bia Tay Ta was the initial host of the early days drag shows, which have proven to draw in not just a mix of foreigners and locals, but also international media.
“I don’t really go anywhere that isn’t the venues I’ve mentioned so far.” Lavender explains that choosing where to go on a night out is not so simple when you’re a member of a minority community whose very existence is yet to be accepted by wider Vietnamese society. “I know these places are safe, they have a good reputation – I wouldn’t go out in drag to the Old Quarter.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom for the LGBT community – the drag shows have definitely opened people’s eyes and minds to where the line is in Hanoi, it would seem that more is possible than expected. “The local response has been strangely positive, the first time I went on-stage, I was terrified, but the level of support at the shows hosted by Bia Tay Ta, Sidewalk, Savage and Birdcage has been great – I walk down my alleyway in heels now, all of my neighbours know me.”
The drag shows have undoubtedly added a degree of visibility to what has often been a marginalised LGBT community in Hanoi. “We’ve got this new drag scene in Hanoi and people are accepting it really well, so I think it’s a move towards people being more open to it and to us as people.” ZaZazellia may have only been performing in drag for the past three months, but has already displayed an unnatural aptitude onstage, despite overcoming the struggles of growing up in an environment that few would call supportive.
Lavender is confident that the drag shows being hosted at multiple bars across Hanoi is a sign of better things to come. “Drag is something you don’t know you love until you experience it, you’re more than likely going to really enjoy a drag show and through these venues hosting us, it was inevitably going to lead to a wider acceptance and we have a great, diverse range of performers.”
For those members of the LGBT society that aren’t taking to the stage, life is different. Dinh Thi Mai Trang, originally from Nghe An province, is currently in a same-sex relationship. Dinh believes that part of the matter rests with the bars themselves, in terms of what they can do to help the LGBT community in their plight to lead a normal life. “There’s a list on LGBT Hanoi Facebook group that tells you which bars are friendly, accepting and a lot of places used to put up flags which made it more obviously visible as where you can go without worrying. It doesn’t take much to put up a flag.
“Vietnam is definitely moving forwards, new social standards are coming in – I think this is just the beginning of the changes to come, besides Vietnam’s still more open than a lot of South-East Asian countries.”