I took a trip to southern Vietnam this last summer and figured I would tell you all a little about my guitars escapades there, which I think you guys will find rather interesting. First of all, no, I didn't get to visit "Guitar Street" in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon before the war, but everyone still calls it Saigon). My time in Saigon was minimal and far too hectic to even consider trekking through horrible traffic to that area. I was in the deep south near Can Tho, a place where not as many tourists visit, I think. I was actually in a smaller town called O'mon, where some people told me they haven't seen a white guy since the war. This may be a long read, but I think many of you will find this interesting if you have never been developing country, much less searching for electric guitars in one.
Upon arriving in Vietnam, the first thing I actually wanted to do was visit "guitar street" in Saigon. I soon realized that wasn't going to happen based on the situations I was in, which is another story in itself. The traffic, pollution, and pure insanity was almost too much to bear after a sleepless 20 hour flight. I took a taxi to the deep south. It took four hours to travel 80 miles. I paid the guy an equivalent of $30. I would have probably been haggled or scammed for more, but my girlfriend knew the area and Vietnamese, so I was safe. I literally thought I was going to die in the car ride - the traffic was very unsafe and reckless. Again, culture shock was setting in. It took a few days, and I got the hang of it.
In Omon (near Can Tho), I was visiting my girlfriend's relatives and was pretty much treated like a king by everyone in town. Most have never seen a white guy, much less one with blue eyes and reddish hair. They soon found out I sang and played guitar. I was invited to a stranger's wedding and asked if I could sing "Hotel California" by the eagles (they all know this song for some reason). I said yes, and they had me sing it 5x that night. I had "lady boys" trying to flirt with me all night, and I guess I was on everyone's facebook in that Vietnamese town. Word spread. They were impressed and had me sing more American songs, mainly Backstreet Boys and N'sync, which was actually fun to do while drinking banana whiskey.
The next few days, I was lounging around and played a beat-up acoustic guitar at the house I was staying at. Random kids would come by and hear me play. The strings were literally so rusted they were black. It was a cheap acoustic guitar and played ok, despite the bad neck back-bow. Random kids would stop by and want to play guitar with me. I would play 80s tid-bits such as "Wait" by White Lion, "Mama I'm coming home," Firehouse, Scorpions, Van Halen, The Police, and many 80s era ballad acoustic stuff. They never heard anything like it. After a few weeks, I told my girlfriend I NEEDED TO SHOP FOR GUITARS.
First of all, I soon realized I wasn't going to find anything with quality in my area, especially an electric guitar. This is a poor country and most kids and people are lucky to afford an 80s imported cheap acoustic which needed serious TLC. Electric guitar is not common, and Rock n' Roll is not really there or popular from what I've seen. No one would be able to afford tube amps, or really any of the cheapest crap amps we wouldn't touch in America. This really shows up in their culture. Electric guitar is dead there - simply because most can't afford it. I desperately craved rock music and blasting my stereo as time lingered there. Either way, this was an adventure, and I wanted to see what I would find. I visited three shops in the Can Tho area, all ending in something rather interesting.
SHOP ONE: I step into this small, maybe 300 sq. ft. shop full of mainly acoustics and flutes. The owner's eyes lit up. He was rather excited to see an American in his shop. Some acoustics have very deep scalloped fretboards, which are used for some ancient music to get a certain tone. I played a few of them and some regular acoustics - none were setup right or tuned. He seemed surprised I knew these things. I seen some interesting flutes. He wanted to play some for me. He was a damn good flute player and I enjoyed the tone he got out of these handmade flutes. Fast forward 3 minutes, and I'm buying a fucking flute. I don't know how to play flute or even held one in my hand before, yet here I am buying their best flute for $25 - which is probably 3-5 days of work for the guy. Yeah, didn't expect that one. Anyway, time for the next shop!
2nd GUITAR SHOP: The next place was in some weird alley where my car could barely fit. It was pouring rain, and as I stepped into the shop, the owners were shocked. Again, it was all just acoustic guitars for maybe $50-$150. I seen some imports and off-brands I couldn't really make out. They played cheaply and were not hand-built to my knowledge. The action seemed high on them but I honestly only played one or two. It was always chaotic and I could never really relax. They wanted me to buy some weird contraption that plugged into an amp but wanted $50, an obvious price hike for what it was because I'm American. I said no but felt bad and bought some strings for $7, which had no brand name on them. I left and was off to the most interesting shop.
3rd GUITAR SHOP - THE ULTIMATE VIETNAMESE GUITAR TWEAKER: I was leaving the day craving more electric guitar sightings - everything was acoustic. I had one final destination in some area outside Can Tho. We waited for about 20 minutes for the guy to get home. Again, he didn't realize it was me and was rather excited to show an American his collection. He opened the door, and there sat about 100 guitars, about half of them "project" guitars which he was modding or fixing. He found out I was from America and soon replied as my girlfriend translated, "Why the hell are you looking for guitars here? You have the best guitars in the world!" I said I know but was just curious and had time to kill. The dude had total GAS and had so many project guitars, which were probably used to jab parts off of.
I played about 20 of his electrics, all of them pretty much crap but he did his best to fix and make them better. He seemed impressed that I knew what what to look for in the guitars. It's tough to repair electric guitars there. It's not like here where we can find guitar parts easily or buy online. It's expensive as hell to maintain and fix electric guitars when you are in these developing countries. I showed him pictures of my Hamer Chaparral elite and a 12 string import Hamer bass I used to have. He didn't recognize the name but did recognize the Floyd Rose, something which he said he doesn't see much of. He liked the boomerang inlays. He kept saying how lucky I have it in America with guitar selection. I didn't buy anything but offered $10 for his time, which he said no because he had a fun time chatting about guitars. I think next time I visit I'll bring him a nice parts guitar I have laying around.
So, in summary, I spent three weeks in Vietnam searching for guitars and ended up buying a flute.