HO CHI MINH CITY – Excited Vietnamese Bob Dylan fans gathered Sunday to see the legendary American — whose songs became anthems of the anti-Vietnam war movement — make a symbolic debut in their country.
A hero for the West’s ageing “counter-culture” generation, Dylan and his protest songs are less well-known among the young population of the communist nation, who have no memory of the years of war with the United States.
But that didn’t stop large numbers of young Vietnamese, as well as expats, from turning out for the gig in Ho Chi Minh City, such as design student Tru Hong Ngoc, who said her favourite Dylan song was “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”.
“The melody is very nice and the lyrics are very beautiful,” the 20-year-old told AFP, adding that students had been offered two-for-one tickets.
“He was an inspiration to Trinh Cong Son,” she said, referring to the singer known as Vietnam’s Bob Dylan when he sang about peace at the height of the war.
Son died ten years ago this month in Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnamese singers were opening Dylan’s concert by performing 15 of Son’s love songs.
The gig in the former Saigon, Vietnam’s largest and most westernised city, was eagerly anticipated and expected to be “held very successfully”, said foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga.
It forms part of the musician’s Asia-Pacific tour marking 50 years since his first major performance on April 11, 1961.
He heads to Vietnam from Shanghai, where he performed on Friday night after his debut China gig in Beijing on Wednesday.
After reportedly banning a concert by Dylan last year, Beijing agreed he could perform if his songs were vetted by censors.
Nga could not say whether Dylan’s songs would have to be checked by Vietnamese authorities, but a review by censors would be normal procedure.
Washington and the European Union this week expressed concern over human rights and free expression in Vietnam after a high-profile dissident was jailed for anti-state propaganda activities.
In Beijing, also criticised by activists and Western governments over rights, Dylan did not play two politically-charged songs that are among his most well-known: “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
Brad Adams, an executive director at Human Rights Watch, accused Dylan of allowing censors to choose his playlist.
“Dylan should be ashamed of himself,” he said.
Since poverty-stricken and isolated Vietnam began to embrace the free market 25 years ago it has developed rapidly and become increasingly integrated with the rest of the world.
Chuck Searcy, a Vietnam War veteran who has lived in the country since 1995, saw the Dylan gig as part of this process, significant for the Vietnamese because he is a major international artist, rather than for his anti-war associations.
About half of Vietnam’s 86 million-strong population is aged under 30.
“They don’t have any political connection with the era in which Bob Dylan became famous,” Searcy said.
The concert comes after two much-hyped shows by American 90s boy band Backstreet Boys, who reportedly drew about 30,000 fans last month.