Việt Thảo and the Art of Intimacy
Hey, I Want to Tell You Something…
Nè. Nói nghe nè… Việt Thảo beckons in his warm, Mekong Delta-accented voice, smiling at you. The audience is immediately pulled into a space of engagement. The phrase is a signal to attention; it’s a social pact that says: “Come closer. We’re going to have a moment together right now. I’m going to tell you something.” The listener leans in.
This is how MC Việt Thảo begins every episode of “Chuyện Bên Lề” [Side Stories], a 9-year-running program he hosts on his YouTube channel to over 726K subscribers. The oral culture Việt Thảo uses to engage, as the democratic platform and accessible format he’s cultivated over the past decade, cues us to what sets him apart from so many other Vietnamese stage performers.
These four simple words capture scenes of everyday Vietnamese life with rapt attention: wives sweetly chiding their husbands; mothers gently sowing a lesson into their children’s ears; a guy announcing news to his fellow villagers. Lovers use this phrase to blanket the moment in tenderness, and draw focus to what’s about to be said next.
Those sensitive to language understand: “Nè. Nói nghe nè” is a vernacular of Vietnamese folk culture alerting to an immediate and personal interaction. Notably, the phrase dispenses with the linguistic convention of using indirect pronouns that serve to establish the (often hierarchical) relationship between the speaker and the listener, but that also creates distance. Some may consider the use of this phrase disrespectful or uneducated, but its basic function is genius: it’s a social leveler that collapses boundaries between people and brings them closer.
An exploration of his work and approach before and especially during this season of isolation highlights a striking fact: Việt Thảo is a master of creating intimacy and a trailblazer. He has the distinct ability to forge connections across generations and social spaces, from the event stage to digital space. His early adoption of social media rooted him in an online ecosystem of forms and content that has enabled him to continue connecting to his longtime fan base—and engage a younger audience of second-generation Vietnamese abroad and at home through immersive experiences. Việt Thảo may not know this, but he has tapped into a sensational internet subculture massively popular among millennials for its ability to create feelings of immediacy and closeness. We explore this below.
In some ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the social disconnections that already exist in our society. If anything, this moment of pause offers an opportunity to reset and revitalize relationships. While quarantines have disrupted or completely halted production for many in the world of Vietnamese arts and entertainment, it has only increased Việt Thảo’s output and his dedication to being closer to his audience.
The Importance of Side Stories, Food and Folk Culture in Our Contemporary Lives
Việt Thảo has always walked the line between the formal and the folk, the elevated and the accessible, with incredible ease. A mix of eloquent, thoughtful address to his audience and off-the-cuff quips show his warmth, wit and comedic charm. To watch even a handful of his massive body of work over the past 40 years is to know: Việt Thảo has a distinct ability to draw people closer. His open and affable approach makes us feel instantly welcomed and invited to participate in something special—from comedy clubs, to banquet hall weddings, to church benefits, to the building of temples, to big stage productions of giants like Thúy Nga, Asia Entertainment, and Vân Sơn (for whom he was the veteran host for almost 20 years). To my knowledge, Việt Thảo is the only MC to have hosted his own Tonight Show to rival those of American broadcast television.
A master among masters of ceremonies on all the world’s stages, Việt Thảo is now accomplishing something rare and unexpected on the small home screen: he is tending an archive of our hopes, fears, and appetites. Việt Thảo’s robust collection of “Chuyện Bên Lề” [Side Stories] creates a common space for the art of simple sharing and intimacy. As the title suggests, “side stories” are a colorful mosaic of little paths less tread; meaningful asides, and not mainstream traffic. The stories can be grouped into three broad themes: ghost stories, food stories, and Việt Thảo at large (or on the roam). These stories form a rich catalogue of experiences of and for the Vietnamese community at home and abroad. All three themes are extensions of the show’s original framework, as a forum for sharing personal thoughts and feelings [tâm tình], where Việt Thảo would act as the advice columnist, the trusted confidante.
The format is beguilingly simple—and surprisingly captivating. With the ghost stories, people write to Việt Thảo, send him their paranormal stories as experienced firsthand or by someone close to them. He reads them aloud, amplifying the author’s experience through his own voice, drawing an audience into the virtual story circle. He’s always close to the camera within a tight frame. This echo-chamber between writer-reader-audience gives each personal tale more resonance, a social dimension and extended life. They validate and normalize obscure experiences to some extent. Because these stories come from Vietnamese people of all ages, backgrounds and from different regions, they give the audience glimpses into other lives. The stories are informative and co-creative as they expand the sensory geography of the Vietnamese community in the world. These stories also form a rich library of Vietnamese spiritual beliefs connected to the land, sea, animals, and ancestors. Việt Thảo is the keeper of this archive.
In the episodes on cuisines, Việt Thảo places a (often still-steaming) dish he has just prepared before us, then proceeds to savor it with lips-smacking gusto. As he describes its flavors, aromas, ingredients, and origins, he eats loudly, with great pleasure, chewing, slurping and making excited sounds, squeals of “ui, cha!” We watch, salivating, because we have eaten versions of these very dishes before, prepared by our mothers or grandmothers. Or it is simply his sheer delight in food that makes this voyeuristic act extremely enjoyable. Through this vicarious pleasure, Việt Thảo invites us to “cùng ăn và cùng thèm” [eat together and crave together]. But it’s more than just the food we crave. Việt Thảo pairs the ingredients of food with culinary heritage, people and place to touch his audience viscerally and create a virtual, immersive social space.
In episodes of Việt Thảo at large, he takes the eating show on the road, savoring whatever delicacies a region and its Vietnamese community has to offer. The audience partakes in his explorations of other parts of the world that, while different, are extensions of our own Vietnamese identity. One memorable episode of Việt Thảo on the roam shows the grown man with a child’s glee as he picks wild blackberries from thorny bushes on the side of a road in Washington State. The audience watches him pop one berry after another into his mouth and experiences a pure, simple joy, perhaps fondly recalling an August summer of their own childhood.
The seemingly simplistic form, content and approach of these stories are a foil. Not merely entertainment, these stories provide important, overlooked social services. Việt Thảo’s older viewers, those who have lost their zeal for food, will watch the show and gain renewed interest in eating. Việt Thảo reminds them of flavor sensations as he becomes their dinner companion. Children will ask their parents to cook the very dish they see Việt Thảo eat onscreen, spurring an opportunity for family bonding. People recall a time and place when they ate a particular dish with a loved one and re-experience a sense of belonging.
Similarly, the ghost stories, Việt Thảo tells us, are not meant to spook people. Rather than provide cheap thrills, the stories actually have a soothing effect. More than one fan has remarked that the ghost stories act like a sedative that eases their anxieties and helps them fall asleep at night, lulled by Việt Thảo’s gentle, calm and even tone. The stories contribute to a rich Vietnamese cosmology that includes the spiritual dimension, certainly, but they also offer earthly comfort through oral tradition. In some ways, the strange tales are but a vehicle for the age-old practice of storytelling, and fulfill those connective social functions now lost in our hurried modern lives. When was the last time someone told you a story at night?
To date, he has published over 2000 videos and 1297 episodes of “Chuyện Bên Lề.” His publishing schedule has been more or less consistent throughout the years, but in the months of this pandemic, the frequency of his output has tripled. Việt Thảo faithfully gives us new content every day now. Like a devout father, he makes appointments to read (and record) a new ghost story or three for his listeners at 21:00 every night, when the sky darkens and the world quiets. To preserve the atmosphere, he closes all windows and curtains, turns off all the lights, and unplugs any humming appliance that might disrupt the sacred space dedicated to his audience.
Observant viewers will notice that along with posting daily now, the side stories have been more focused on home cooking, or sharing a table in the day, and on the ghost stories, or sharing a bedside at night. They intimate greater closeness. In our conversation, Việt Thảo expresses that there is an even greater need to provide viewers with stories during this intense period of isolation. While the pandemic has slowed production for many artists and performers, it has boosted Việt Thảo’s efforts to generate consistent content to bring his viewers some enjoyment, or help them feel connected. For Việt Thảo, there is a clear civic dimension to his work. For him, social media platforms provide ways to service the community, not to increase self-interest.
Việt Thảo’s Long-Time Approach: Focus on the Social Aspect of Media
Vietnamese performers have only in recent years began building their YouTube channels, mostly as a work catalogue. The pandemic has urged them to use social media in other ways to engage their audiences. For example, the singer Thế Sơn started building his station in 2015, posting a steady handful of videos of his past performances each year and a couple of him singing directly to his audience. More recently in a living-room concert livestream, he sang a song dedicated to the pandemic frontline workers. The cải lương folk opera artist Ngọc Huyền started her YouTube channel in 2016, also as a catalogue of her extensive body of work (she sang her first operetta on stage in 1985, at the age of 15). In 2017, she began to do a few livestreams, but these were sparse. More recently, Ngọc Huyền began inviting audiences into her personal life: shopping with her mom (appropriately masked during this pandemic), or into her home kitchen where her mom shows us how to cook a beloved Vietnamese dish, bún riêu cua [crab paste soup].
Việt Thảo was an early adopter of YouTube as a platform to connect directly with audiences before it was popular. For context, YouTube was founded in 2005; Việt Thảo had his own channel in 2009 and began posting videos in 2010. At first, like other artists, he used YouTube as a catalogue of his performance work with Vân Sơn and others. The show soon became a traveling correspondence program. Chuyện Bên Lề was a way for Việt Thảo to efficiently respond to questions and comments from his fan base, and answer their appeals for advice on life and love. Rather than write back, he responded to his audience directly on camera. He did this from wherever he happened to be traveling in the world to host events, charity fundraisers, and big stage programs.
What began as a “Dear, Việt Thảo” advice column grew into an extended interactive affair of shared stories, life experiences and meals. Việt Thảo has used YouTube consistently as a front-facing platform to directly interact with his audience from the start, inviting them on the road with him, to different parts of the world, into the hotels, restaurants, his living room, and finally, to his dining table. While the show has evolved into distinct threads of ghost stories, food, and travelogues, they are all extensions of the show’s original framework and intention—an intimate space to share thoughts and feelings.
Some Vietnamese performers hold back on social-media sharing because they think it may diminish their value and image. This isn’t the case for Việt Thảo. “Even if it’s just amusing someone with a video of you giving yourself a bad haircut during the pandemic, it’s worthwhile. Making someone smile and bringing them some joy in their day is always worthwhile. The smallest acts have meaning.” Việt Thảo is less self-important than some who consider themselves stage performers and above such “lowly” forms of engagement. “If it brings people joy, why not do it?” He remarks.
The difference between acts of service and acts of commercialism lay in the purpose and intent: “If your purpose is just to have a show with some flashy content to attract sales, then it goes nowhere. But if you start with the audience in mind and think about what would bring them the greatest enjoyment, the quality of their experience, you’ll be on the right road.” Whereas some people in the entertainment business conceive of ways to cash in on star-power, Việt Thảo insists that artists should think less about themselves and consider ways they can bring pleasure to their audience. He uses a food analogy: “You have to create a worthy dish fit to serve people. Something that they can truly savor.” The format of his Tonight Show is evidence of just this sort of thinking: a host, just one singer or special guest, a full band, a live audience, and an hour of deep engagement. This thoughtful approach shows respect for the audience as it considers their enjoyment of an immersive experience; it diverges from the big stage shows that can sometimes feel like a fast-food buffet of celebrities and pageantry rather than a proper sit-down meal.
Việt Thảo the “OG Mukbanger” and ASMRtist
Việt Thảo’s open, unselfconscious approach makes him wildly appealing to younger audiences. Việt Thảo may not know this: with his eating broadcasts, he has tapped into a subculture popular among the younger generation that has blown up on the internet in recent years. What he’s been doing for nearly a decade in service to his fans is a now part of a massive online media trend that brand marketers have been trying to capitalize on for the past few years.
Subtle Viet Traits is a private Facebook group that fosters community around Vietnamese identity; it has over 93K members. An August 19, 2020 post by one astute member points out: “My man really be doing mukbang videos and doesn’t even know about it.” The post includes a screen capture of Việt Thảo from episode 685 of Chuyện Bên Lề, “Cách làm VỊT QUAY THƠM GIÒN tại EDEN SUPERMARKET ở VIRGINIA, USA” [Method of Making Crispy and Aromatic Roast Duck at Eden Supermarket in Virginia, USA].
The comments generated from this post as well as the commenters’ profiles offer some interesting insights. 90% are second-generation Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese) in their 20s; the rest in their 30s. There are a few comments such as “My parents watch him all the time!” and “My mom loves watching this guy!” to confirm that Việt Thảo is popular among an older generation. Other, more illuminating, comments include: “That dude is a legend”; “I adore that man”; “A legend. I wanted to eat whatever he was eating”; “My BOI”; and several proclamations that Việt Thảo is “The OG!”
OG, or “original gangster,” is a slang term for someone who’s incredibly exceptional, authentic, or “old-school.” Though it originated in gang culture, it’s become a hip way of referring or showing respect to someone who’s an expert in any facet of life. Used earnestly, it shows admiration for someone considered impressive. If something is OG, it’s the first of its kind or unique—that is, original. What’s apparent from the comment thread is that a younger generation of Vietnamese also know and love Việt Thảo. Indeed, they view him as a legend and a trailblazer. Though Việt Thảo may not be aware of this (and that’s part of his charm), his YouTube food videos fall into a category of massively popular internet subculture.
“Mukbang” is a mashup of the South Korean words for “eating” (meokneun) and “broadcast” (bangsong), and refers to online eating shows where an individual eats large portions of food on camera while interacting with viewers. Việt Thảo has been happily sharing his meals with audiences since 2014 (one particular episode shows him cutting open a guava plucked from his garden and happily crunching through the toothsome flesh). There are now studies that explore the psychology of this phenomenon of people obsessed with watching eating broadcasts. Though this genre first started in South Korea a decade ago, it’s now gained massive popularity in a number of other countries; hundreds of thousands access the internet every day in order to watch eating videos. Mukbang popularity increased worldwide when an American YouTuber introduced this content to western countries in 2015 with commentary.
A scoping review of academic and non-academic literature indicates that viewers use mukbang watching for social reasons, eating reasons, and/or as an escapist/compensatory strategy. Studies found that mukbang watching appears to have benefits that include diminishing feelings of loneliness and social isolation, increasing pleasure in the feeling of eating with friends, and constructing a sense of belonging via a virtual community. Some theorized that watching mukbang videos was a strategy to cope with eating alone, increasingly commonplace in many parts of the world. Watching these kinds of videos fulfilled a desire to eat with company. Viewers felt emotional closeness, as if they were dining with a friend. Many comments left by viewers on Việt Thảo’s food videos suggest they also serve this function: “I’m in luck…it’s just lunch time…I’ll eat and watch uncle so I crave less…” [May quá…vừa tới giờ cơm trưa…thôi vừa ăn vừa xem chú cho đỡ thèm…] In these food videos, the camera is always positioned in flat front view with half the table showing, making the viewer feel as though they are sitting at the table with Việt Thảo.
Việt Thảo’s eating videos seem to satisfy a physical and sentimental hunger by creating a sense of social bonding and belonging with the other viewers. The dishes he heartily consumes are dishes we are familiar with, or fond of, as a Vietnamese peoples: pickled June plums and green mangoes dipped in chili salt, roast duck, opo squash soup with pork ribs, stir-fried bitter melon with beef and garlic…the list goes on. These dishes represent an extension of our culinary heritage, validated in the wider world. The act of watching Việt Thảo eat these meals provides a sense of eating together, while sharing his pleasure vicariously fosters bonding among the viewers. The viewing community could also interact and communicate with each other on a common interest, which promotes elevated feelings of pleasure and belonging. Even though the viewers may not know one another, they could feel the presence of other viewers through the chat screen or comments and likes, which builds a sense of togetherness.
Some researchers have also theorized that people watch mukbang videos as an escape or compensatory strategy. Viewers wanted to observe someone eat different foods because they were unable to access a wide variety of foods (for example, because they were hospital patients, or for whatever health reasons, have lost their appetite). One viewer remarks: “Uncle! You have some age but I see you eat very heartily and you can eat a lot! I am still young, just 30 this year, but often suffer bloating so even when I see something I like I can only crave vicariously” [chú ơi! chú có tuổi vậy mà con thấy chú ăn rất ngon miệng và ăn được khá nhiều! con còn trẻ năm nay mới 30 tuổi mà rất hay bị đầy bụng nên gặp món thích cũng vẫn phải ăn thòm them]. Việt Thảo’s lusty eating fulfills fantasies for some who want to see him eat things they perhaps cannot access at the moment. One viewer pleads: “Uncle, eat rice paper rolled with fresh herbs and poached pork (pork ears) dipped in mixed shrimp paste, please!” [Chú ơi ăn bánh tráng cuốn rau sống thịt luộc (tai heo) chấm mắm tôm pha đi ạ]. There are many other requests to see Việt Thảo eat foods from particular Vietnamese regions, which validates an identity and sense of belonging in some ways.
It’s known that mukbang viewers enjoyed seeing people eating noisily and demonstrating pleasure. Việt Thảo eats with abandon. He often chews and slurps noisily, and makes guttural expressions of visceral delight: “ui, cha… ngon quá …mmm…” One study of how mukbang is changing digital communication suggests that viewers obtained particular pleasure from the sensations of seeing someone eat and listening to their eating sounds. The writer claimed that these sounds elicited an “autonomous sensory meridian” response (ASMR), a sensation of deep relaxation characterized by a tingling of the scalp and skin that triggers feelings of euphoria and relief washing over the brain and body. Think of it like the best scalp massage you have ever received.
According to neurologists now studying this phenomenon, the tingly ASMR effect is triggered by certain types of visual and audio prompts, including soft-spoken commentary and eating sounds that increased viewers’ feeling of being immediately present. Consumer brand marketers have jumped onto the growing ASMR trend bandwagon over the years, trying to create immersive experiences through sound stimuli and capitalizing on deeper engagement. One of Việt Thảo’s fan comments: “I’m a fan of ASMR so I like watching this kind of video” [Con là Fan của ASMR nên thích coi mấy video kiểu này]. Việt Thảo just happened to tap into one of the most popular and growing online trends of the past five years—simply by doing exactly what he’s always done: share openly with joyful abandon.
The length of Việt Thảo’s side stories (between 30-60 mins) and their format (unhurried, intimate, direct address) seem to contribute to this relaxing effect. The videos demand that viewers slow down, take time to sit with someone, and just listen. The ASMR effects of Việt Thảo’s side stories may help alleviate the stresses of our fast-paced lives. Watching someone actually sit down and enjoy a meal or listening to someone tell you stories at night can help ease anxieties by creating a sense calmness and closeness. More than ever, the social bonding functions of storytelling and food-sharing may present antidotes to our current world of anxiety and isolation.
A Call to Action for Artists in the Time of Covid-19
“It doesn’t matter what you do, you have to bring your heart to it. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you don’t bring your heart to it, then the work doesn’t have meaning. That’s the difference between the technical (skill) and true feeling.”
Việt Thảo insists on redrawing the artist-audience relationship, especially during the pandemic. He poses this thought as it relates to performers: “Instead of thinking of your own interests, think of how you can be of service to others, to the countless people out there during this pandemic. They need a song, a voice, a story, a confidante, sharing. The mediums to accomplish this are all out there already. You don’t need a stage to provide these services. Artists should be activated and fighting at the frontlines of the pandemic. Not like doctors or nurses, but by using their voice to bring people feelings of joy, relief, connection, or healing…that’s the work of the artist.” Việt Thảo scoffs at the notion that the pandemic should prevent artists from continuing their work: “If put your heart into the service of others, you can create and produce no matter what situation you find yourself in.”
After 40 years in any profession, many people begin to lose relevancy because the world has changed so much, or because they’ve lost touch with their audience base. Not so for Việt Thảo. His personal, earthy approach has not changed over the years. If anything, his work has evolved into more authentic ways of interacting and sharing more immersive experiences. While he first appeared on our stages, Việt Thảo has moved fluidly out into the spaces of our world, our streets, into our homes and digital spaces. He’s shifted the focus from the performer to the people. Our conversation with Việt Thảo makes it apparent: if his stories, voice and approach were needed in our society before the pandemic, they are now more crucial than ever.
Trang Cao, PhD.
Read this article in Vietnamese