When night falls in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam, an electric energy appears. Bar promoters boasting venues’ offerings spill onto the street, where large, lively groups of patrons imbibe amidst a smörgåsbord of music emitted from closely packed clubs. Behind the turntable, a growing number of women DJs are paving the way for a more gender- and sexually-inclusive scene in Vietnam’s nightlife. At the forefront of this movement is Pho The Girls—a DJ workshop for women and nonbinary people presented by collective SYS Sister Sounds. The collective is empowering girls and gender nonconforming individuals to take up space in the music and club industries.
Founded by Margaret Tra, the collective and its workshops began three years ago when Tra moved to Vietnam from Brussels. Having struggled to find a woman, particularly a woman of color, to teach her to DJ when she first started, Tra knew firsthand how many barriers to entry there are in the field—from finding the right teacher to having enough money and confidence to buy equipment. Her experience inspired her to pass on what she learned to others. “I’d gone to Vietnam once every year for the last couple of years because my dad’s Vietnamese and my mom’s Cambodian,” Tra tells us. “I was just like, ‘You know what, I want to go back, live in Vietnam and start SYS Sister Sounds.'”
The goal, Tra explains, was (and still is) to inspire confidence in women, and to place Asian voices at the forefront. “I’ve probably taught over 100 Vietnamese women but it’s still a traditional space. My big thing was I just want to teach them that it’s possible to earn an income from being creative or being in the music industry. That’s something that I struggle with with my parents, so I can only imagine what it’s like with local, Vietnamese girls,” she says, as entering creative industries isn’t encouraged as highly there, especially for women.
This is particularly true in DJing, an industry where outdated stereotypes about women persist. “In Vietnam, there’s a big thing that women are called sexy DJs. So a lot of the time, they’ll just be like, ‘Oh, you’re a DJ? You’re just one of those sexy DJs,'” says Tra. Time after time, she’s watched women get turned away from clubs, never getting opportunities to share music while men get seemingly unlimited chances.
To break these gender barriers in Vietnam, Pho The Girls hosts intimate, inclusive workshops where everyone gets a chance to use the gear, learn to use CDJs and controllers and understand the basics. Classes are typically kept on the smaller side to encourage a more hands-on atmosphere. Though these workshops began with the intention to teach others to DJ, they became so much more than getting behind the deck.
“It just became this community unknowingly with a bunch of women who DJ or some of them don’t even DJ, they just love the idea. We’d all just hang out and learn things together. It’s just about empowering each other,” Tra continues.
DJing such a competitive space sometimes; there’s none of that in this community
“As I started running these workshops, these girls have had my back. I see it in the workshops, as well. Once I teach one girl, I step back and they start teaching each other and then I can see them being there for each other, very supportive, loving and kind. Even now, they message with each other of what they’re doing, mental health check-ins and things like that—even offering each other gigs. DJing such a competitive space sometimes; there’s none of that in this community.”
After participants attend the DJ workshops with Pho The Girls, many stay to attend other women-centered workshops hosted by SYS, expanding the community beyond music. “Sometimes the workshops will just be about confidence, because I had learned in Vietnam that they’re not really taught to voice out their opinions or say whatever is on their minds. They’re a bit more shy and a bit more quiet so most of the workshops are centered around things like that. We even do mindfulness ones, things about mental health.”
As the workshops continue growing, SYS has expanded its goals and reach. While the classes began in Hanoi and will continue to do so, Tra has taken Pho The Girls on the road, offering workshops in London, Liverpool and Australia, where Tra grew up. Since then, she’s also founded Hanoi Community Radio as a way to form a music space separate from the usually cliquey DJ circles and a platform where she can encourage girls to keep mixing and sharing music.
More recently, Tra launched a music label under SYS which is releasing a new single from Saigon producer KIMTrang in June. The label’s mission is multipart: promote Asian musicians, uplift Vietnamese artists and inspire women to become producers. “Since I’ve started making music, I’ve realized there’s not that many Asian female producers around,” Tra notes. “And then if you’re in Vietnam, I see a lot of musicians struggle. They just don’t know where to go or do next or how to put their music on the next level.” With the label and collective, Tra spearheads a diverse, inclusive music scene in Vietnam and beyond.
The evidence of this is already present in Hanoi, where queer-leaning clubs and numbers of nonbinary and women DJs are increasing. The nightlife is drastically different from what Tra remembers when she first visited the city as a tourist: “the scene was solely run by foreigners and overseas DJs getting booked. Because of Covid, local DJs have been getting more attention and over the years, Asian artists have been getting more representation. So it’s definitely getting better. The LGBTQ community is amazing; the younger generation is just so progressive. The transgender community, as well as drag queens—they’ve always been doing amazing things.”
For Tra, these communities and changes are inspiring. She tells us, “I have a lot of hope for Vietnam. I’ve always, in my heart, known that it’s the most progressive place I’ve ever lived.”
Images courtesy of SYS Sister Sounds