Bob Dylan set for first-ever Vietnam show

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The Independent Culture

Legendary American musician Bob Dylan, whose songs became anthems of the 1960s anti-Vietnam War era, blows into Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday for his first-ever concert in the communist nation.

While the symbolism is stark for members of the West's ageing "counter-culture" generation, many in youthful Vietnam have never heard of the man who wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" and other songs of protest and struggle.

"I don't know who he is," said Tran Trung Duc, 21, a Hanoi IT student.

Dylan's music helped to shape a Western generation that was in conflict with authority.

But about half of Vietnam's population is under the age of 30 and has no memory of the years of war with the United States.

"They don't have any political connection with the era in which Bob Dylan became famous," said Chuck Searcy, a Vietnam War veteran who has lived in the country since 1995.

Dylan will play in Vietnam's largest and most-westernised city, the former Saigon, as part of an Asia-Pacific tour marking 50 years since his first major performance on April 11, 1961.

He heads to Vietnam from Shanghai, where he performs Friday night following a long-awaited China debut in Beijing on Wednesday.

After reportedly banning a concert by Dylan last year, China agreed he could perform if his songs were vetted by censors.

Vietnam's foreign ministry spokeswoman, Nguyen Phuong Nga, could not say whether Dylan's songs would have to be reviewed by the Vietnamese authorities.

Washington and the European Union this week expressed concern over human rights and free expression in Vietnam after a high-profile dissident was sentenced to seven years in prison for anti-state propaganda activities, including advocating an end to one-party rule.

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".

In the former song he says: "The order is rapidly fadin', And the first one now will later be last." The second song asks: "Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist, Before they're allowed to be free?"

The foreign ministry's Nga said Dylan's concert was being eagerly anticipated in the country of 86 million.

"I trust that the concert will be held very successfully", she 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.

Searcy sees the Dylan concert as part of that process.

"I think it's... just part of a continuing awakening and dialogue at the international level that the Vietnamese very much support and encourage," he said.

For the Vietnamese, Dylan's visit is significant because he is a major international artist, not because he is associated with the anti-war movement, he added.

"I think that's probably more important to Americans and to foreigners," Searcy said.

Dylan's concert comes after two much-hyped shows by nineties boy band "Backstreet Boys", who reportedly drew about 30,000 fans last month.

"Vietnam hasn't had much international music for a long time," said Rod Quinton, general manager of Saigon Sound System, promoters of the Dylan show.

Dylan will play an 8,000-seat venue at RMIT University.

Government-controlled media have given the musician only brief coverage, leaving more space for commemorating the anniversary of the death of singer Trinh Cong Son - known as Vietnam's Bob Dylan when he sang about peace at the height of the war.

Son, whose voice the powers on both sides of the war tried and failed to silence, died in Ho Chi Minh City on April 1, 2001.

Unlike Dylan, Son's music still resonates among Vietnam's youth - as well as its older generation.

"Trinh Con Son is a genius," said Phan Quoc Nam, 35, a musician. "To understand his songs is quite hard. The lyrics are profoundly subtle and romantic."

Vietnamese singers will perform 15 of Son's love songs to open Dylan's concert, the official Vietnam News reported, quoting the late musician's sister.