Recently I found this podcast from Saigon named “Seven million bikes” hosted by Niall Mackay. The interviews on his show are so impressive. He has a diverse selection of guests, both expats and Vietnamese. He had on his show music producer, chef, an Australian singer who was on The Voice of Vietnam, comedian, and so on. I feel more connected and more curious about Saigon after listening to this expat’s show.
About today’s guest:
Niall Mackay, originally from Glasgow, Scotland, has lived all over the world, but since 2016 Saigon has been home, along with his wife, Adrie, and their adorable French Bulldog, Biscuit. Starting as an English teacher, Niall now manages a charity, is a stand-up comedian performing regularly in Saigon and beyond, an avid football fan (both American and otherwise) and hosts his podcast, Seven Million Bikes; A Saigon Podcast. Listened to by people around the world, Seven Million Bikes is now into its second season.
Inspired by the people that live in Saigon from all walks of life and backgrounds, Niall wants to know more about their stories, their experiences and get tips on living in Saigon to share with listeners.
In this conversation, we talked about Saigon stand-up comedy culture, about environment and pollution in a very open-minded viewpoint, and about Niall’s podcast.
Key points from this episode:
- The exciting and growing stand-up comedy culture and community in Saigon
- How comedy encourages foreigners’ interests in Vietnamese culture and language
- Niall made me try language-related joke where I’m confused speaking in my mother tongue
- The perks of being a native English speaker in a big city like Saigon
- Experienced English teacher explained why pronunciation is so tricky when speaking a foreign language
- How he settled down and now works in the charity department contributing to educating poor children, and participating in environmental projects in Saigon
- The coming environment protection programs that Niall organizes with his company
- The story behind 7 Million Bikes podcast, how he made to be a guest on radio
- How he turns his Sunday hobby podcast to a live event
Follow Niall and his podcast
Join his first live podcast event which was mentioned in this interview at Seven Million Bikes – The Live Show
Photos are provided by guest
Po: Hi Niall. Thank you so much to be on the Blue Expat podcast today.
Niall: Hey Linh. Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
Po: Can you please just have a short introduction about yourself so my listeners can know more about you?
Niall: Yes, sure. Yeah. My name’s Niall. I’m an expat who lives in Saigon. I got here in 2016.
And before that, I left Scotland when I was 23, and I have moved kind of all over the world. I went to America then Australia then New Zealand, met and my wife along the way, we moved to Vietnam, and we’ve been here for over three years now. And my main job has been always working with charities and helping to raise money for various different charities, which is what continues to do here in Vietnam.
But then for my side projects, I also produce a podcast called “Seven million bikes” – a Saigon podcast. And I also do stand up comedy as well.
Po: So stand up comedy, is that something you have been always doing on the way or just only when you came to Vietnam?
Niall: Actually, I started it in Vietnam, it’s something I’d want to do for a long time like I think maybe seven or eight years. I’d been always too scared to do it and never got around to doing it. But here in Vietnam, once Saigon is quite a good comedy since I think it’s been getting bigger and better, and the comedy open mic night where anybody can get up. And I finally had the courage to go up.
I had some things prevailed and I did my first set, it was just over a year ago. I’ve been doing it ever since. Yeah.
Po: Oh, I’m pretty surprised when I heard about you and you’re a stand-up comedian in Vietnam. And me personally, I know there is, but I don’t expect that it’s really a huge community and you came from England and then end up being a comedian in Vietnam. This is really interesting.
Po: And also you got one standup comedian on your podcast, so are there many also Vietnamese doing that standup comedy?
Niall: Yeah, yeah, for sure. There’re quite a few comics now. You’re talking about the episode with Tu. She is one of the top comics here from any country but in Vietnam.
And then we have a new guy called Uy Nguyen. He’s only 23. He is just absolutely adorable. He’s just funny. Really, really nice guy as well but he is hilarious. He can come on the scene a bit. We got Uy Le, he got a really dry sense of humor. He won the Vietnam comedy competition, I think two years ago he’s hilarious. He got a really gay pang of humor.
And then we got a few more and there’s more and more. Just in the last few weeks, cause it’s been a couple of new comedians come out who are from Vietnam. So that is cool!
Po: That’s really surprised me. And do you do mainly the content in English, right? So the listeners are mainly English speaking people?
Niall: Yes, it’s all in English so far, that just blows my mind. Like I think it’s incredible when you go and see the Vietnamese comedian and they’re making you laugh so hard and they’ve got these really smart jokes, and I’m like this, speaking in the second language and making jokes and making you laugh. That blows me away.
But I’ve spoken about this with a couple of comedians and Tu is one of them, we spoke about it on the podcast and we’ve spoken about it as well. She explained to me that the way the Vietnamese language is constructed makes it really difficult to do comedy in Vietnamese. The style of comedy, you know, like standup comedy, because you know what, the, in Vietnam, the words were so different, the sentences, the grammar structure is different. And so things in English can be neural, double entendre or a play on the word, things like that are really difficult to do. And even, you know, sometimes comedians can go, you know, sex and drugs and things like that.
And Tu explained to me, you know, something that you can talk about in English, you know, but maybe sex wouldn’t be very offensive, it would just be a funny joke. So she was saying if you’re translating that into Vietnamese would be like really offensive like there’s no way to make it funny. And so I think, from my understanding, that’s what makes it difficult to do standup in Vietnamese. But I have heard that some people have tried to do it. But from my understanding, from talking to Tu, she said, Vietnamese traditional comedian is more like this kind of clown or more like slapstick, you know, things like that, rather than like the new ones of the language.
Po: You know the comedians in Vietnam are different from regions.
So from different regions, they have different kind of jokes. And if I listen to some comedians from the South, maybe they make the joke that I don’t get at all as I’m from the North. But I really adore people who can be funny and I think they are really great communicators in order to make people laugh. That is a really hard thing for me to do.
Po: Do you speak any Vietnamese?
Niall: Chu’t chu’t
Po: That’s great. I mean, three years and you’ve learned some Vietnamese. That is great. Niall: It’s quite embarrassing. I shouldn’t be able to speak more, but, um. Yeah, I can only speak a little bit and that’s my own fault. I should have learned more.
Po: It’s really that the young generation, they have different thinking about this. Because I also met Americans in Vietnam that have been there for more than 10 years that they don’t speak Vietnamese or just enough to order at the restaurant.
And I see, okay, if they don’t have the need of learning the language, maybe that’s how they think, I totally understand that. But living in Vietnam, I mean, back 10 years ago and you don’t speaking and I think it’s really hard.
Po: But for now, as many young people in Vietnam, they speak English so good. Me personally, I’m, I’m really embarrassing about my own English sometimes, as I listened to young people when they speak. And I think it’s very easy for expat now to live in Vietnam and the big community of expats in Vietnam now. And also if you go to restaurants and other things that you have more and more people speaking English.
Niall: Yeah, 100%. It’s still my fault for not learning Vietnamese. Part of the reason why I haven’t, just exactly what you said. So many young people speak English here, and even sometimes in the beginning when I would try and learn sentence in Vietnamese or something. One because of the accent, people wouldn’t understand me because I would pronounce it wrong, they just get it wrong.
Niall: But even then, um, often when you try to talk to somebody, but then they would speak in English to you because they also want to practice their English. And so it becomes like kind of almost a little bit frustrating, even now it still makes me laugh. Like if I go to a shop, I would say to the sale, the person behind the counter like “Xin Chao”. And they said to me, “Hello”. And it’s like I’m speaking to him and he’s speaking to me in English so we swap languages. That makes it difficult. I think if I lived somewhere in Vietnam, outside of Saigon, some are maybe more rural with less people speak English and I had to learn Vietnamese, I would have made more of an effort. Because it’s a difficult language to learn because of the tones, you know, like, um, you can change the tone and then changes the word completely. And then, because so many people speak English, I mean, it’s still my fault. I’m kinda being lazy, but I should have learned more but [00:08:00] I can do like a lot of expats, I can give direction, I can do the numbers. Um, but outside of that, I can’t do too much.
Po: I know that learning Vietnamese is kind of difficult. Because when you learn a new language, what I experienced is that, in the first stage, when you force yourself to learn it is always the most difficult part.
And in Vietnam, the first stage is always more difficult than others because the grammars is totally simple, the vocabulary’s also simple, how you can make up the words and enough for you to communicate. But the pronunciation is really difficult for English speakers.
Niall: And as you said, it’s different between the North and the South, you know, so it’s in the South it’s “Mot, Hai, Ba, YO” while in the North it’s “Mot, Hai, Ba, Do”, right?
Po: I think it’s for you to listen to it would be difficult because for me, for that [00:09:00] simple things, I can understand, I don’t find so much different. But normally when someone is living in Saigon, they will just learn the accent there, just do what serve you best, I think.
As you also learned some Vietnamese and you also stayed there already for three years. You have any funny story to tell us about?
Niall: How long have you go? I’ve got a lot of funny stories while living in Vietnam. One of them that still makes me laugh was when my wife and I, we, we’ve not been here very long.
We went out for lunch and we got rice and tofu and the portions were massive. We were not hungry, so we didn’t want to eat all of it. And so I put it in Google translate “takeaway”, but you know, as what we call it in the UK. And so Google came back to the translation as “lay di”. So I pointed to the food and I [00:10:00] said, you know, “lay di, lay di”. And uh. So, yeah, sure enough, they took the food away and then like five minutes went by, they still hadn’t brought the food back. And my wife she said, I don’t think they’re bringing the food back, I think, no, no, it’s okay they were just putting it in a bowl, they will come back.
And then another five minutes go by and the tables in seller were sitting down and like kinda laughing at us. And I felt it, but maybe they were laughing at my pronunciation or the way I said it. By now my wife said they are not bringing the food back, they are just sitting down. And then it was at that point we realized that I put in Google translate “take away”, and instead of it being like, “takeaway”.
I said, “lay di”, it just means take my food away. So they picked up all the food and probably just threw it in the bin and will probably laughing at us. Oh. Asking them to throw the food away. So I learned after that, that if you want your food to go, you want to take away you say “Mang di” not “Lay di”.
Just one more quick [00:11:00] story was, um.
We are vegetarian. When we arrived and we were trying to find vegetarian foods. And so we go into a restaurant and then, you know, in English, when you ask the question, it goes up at the end: “How are you?”, well, I was trying to add, where’s the tune of asking a question to the world of vegetarian, which we learned “chay”.
And so we’d walk into a restaurant and then I’d take “chay”, meaning like vegetarian, and you know what? What is “chay” mean? If it goes up, it means fire, right? So that means that many months we walk into a restaurant saying:
We’re so confused because some white person walking in [00:12:00] saying “fire? Fire? Fire?”. Yeah. We have to learn all a few things like that.
I learned from a friend as well that, um, a lot of expats mispronounce all the “Bun thit Nung”. Instead of what they should say “Bun thit Nuong”. And “Nung” is the Vietnamese for “horny”
And lots of expats had been ordering “Horny –meat Noodles” instead of “Grilled” (laugh)
Po: but it’s really brave of you to try Vietnamese when you actually didn’t learn it, and you’re still new to the city, but it’s a very typical story when you travel. It’s really funny that Google translate, they cannot do for the simple phrase, and I, the simple phrase is short, if we do Google translate, it can be wrong somehow
Niall: In English as well, because of the kind of the difference between American English and British English.
And my wife is [00:13:00] an American and so. I am a British person I just put in the app “takeaway”. But if my wife had done it, she would have put “To go” and so she would have probably got the correct translation. But it’s because in the British fashion, yeah, Google translate. I’m not always the most trusting of it.
Po: Do you also use like this kind of story in your session with your standup comedy?
Niall: I think I told most of the stories in my standup, but my favorite joke that I do about the Vietnamese language, I’m gonna try on you, ok?
So I’ll be on stage, you know, ask, an expat who’s confident in Vietnamese, come on stage. And then I’ll give them a piece of paper with a sentence in English and they have to translate [00:14:00] it to Vietnamese. And this is funny because this is why Vietnamese is so difficult. So you can take one word: “Nam”, whether it goes up, down flat, and based on the context it can make 7 different meanings from one three-letter-word. So the sentence, I’m going to tell you this sentence in English, and I’m going to ask you to translate this into Vietnamese. Okay. You’re ready?
Okay. The sentence is: “I lay with a man called Nam holding five mushrooms for five years”. I’ll say again. “I lay in a bed with a man called Nam holding five mushrooms or five years”
<< This is how my app transcribes what I said: “Nam, uh, numb. Num num”>>
Niall: So that’s the perfect example of why you said seven different English words there using the same words, just changing the inflection.
That’s so difficult for me as an English speaker because also I have a Scottish accent and already, like my accent is different to English or American, I already like my acting goes up at the end more or goes down at different point, to be able to get the nuance of saying the same word, in seven different ways to get seven different [00:16:00] meanings.
It’s just an extreme example of how difficult the Vietnamese can be.
And like the example, I said, “Bun Thit Nuong” or “Bun Thit Nu’ng”, two different meanings.
Po: I’m Vietnamese and when I pronounced that, it’s like having something in my mouth and trying to speak, and for like English speaking person to try this one, Oh, that is hard.
Niall: You know, from a young age, from kindergarten, you learn the sounds, and I was an English teacher before, so I learned a bit how, you know, when you’re young, your mouth learns how to make this sound and your muscles are trained how to do this. And so that’s the other thing that makes it really difficult for Vietnamese people to learn a lot of English pronunciation.
And that’s why makes it difficult for expats to learn a lot of the Vietnamese pronunciation because we’ve been trained from a young age, our mouth and our muscles have been trained to be able to produce the sound [00:17:00] and then now having to change the way our mouth work as an adult, which is really difficult.
That’s why the Vietnamese English speakers find it kind of really difficult to pronounce the “TH” sound, you know, putting the tongue between your lips to produce that sound doesn’t exist in Vietnamese. So you’re trying to teach how to pronounce that sound that they just can’t move the tongue in the right way because they’ve never done it before.
And so that was always one of the most rewarding things about teaching. And one of the things I liked the most with the teaching pronunciation and really helping to teach students how to not just think about the tone, but thinking about with the tongue, with the jaw how actually produced that sound because it is really, really difficult.
Po: You also teach English there?
Niall: Yeah. I was teaching English when I first came for a couple of years and now, I still work for an English language school called I-L-A or ILA. [00:18:00] in the charity department. ILA has a charity department that helps give education to disadvantaged children in Vietnam Because my background before I came to Vietnam was working for charities and fundraising.
Um, a job became available. Actually, I got the job. Then we decided, my wife and I decided to stay in Vietnam for longer. My wife is still a teacher. I teach sometimes every now and again but the biggest part of my job is helping raise money and manage programs that help the disadvantaged children in Vietnam’s education.
Po: Because it’s, it’s really great when you explained with the part of the mouth muscles and things because everyone just says “Oh, just imitate, listen more to YouTube” but they don’t explain technically how it works to change. And me personally now, I didn’t think I needed to learn to pronounce better in English. You know, when we [00:19:00] speak, we don’t use a lot of power from a holding the breath or things. So how they speak, you sound so high pitch, they speak so fast and don’t really need to use breath or don’t feel the power in their speaking. But. If you listen to an English speaker, you can feel like not so much power in there, the breath, and they have to use their breath somehow and it sounds stronger.
And that is why when the English speaker tried to speak Vietnamese, and also they have ending sounds, they also have words that sound a bit longer because they have that in the language they use. Yeah. It’s really interesting with the language thing.