Meet the daring young drag queens of Ho Chi Minh City

As the country prepares to reopen, the Haus of Valentien talk individuality, expression and what it's like to be a drag queen in Vietnam.

by Emma Russell
17 November 2021, 11:51am

It was a strange sight: five members from the Haus of Valentien, a drag collective founded in early 2019 in Ho Chi Minh City, dressed in colour-blocked costumes, surrounded by military police officers. Vietnam is only just reopening after the Delta variant sent the country into a strict five-month lockdown that prohibited the movement of people within the city and the surrounding provinces. The officers were checking the queens’ vaccine certificates on the border of Ly Chinh Thang and Tran Quoc Thao districts, ahead of their first photo shoot and performance in months. Photographer Dao Nhat Tan, @theboy.youlost, captured the moment for i-D, as the Haus of Valentien morphed into Power Rangers — strong, agile, energetic, resilient and fierce — for a flurry of local residents and their police escorts. “Everyone was looking, but it’s different now because [drag] is seen as an art form,” says Sweet Valentien, the leader of the house. “If something comes from the heart, it touches hearts.”

five drag queens crossing the street in ho chi minh city

In cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City, drag remains underground but its popularity is growing. Mostly thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has been franchised across Asia, and an increasing number of queer clubs and venues. But stigma and discrimination continues to exist for the queer community in Vietnam, who face legal barriers and limited social acceptance. Gay marriage is illegal, and while the state revised its civil code in 2015 to legalise gender reassignment, it can take years for a case to be processed. Yet the younger generation is shaking off the conservative shackles of the past and embracing a spectrum of queer identities and interests where they can.

Here, we speak to five of Ho Chi Minh’s passionate young performers about changing times and the power of drag.

vietnamese drag queen sweet valentien at a shop in ho chi minh city
vietnamese drag queen sweet valentien walking a dog in ho chi minh city

Sweet Valentien,  Tiến Ngọc Nguyễn, 30

How would you describe your drag persona?
Sweet Valentien is a Fashion Queen. She’s serving looks, serving glam and when she is on the stage she’s Ka-ka-ka BAM. And if you want a taste, she is sweet like cotton candy.

Can you describe your look for the shoot?
I wanted to look like a mysterious black swan and when the wings lift up you will see how glam, beautiful, bright and colorful the pink fantasy of herself is. I bet you notice my long nails? I love chicken feet, so I wanted to tell a story that even if you love chicken feet, which most Western people are grossed out by, you need to be serving chicken feet with bling and glamour.

When did you first start drag?
RuPaul was like a time bomb that activated click, click, click and BOOM inside me, bringing out the kid who loved fashion since he was young, as well as giving me a confidence in myself I never knew I had. Since then, I have appeared in fashion magazines, as well as represented Vietnam on Season 2 of Drag Race Thailand in 2018, where I was one of the top 20 finalists.

What has been the most challenging part of pursuing this profession?
Being a drag queen you need to have charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. “Drag is expensive!” in the literal sense and figurative sense. If you put a lot of effort into your looks, you will get it back in your performance.

How has the pandemic impacted the LGBTQ+ community in Vietnam?
Lots of my friends lost their jobs, and most of us are struggling with it. But I’m glad that we as a group and as a family can help each other. We all shared a hand to lift each other up in this difficult time. We sent each other food boxes and helped some queens pay their rent. I feel like lockdown was the universe's way of saying to all of us: “You need to spend some time for yourself, learn about yourself and you always have room to grow and improve, do something to keep motivated and become a stronger, better version of yourself.”

vietnamese drag queen valencucu with her hands on her head in ho chi minh city

ValenCuCu, Hưng Quốc Nguyễn, 21

How would you describe your drag persona?
ValenCuCu is a Lady Gaga impersonator. She is an alien queen. She’s weird, she’s fierce and she was born this way, baby.

Can you describe your look for the shoot?
I am very shy in person, but I’m pretty weird with my style of drag. I am a big fan of Pokemon, so I wanted to serve Mewtwo Extravaganza Realness with my look, made by a young designer called Thai Huy.

When did you first start drag?
I hatched from my drag mum — my brother Sweet Valentien — and was born in October 2020.

What has been the most challenging part of pursuing this profession?
I think it’s about performance. My body is stiff like a robot, so it has taken me a lot of time to practice at home how to dance the choreography. I know the costumes can be very challenging and it costs a lot of money too. Luckily, I have my brother helping me with the fashion part. At first my parents complained because my costumes are too sexy and made from way too little fabric, but they love Gaga too, so they have come to accept her. (Sorry mum and dad, I love you but I don’t want to tone it down.)

How has the pandemic personally affected you?
My parents can’t go to work, so it’s pretty hard for our family. My mother works at a sweet tea stall in a popular open-air market, and usually wakes up at 3 am to go to work. My dad used to be a driver for people moving boxes, but he’s now retired. My family is strong, so we will get through it.

Some queer venues have closed down during the pandemic. What will this mean for the drag scene?
It’s going to be tough for the queens now because there’s no more shows for them. But I believe after Covid is over, we will come back as strong as ever because during lockdown we all prepared a lot. We are going to show people how much we worked through this hard time.

portrait of vietnamese drag queen choo choo in an all red outfit

Choo Choo, Lâm Tấn Tài, 25

How would you describe your drag persona?
She is Choo Choo. She's funny, magical and her body is full of love. Not only does she live, but she creates a colourful world for you to explore.

Can you describe your look for the shoot?
My look is a mischievous Asian housewife. Sweet Valentien's fiancé's grandmother gave her this outfit. She gave them to me with some great tweaks and boom… an Asian-inspired outfit that’s modern and glamorous. I created the makeup look and hairstyle in a red colour full of love. With big long chopsticks on her head, she will cook for you anywhere you want. 

What has been the most challenging part of pursuing this profession? And what’s the most exciting thing happening in Saigon's drag scene?
For most drag queens in Vietnam, it is a balance between real life and drag life. Saigon’s drag scene is growing. There may be some competition, but we are all contributing to the vivid drag scene.

How has the pandemic influenced your work and creative process? 
Shows were cancelled and I had to stop working. It strongly affects the source of income. Wiping away tears, I stayed at home and created new makeup looks and learnt some dance moves to prepare for upcoming performances.

vietnamese drag queen harley posing against a wall in a blue outfit
vietnamese drag queen harley posing in front of a blue building in ho chi minh city

Harley, Phùng Gia Phúc, 22

How would you describe your drag persona?
My drag persona, Harley, is beauty and art. It combines lots of colours and shines like my lifestyle.

Can you describe your look for the shoot?
My outfit was made by a classmate who studied fashion design. The costume is inspired by the story of a carp turning into a dragon, which is a legend in Vietnam. It's a story of resilience, effort, constantly striving and trying hard to overcome difficulties and challenges. I really like the meaning of this story, and use it as a motivation to overcome difficulties in life. I hope to spread this positive story to everyone and show the resilience and culture of the Vietnamese people to our friends around the world.

How has the pandemic influenced your work and creative process? 
My life was delayed quite a lot — from my studies to my ideas and performance plans. My grandmother passed away during the pandemic, but I couldn't go back to my hometown to visit her. It was really heartbreaking. I am also worried about my friends who are drag artists in dangerous areas. I hope that everyone will stay healthy and come back soon, to continue working and make new plans together.

How has the recent lockdown been?
Ho Chi Minh City, where I live, is gradually reopening, but artistic activities are still limited because the number of people infected remains high and increasing in other neighboring provinces. 

vietnamese drag queen onika zolanski with her hands clasped outside in ho chi minh city

Onika Zolanski, Toàn Công Đinh, 20

How would you describe your drag persona?
Onika Zolanski is fierce as a monster, she likes female rappers so she created one just like that.

When did you first start drag?
I started doing drag in August 2018, and back then it was difficult because there weren’t venues for the performances.

What is the most exciting thing happening in Saigon's drag scene?
What amazes me is that there are so many places where I can learn and perform. When I first performed at the drag event organized by Sweet Valentien, right from the first day, I couldn't hold back my emotions because the audience cheered their best. I never felt [that] before.

How has the pandemic influenced your work and creative process? 
The pandemic stayed in Vietnam for a long time and the biggest effect was that I couldn't go on stage and I couldn't make money. I stayed at home with a sewing machine and wig for four to five months. I entertained myself during lockdown by creating new costumes so I could perform when the drag bar came back.

How has the pandemic has impacted the LGBTQ+ community?
The pandemic has affected us a lot because, most of us in the community work in the arts, so during the pandemic season, [we] can't work for income. And at the beginning of pride month, LGBTQ+ people desperately needed festivals and performances. 

What advice would you give to someone that feels they don't fit in?
Race, ethnicity or gender is not a sin or shame, each of us has our own way of living, our own way of pride. The most necessary thing in the world right now is that we fight, together.

five drag queens crossing the street in front of a shop in ho chi minh city
five vietnamese drag performers of the haus of valentien in ho chi minh city


Photography Dao Nhat Tan 

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