Decades after the golden era of Playboy, the unabashed icon of hedonism tests its relevance in Vietnam – and the country’s new party culture.
When disco and Playboy clubs were enjoying their hedonistic heydays, Hanoi had just survived two wars.
Now, four decades later, as stubborn 70s pop hits refuse to leave the capital city and the pursuit of pleasure is far from a thing to be ashamed of, Hanoi has made itself the Southeast Asian home of the bunnies.
Last December, the Playboy Establishment Hanoi was opened, the only one in the region after the closure of its sister club in Manila. A few media reports mentioned the opening, but somehow even members of the hardcore clubbing scene missed this.
Christopher Chronis, CEO of Global Entertainment Operations Vietnam, kept reminding that Playboy is a brand with a rich history and a luxury icon.
“We are pleased to introduce the Playboy brand’s heritage to Hanoi, Vietnam. The venue will cater the ultimate luxury dining and entertainment experience to our guests and members,” he said.
Playboy’s heritage, at least to the understanding of those outside the company, is tied to the cocktail serving, tightly-structured bunnies, once an icon of wealth and power in the U.S. and many parts of the world.
But the heritage has a dark history too. The story behind the corsets, the pantyhose, the bunny tails and ears were exposed when Gloria Steinem, a former bunny, published an undercover article about Playboy Clubs in 1983. According to Steinem, the bunnies’ pay was lousy, and the girls were frequently propositioned and even forced to take gynecological examinations.
Then came the era of punk, pornography and feminism. By the late 80s, Playboy Clubs and what they represented had become passé. In 1986, the Los Angeles Time wrote: “The clocks were tolling midnight, and an American Cinderella fantasy, the Playboy Bunny, was turning back into a real woman.”
Yet, 15 years after the last Playboy club was shuttered in 1991, Playboy tried to resurrect the concept. Then again and again in a series of unsuccessful attempts.
In 2006, a new club was opened in Las Vegas just to close six years later. Clubs in Macau and Cancun also opened in 2010 and closed in 2013 and 2014. Amid all of this, the American TV network launched the ill-fated drama “The Playboy Club” in the fall of 2011, which got pulled from the air after strong criticism.
In October 2015, the Playboy magazine startled the world by deciding to put on some clothes for its nude models, admitting pornographic content no longer had commercial value.
A year passed and just this February, Cooper Hefner, the son of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, admitted the plan was a mistake and announced that nudity is back.
Together with the magazine, the Playboy Club is trying its luck once again, with new openings in Hanoi, New York and Shanghai.
It is difficult to say whether the brand will survive, let alone thrive again. The club in Hanoi seems to shy away from publicly using images of bunnies for promotional purposes, even though they are still there to welcome guests.
In an interview via email with VnExpress International, Chronis said that the main focus is not on the iconic bunnies. “Our venue is based on presenting high-level local artists and international performers,” he wrote.
As for the bunnies, he called them “beautiful bunnies who are our ambassadors and ensure that all our customers have a great time.”
The club features no Playmate of the year, a tradition of the brand that Playboy Club London still follows. Videos on the Hanoi club’s Facebook page still show bunnies serving food and taking selfies with customers, while dancers in skimpier clothes attract all eyes.
A performer at the club spoke with VnExpress International and described the place as “classier” than other clubs around Hanoi. He said customers there are also given more privacy.
The Playboy Establishment Hanoi claims its targeted customers are “successful” and “progressive”. Surprisingly, it has even named itself a supporter of female empowerment initiatives, an apparent PR effort that could result in all sorts of criticism somewhere else.
Political correctness aside, the club may already have another problem to deal with: very tough competition.
Hanoi is not only the capital of Vietnam; it is the clubbing capital of Vietnam.
Female DJs and dancers in leather lingerie saturate the scene in other clubs like The Bank or Hero Bar. Out on the streets, beer girls have been serving in strapless mini dresses for years, a business ploy that would likely upset true supporters of female empowerment.
At The Opera, a new club that opened in February, two stages feature female dancers in tight, sexy leather lingerie every night. Some nights, a topless male dancer in tight leather boxers joins them. On the floor, young clubbers in their twenties and thirties cheer, take photos and share live videos on Facebook.
But businesspeople like Chronis see the intense competition within Vietnam’s vibrant scene as a good sign.
“It has a young and vibrant population and a government that supports international investment,” Chronis said.
Next destination? Ho Chi Minh City.