Community Stories: Niall Mackay, Making Vietnam a more entertaining place to live

Niall Mackay, Founder of Seven Million Bikes

Originally from Glasgow, Scotland, I left in 2002 to work at a summer camp in America for just one summer and has been on the road ever since. 

In 2015, My wife and I travelled to Vietnam for a vacation and fell in love with it. We went home and planned a year-long trip around Southeast Asia in 2016 and decided to make Vietnam our home. Nearly 6 years later and we’re still here! 

When we decided to live in Vietnam in 2016, we often got frustrated at the lack of English Entertainment and not understanding life in Vietnam. And while it was fun drinking 10,000 dong beers on the street and immersing oneself in the incredible cultural experience, we soon got tired of our eardrums being blasted by karaoke speakers and missed some of the activities we’d regularly do at home. The expat population is also a transient one, so our friend circle often refreshed itself. 

With a background in event management and marketing in the NGO sector as well as an inherent interest in podcasting and comedy, I started Seven Million Bikes; A Saigon Podcast in May 2019 with the support of my wife, Adrie of which none of this would be possible. This turned out to be a great way to meet new friends and be part of a like-minded community here.

Today, Seven Million Bikes provides English language entertainment through a Vietnam Podcast, stand-up comedy shows and fun events. 

Seven Million Bikes, Vietnam’s Leading Go-to Destination for English Entertainment

The podcast is inspired by people from all walks of life and backgrounds that live in Saigon. I wanted to know more about them, share their stories and experiences while also getting tips on living in Saigon. At the start of 2021 we renamed the podcast A Vietnam Podcast, to reflect the growth of the show in terms of listeners and guests. 

The most common question I get is… “Why Seven Million Bikes?” 

When I started there were over seven million motorbikes in Saigon. To be precise, 7.4 million bikes in a city of just 9m people! I’m then often asked “Will you change the name when there are over 8 million bikes?” This has already happened, but the name is staying the same.

What are some of the values of the brand and its community?

I started in comedy in August 2019 and the community of comedians were very supportive. Most comics will tell you the hardest thing is to get stage time outside of open mics. And while I was getting booked for some shows, I felt like I was improving and wanted to do more.

So, I decided to start my own comedy show and host them myself. With a background in event management, public speaking experience as well as a desire to bring stand-up comedy events similar to the likes of New York and London, Seven Million Bikes was born.

The comedy shows really took off, and after the success of my first show, Where You From? at Hop Shop I was soon approached to put on more shows here in Saigon and then also in Da Nang and Hoi An. Before the current lockdown we had weekly shows in different districts across Saigon and were going to Central Vietnam every two months. 

While comedy needs to be edgy and can sometimes tread a thin line we’ve always aimed at being non offensive and available to everyone. This is especially related to living in a foreign land and being respectful of the culture we’re living in. This applies to the podcast too.

For now, all content is in English so it’s really for the English-speaking community be it foreign or local. But as English is the most well spoken language in the world, the listeners of the podcast and guests at events are from all over the world, and all different cultures. We don’t want Seven Million Bikes to be only accessible for straight, white anglo-saxon expats. As a straight, white anglo-saxon expat myself it means I especially need to be very conscious of widening my viewpoint and giving a platform to others. As a woman of colour, my wife is always there to help me with this.

From the beginning, Seven Million Bikes has been inclusive of everyone; no matter background, race, gender, sexuality or beliefs. This is evident in the guests we interview and the line up of comedians who perform at our shows. 

Tell us more about the stand-up and expat entertainment community in Ho Chi Minh City that not many know about

The Saigon stand-up comedy scene is of the highest quality. And while I am clearly biased, I truly believe that. The most common comment we get after a show is, “I never expected it to be so good!”. I think being so far from home people expect an amateur comedy experience, which in my experience often means lots of awkward silences. That is not the case for Saigon comedy, whether you are at a Seven Million Bikes show or another show. 

Entertainment for expats has also improved massively in our time here. Not only in the quality and amount of events, but in the ease of finding them through the proliferation of helpful Facebook Groups showcasing what’s going on in the city. It’s amazing to see how many talented people there are here in so many different fields, we’re proud to be a part of that through podcasting and comedy. 

When we first started the podcast I fully expected to get a handful of friends and family listening. At best! We’ve surpassed all our expectations and are so proud to be releasing season seven in September and consistently publish episodes for over two years. 

What do you enjoy the most about podcasting?

For me, making connections with people that I interview has been one of the most wonderful parts of the podcast and through this I’ve made friends for life and connections around the world. Most of all I’ve gained a much greater understanding of the country I live in.

I really enjoy talking to people and getting to know them and I always try to dive below the surface and get to a deeper level with each guest without making them feel uncomfortable. I think I achieve that and the listeners enjoy this too. While the guests and I have a joke and some fun we talk about serious issues too, from race to gender and inequality.

What are some noteworthy achievements that you’re proud of?

But the thing that makes us the happiest is hearing from listeners. We get listener messages regularly from Vietnam and around the world i.e. Vietnamese living abroad, Viet Kieus or foreigners who have lived here or are planning to visit. As of August 2021, we reached 20,000 total downloads, a major milestone for the podcast! 

Through building a community and strengthening partnerships, we hope to reach 30,000 downloads within the next 6 months and regular in-person events in Saigon and Central Vietnam when lockdown ends. Very soon we’ll be doing only our second ever Live Podcast, on Zoom of course, and this will become a regular addition. We will also be starting monthly networking and information sharing sessions too for creators in Saigon. 

How was it pivoting Seven Million bikes during the pandemic?

Coming out of this lockdown it’s clear we need to help rebuild the expat community more than ever and that is the type of community we want to build; fun, friendly, open, tolerant and inclusive. 

When the current lockdown started in June we expected it to follow the similar path of the two previous lockdowns and be controlled and over in a month. We’d take a break, and then get back to in-person events in July. But I get bored easily so after a few weeks of lockdown and no end in sight I decided to do an online quiz night. We’d done these last year during the first lockdown but I had ideas to improve the concept. 

I thought we would do just one, maybe two, online quizzes then go back to meet in person at Flying Pig Saigon. They turned out to be really popular and we’ve built a good regular crowd and sometimes have up to 50 people at a quiz night. 

Why do you continue to do what you do during the pandemic, what are you trying to achieve?

I’m so proud we’ve been able to create a sense of community online and helped people get through this tough time. One comment on Facebook from Pippa always makes me happy, “It has really made a difference to my week during this time! I almost feel like I’m at the pub every Tuesday.” We have now done these every week since the end of June! Not only that, we’re now contacted by individuals and businesses to run quiz nights for their friends or staff.

We were reluctant to do an online comedy show – we thought it would be terrible! But it turned out really well and lots of fun. We’ve learned a couple of tips and tricks to make it as fun as it can be for being online. But it’ll never replace doing a show in front of people.

Similar to the quiz, we now have a regular crowd each week. When we started, I wanted to give a platform to Saigon comedians who can’t perform right now. But most of them were reluctant to perform online, then unexpectedly we had comedians joining from all over the world. The wonder of technology! Now we have comedians each week based in Hanoi, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, the UK, the U.S. and Canada.  

We’ve also been able to use this time to focus on what Seven Million Bikes really is and does, and we realised it was all about community building. We’d already seen it at our shows and events, and now online, it really brought home how much these events created connections and how much sharing experiences about Vietnam meant to people. 

So whether it’s in person or online as the lockdown continues, we’ll continue to help people laugh, connect with others and discover more about this amazing country.

Seven Million Bikes is Vietnam’s leading go-to destination for English entertainment founded and hosted by Niall Mackay. Started in May 2019 as ‘A Saigon Podcast’, it has since expanded to regular comedy shows and other events in Vietnam. As of August 2021, the podcast, which was renamed into ‘A Vietnam Podcast’, reached 20,000 downloads from people living in Vietnam as well as overseas.

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Written by My Huynh
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“If not now then when” is my motto in life today. The desire to be a transformational leader in the future, to be able to convey the positive inspiration to the community through experiences from travel and use it as a “force for good”