May 5, 2022
(HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam) — For more than half a decade, Niall Mackay sat on the precipice of the world of comedy. He attended countless open mic nights with his wife, starting in New Zealand and then later in Vietnam. He wanted to get on stage. On nights before an event, Mackay says he would lay in bed and stare at the spinning ceiling fan all while envisioning himself on stage, telling jokes. He’d arrive at the venue with jokes scribbled on scraps of paper, find a seat, and try to calm his nerves by “necking” a few beers during the opening acts while telling himself over and over, “I can do this. I want to do this.”
But then nothing — for seven whole years.
Finally, in August 2018 he forced himself on stage at Indika Saigon in District 1 in front of about five people and told his first joke — a “dick joke” no less.
“From that day he was essentially hooked,” said Adrie Lopez, Mackay’s wife, business partner, and “number one fan.”
Three months later, Mackay was vomiting on the sidewalk on the way to the Saigon Heats of the Vietnam Comedy Competition muttering to himself, “What are you doing? Just go home. Don’t do this.” He had to hop off the back of the GrabBike he was riding because he couldn’t control his nerves. But he made it up on stage, knees shaking and all, delivered his bit, and placed fifth out of roughly 15 other comedians.
“I was pretty happy with fifth place,” Mackay said in a video call.
Three years later, Mackay’s comedy career is thriving.
“He hustles really hard in terms of promotion. He’s really a go-getter,” said JK Hobson, a fellow comedian in Saigon, as well as musician, writer, Fulbright scholar, and host of two podcasts: “The Outsiders Podcast“ and “We Outchea Expat Podcast.”
“He really hit the ground running more than any of the other people out here doing comedy,” Hobson said.
To better understand the magnitude of Mackay’s evolution within Saigon’s entertainment space, we must return to his childhood. As a child growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, Mackay says he was bullied, had trouble making friends, and was generally terrified to be in front of people.
But, much of that changed when Mackay moved to America in his 20s. In 2003, he went to a YMCA summer camp which he calls a “life-changing experience.” Before attending camp, Mackay said he had no desire to be on stage. However, when he got there he started doing small performances for kids that involved playing guitar and singing around the campfire.
“It was such a beautiful place. You were given the opportunity to perform for kids. You get hooked a bit,” Mackay said. He gained some more confidence and ended up returning to that same summer camp for another five years afterward.
“I wasn’t always timid and shy. I was always pretty outgoing with groups of friends. But, in terms of performing, I was never interested in that at all. But, after summer camp that all changed.”
Fast forward 13 years, Mackay found himself in Vietnam with what he said for a certain period of time was a personality constructed around drinking beer. While searching for a new hobby to replace the allure of countless bars selling 25,000 Vietnamese đồng, or $1.10, beers, he kept meeting what he described as, “interesting people in Saigon with cool backstories.”
Being a fan of podcasts already, following shows such as “This American Life“ and “Revisionist History,” Mackay decided to interview his friend Hobson about Hobson’s life before and after moving to Saigon. He posted their nearly two-hour conversation, split into two parts, on podcast streaming sites. This marked the creation of “A Vietnam Podcast,” originally called “A Saigon Podcast,” in May 2019.
Thus, fueled by Mackay’s unfettered zeal, “Seven Million Bikes,” a reference to how many motorbikes there were in Saigon at the time, was born as a podcast in 2019 and has continued to blossom into much more in 2022.
Why? Because Mackay’s ambition was bigger than just podcasts; he wanted more. In 2019, Mackay started hosting his own open mic comedy nights, similar to the ones he loved attending. And now, stage fright seemingly gone, he’ll sometimes stay on stage for up to forty-five minutes.
“I don’t see it as a huge leap,” he said. “It’s been incremental changes and you don’t really notice them over time.”
While “A Vietnam Podcast” was first created as a hobby to stave off boredom, not too long after that, he created a second podcast called “Did That Really Happen?” where he interviews comedians on the origin of their jokes. He also started blogging about podcasts and ended up writing an e-book on how to start your own. Plus, when the pandemic hit Vietnam, he began offering his podcast services on websites like Fiverr, where businesses now pay him for his podcasting expertise in an effort to make his business “lockdown-proof.”
“He’s very enthusiastic and passionate about what he does, which is great,” said Conor Kelly, host of the “ComebaCK,” another interview-style podcast based in Saigon.
As the world wakes up from the worst of COVID-19 and its lockdowns, Mackay is evolving again, bringing the online quiz nights he started during lockdown into the “real world” at bars such as Rabbit Hole Irish Sports Bar in the Bình Thạnh District.
On top of all of that, Mackay is also taking time out of his busy schedule to give back to the local younger community, where he is now teaching an extracurricular podcasting course for teens at The International School Ho Chi Minh City.
“The big plan is to become a podcast expert. Comedy and events will still happen but the main focus will be coaching other people how to make podcasts and offering support to those that already have one and need it,” Mackay said, whose podcast has now surpassed 30,000 downloads.
Thus, the multi-pronged brand that is “Seven Million Bikes” has established a platform in which Mackay can meet interesting people, perform at and host events, and also consult with other creatives of all ages all while operating under one umbrella.
All that said, going forward it’s tough to predict what will be the next phase of evolution for Mackay; it appears Mackay is still processing all that he’s been able to accomplish in recent years.
“Did I ever envision this? Absolutely no,” Mackay said. “Maybe as like a dream for a second.”