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This essay was directly inspired by a conversation I had with Chau ‘Tony’ Hoang one  evening in our flat and was first published in Smile No.19. We discussed oriental culture in general and the differences between Vietnam and China in particular; Tony is of Chinese descent but of Vietnamese birth, while I have studied music for over a decade so we are both adequately qualified to speak about the subject. The essay is reprinted in full but the music examples have been omitted.


   Vietnam is a small country compared to others located in the east Asian block. It has an area of 127,242 square miles and a population of 60,919,000 inhabitants, of which about 10,000 are either Chinese or of Chinese origin. It is therefore no surprise that the poetry and music of Vietnam is most strongly influenced by that of China. However, a quite distinctive independent voice is retained in the texts and tunes of the folk arts of Vietnam, most of which possess a history that was already advanced before the first hint of any civilisation in Europe had begun. (Some of us may still wait for it to begin but not, I suspect, with much impatience.)

   Vietnam has classical, folk, theatre and ritual arts of which music is easily the most ubiquitous. Each genre has a form governed by its geographical location which is based in three main areas: north, centre and south. This morphology also applies to the language: their words are monosyllabic and depend upon tones for differentiation. There are six different tones for the north: high rise, level, low fall, low rise and two kinds of mid rise. In the south there are just five tones since there is only one kind of mid rise. In the centre there are just four tones.

   Chinese is a language similar to that of Vietnamese in its use of monosyllabic words whose meaning is dictated by five or six different tones. In Chinese pop music, the tones are generally ignored so that lyric sheets are essential in order to clarify the exact sense of each song although, sadly, the content of such lyrics is usually so trite and insubstantial that it is hardly worth the effort to try to make sense out of any of them.

   In Vietnamese folk songs, ballads and anthems, this is not the case: a melody as sung must obey the word tone rules. Not to do so is quite unacceptable. Folk song in Vietnam derives from poetry and this includes purely instrumental pieces and work songs of various occupations sung as the singers are engaged in their labour.

   While China provides the primary influence upon most musical forms throughout Vietnam, this is more evident in the north than in the south where a south east Asian influence is revealed, courtesy of the Chams and Cambodians. In addition to the poetry and music of the old Cham region (now southern Vietnam) there is a long tradition of styles created by the various different minority groups called Montagnards or Moi. However, this music is firmly rooted in Chinese models and it is performed on instruments clearly of Chinese derivation and origin.

   Certain models are now recognisable and quite famous: the Hat a Dao (sung poetry) of the north and the Cai Luong (theatre music) of the south. Hat a Dao is one of the oldest arts in Vietnam with a 550 year history derived from ceremonial music with dances and acrobatics used in religious and state occasions. Each province had its own Hat a Dao teams and competitions. As time passed, the form changed into an intellectual idiom so that now it has evolved into a type of chamber music used as a medium for the finest lyric poetry in Vietnam.

   Typically, a poet will dedicate a new work to a friend and have it sung to him/her, usually to the accompaniment of a Dan Day (a long, three string lute) while the recipient of the poem (in this case the friend) will beat a small drum; he or she will add comments expressed by how the drum is struck. Such poems are usually lyrical and of a nostalgic sentiment. Bao Phan is a fine example although much of its rhythmic quality is lost in translation into English.

   The lotus flower fades away. My sorrow is long but the days are short and now winter has yielded its place to spring. Where can I find again my long-time friend? As I accept fate and this spinning world, I miss him very much. His life has moved him from place to place, like a stranger. Perhaps nostalgia will send him back to his old home?

   Hat a Dao was also used to adapt famous Chinese works, such as that by the great Tang poet, Tu Fu, to Vietnamese subjects and locations, as in the piece called Ty Ba.

   Gently upon the forest the dew drops down, the hills become dark with the autumn fog. On the horizon the waves roll in the deep river, the clouds flock above the distant fort-gate. Chrysanthemum beds shed two old tear-streams; a boat is tied like the close bonds in a family. The chill spurs on a man who carries his fishing pole; the lonely fort and the garrison fire loom at dusk.

   The most poetical form for Hat a Dao is called Hat Boi, a form as strict as that of the sonnet. One excellent example is Hoi Phong Da (‘Question To A Stone Statue’) which is still sung in Vietnam.

   Where did you come from and what is your name? To questions you smile, chuckle and grin; your arms are folded behind your head and you look around you, carelessly. Perhaps you brew up something for the world? I see a strange statue of an old man and I would like to ask him ‘Why did you come here on this crooked path? Are you quite happy with the sight of the grass, stream and hill here? Probably you lent your hand to the plot!’

   ‘The green hills laugh at my old head, the blue seas don’t know I am as serene as an old bird. Stop thinking of far away matters: let posterity settle the problems of the universe!’ Our meeting is good fortune in our lives; let us bring out the small wine cups for ourselves. Drunken now, lucid then, we can express our thoughts but to both good and bad ideas the statue continues to nod.


   In Hat a Dao the singing is inward, the tone repressed and the expression subtle. However, such intellectualisation was considered not representative of the peoples’ music and thus it has become a dying art kept alive only by certain refugees and the enthusiasts of ancient Vietnamese cultural forms. The singer must follow the word tones and add melody to an already melodic language. There is virtually no equivalent to this in the western European classical tradition. The closest example is perhaps the lieder of 19th century Germany although here, in most cases, the poems were not written specifically to be sung.

   Cai Luong is unusual among Vietnamese poetry and music in that it boasts a heritage which is both recent and well documented. While it is impossible to say precisely when Hat a Dao began, Cai Luong dates back to 1917 when a group of civil servants organised a performance they called Ca Ra Bo where they sung with gestures. Instead of the traditional Hat Boi idiom of singing, they took the chamber music of the south (called Ca Hue) over which they set a text to a familiar popular melody called Tu Bai Oan.

   For their text they used part of the epic poem Luc Van Tien, the section known as Bui Kiem Nguyet Nga. Both spoken and sung passages tell the story of Bui Kiem who returns home after he has failed his examinations to find that his uncle has rescued Nguyet Nga, an unhappy girl who had thrown herself into a river after being jilted in love. Bui Kiem falls for her himself and all ends happily. While this whole section lasted barely fifteen minutes, it was new and became very popular so that before long it led to a new kind of musical theatre. The performance was part of a benefit for French war relief but just one year later in 1918 a full length performance was presented in its own merit.

   The first performers were amateurs but professionals from other musical forms, minstrels and Hat Boi actors soon participated in the shows. The name Cai Luong dates from 1920 to distinguish it from a recently modernised form of Hat Boi known as Tuong Tau. Later Tuong Tau referred to the Chinese classical plays in Cai Luong with old legends, fantastic costumes and raucous orchestration retained from Hat Boi while Tuong Tau referred to stories based on European models taken from Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo, for example.

   The main difference, so far as the texts were concerned, between the Vietnamese plays and their Chinese models is located in the subject matter: rather than Confucian virtues of loyalty and self-sacrifice, Vietnamese plays centred upon freedom and individualism. Adventure stories and popular novels were also adapted for use in Cai Luong during the 1930s and 1940s, a typical example being Tuong Kiem Hiep La Ma.

   With the blatant oppression of Vietnamese people by the brutal regime of French tyranny in the late 1940s, two new forms emerged: Tuong Chien Trang (war dramas) and Tuong Da Su Lieh Su (patriotic Vietnamese legends). These plays were redolent of the Viet Minh struggle for independence and as such were regarded with suspicion by the French invaders. In Tuong Chien Tranh, newly invented uniforms worn by characters in fictitious countries played battle scenes with films of war used as a background instead of the more conventional painted cloths and draperies.

   In the 1960s Cai Luong expanded to encompass a rich variety of stories and plots, such as love stories, ancient legends, Buddhist tales and fanciful dramas of imaginary kingdoms on other worlds. Thus there was a radical change required in the music in order to meet the demands of these new dramas: the familiar chamber music favourites with new texts simply tacked on top of them became most inappropriate so new kinds of melodies were invented. The most popular of these was the Vong Co. Its first documented appearance is in 1920 from a play called Da Co Hoai Lang. The melody makes its initial entrance on the tranh, a kind of zither.

   Note that it uses the scale do re fa so la, the scale associated with central Vietnamese music but within a matter of months this was altered to do mi fa so la, the scale common to the south. So popular did the melody become that this scale became known as the Vong Co scale. Two other versions of this immensely popular tune are known and a comparison of all three reveals the degree of improvisation apparent in performers of Vietnamese music for even when it is directly notated, it is to be regarded as a framework, like a musical map, on which each performer must build his or her own melodic contours.

   All Vietnamese music is based upon the pentatonic scale. Play the black keys of a piano and you will hear this scale which is common to most of China, north and central Vietnam. Southern Vietnam is more readily influenced by India and Polynesia which helps to explain the do mi fa so la pattern. Actually the mi can be major or minor in mode while the fa is often sharpened and even the la is occasionally flattened so that do and so are the only stable tones in the scale. In northern and central Vietnam, any note may serve as the tonic for the scale and in classical works, transpositions are often allowed so that do re fa so la may switch to fa so ti(b) do re which gives the music a tonal richness to compensate for the simplicity of the scale itself. Moi groups have their own scales and melodic patterns so an experienced listener can hear a song that is new to him and yet he will be able to identify the area and/or tribe responsible for it.

   Folk songs in particular have played an important role in Vietnamese life, especially in order to raise spirits and banish lassitude in the struggle against the American invasion. The Viet Minh, during the Peoples’ Struggle against the barbaric colonialism of the French invaders, even had singers on mountain paths who sung especially composed artillery haulage songs as they brought the guns into position before the heroic battle of Dien Bien Phu.

   Other music in Cai Luong is mostly based on amateur chamber music and divides into the lively, extrovert form called Bac, the more introvert, intimate idiom of Nam and four other modes: Xuan, Dao, Si and Oan, the latter form from which sprung the Vong Co itself. In addition to all these is the Quang style that results from visits to Vietnam by various theatrical groups from China who brought Cantonese musical idioms to the nation and whose bright, lively tunes in do re fa so la scale so impressed all the many Vietnamese musicians and composers who heard them for the first time.

   Because the new musical forms demanded extra works to be written (there was simply not enough material even in the wealth of chamber music repertoire) and this often with scant advance notice, other forms were adopted and the most common was folk music, particularly pieces such as Ly Con Sao and works of similar ilk. Declamations often precede the songs, such as Noi Loi before recitatives, Loi Bac before lively or happy songs/tunes and Loi Ai before sad, slow or intimate songs/tunes. There are also certain recognised pieces of music that appear in most of the dramas such as Xuan Xe when a hero retreats, Tau Ma when a horse is pantomimed and Bai Ta Theo Dieu Tay when a theme or melody style is used to denote a western character or story.

   Buddhist music is used mainly in the religious play of which there are various kinds loosely grouped under the title of Tuong Phat. A European equivalent would be the passion play or oratorio. Chants and songs of sorcerers appear in the magic dramas of Tuong Tien. A composer of a new Cai Luong can choose from over 100 melody types and tune formulas with which performers and audiences are already familiar. The composer will write new lyrics, some spoken passages and stage directions. Actors from large troupes tend to learn their parts by rote whereas the smaller troupes may improvise many of the lines but still base them on the rough draft of the plot. Each of the actors and singers will have various musical and dramatic exploits to accomplish while each of the leading players will have the opportunity to perform a spectacular Vong Co at specific climactic moments of the drama.

   Songs constitute up to 80% of any Cai Luong performance with the instruments largely as accompanists: tranh, nguyet and nhi being the main ensemble used with various others brought in for special scenes, entrances and exits. (This is identical to the practise of 17th and 18th century operas and ballets where a basic ensemble of violins, violas, celli, bass and continuo would have flutes, oboes and bassoons added for pastoral or amorous scenes, horns for hunting scenes, trumpets and kettledrums for martial or royal celebratory scenes.)

   The complete set would consist of a tranh (the zither that dominates much Vietnamese music), nguyet (a two string moon lute), nhi (two string violin), so na (a kind of shawm like a renaissance oboe), kouan (like a chalumeau or baroque clarinet), bamboo flute, other forms of two string viols and lutes, yang k’in (36 string dulcimer) and, particularly with Chinese influenced works, gongs and drums. Very rarely are all the instruments ever heard en masse in a tutti; instead, small combinations of certain instruments provide tone colours that vary in accordance with the type of text and mood of emotions portrayed.

   Cai Luong has increased in popularity due to its ability to mutate and change with the tides of history and the vicissitudes of musical fashion. There are now 75 professional troupes while for Hat Boi there are 10 at the very most. Cai Luong also provides one of the very few opportunities through which poor people may earn a respectable wage if they train hard and perfect their singing and/or playing techniques.

   So what about the pure folk songs that comprise over 60% of the musical and poetic life of Vietnam? There are four basic types: traditional (which constitute over half of the total folk song repertoire), historical, minority and modern. In fact, it was the two terrible foreign invasions of Vietnam, first by the French in the 1940s and then by the Americans in the 1960s, that inspired a sudden deluge of modern folk music where previously the traditional fare provided the staple music diet of the folk music in the whole country.

   I can list some typical examples of traditional folk works but these represent only the most famous, noteworthy or unusual of what is actually a huge repertoire. Perhaps the most famous of all is Hat Hoi, written centuries ago to celebrate the Full Moon Festival for a good harvest. There is a chorus which runs ‘let us sing for the full moon, the banyan tree, the three-layer hat and the grey coat’, all of which are symbols of the Full Moon Festival.

   Ly Tinh Tang is very well known in central Vietnam and in a purely instrumental form is often used to test the technical skills of the musicians who perform it. The work in this version has also evolved a new life in a classical arrangement but traditionally it is played on a 16 string tranh, 1 string bau and 2 string nguyet. Ly Chim Quyen with its strangely western vocal harmonies is to southern Vietnam what Hat Hoi is to the north although the text is somewhat prosaic in comparison: ‘the nightingale eats the longan fruit, the goldfish is happy in his familiar bowl, the husband and wife grow accustomed to each other’! Work songs of course are probably among the oldest and are also those which have altered the least in the prodigiously rich history of Vietnamese folk arts.

   Ho Mai Nghi exists in two versions and is a boatwomans’ song designed to be sung by the women who pole their boats along the ‘perfumed river’ near the old Vietnamese capital of Hue. One form is for voice and nhi, the other is for solo voice or a group of unaccompanied voices. This has also been embellished in a version performed by classical musicians in Hue. There is another famous work song which also exists in both traditional and modern versions called Ho Lo. This is a rice planters song designed to be sung and chanted by a solo singer and a chorus who echo or reply to the lines given by the soloist in a question and answer format.

   Of the minority, historical and modern songs, with a few notable exceptions, it is too early yet to identify specific pieces which appear destined to become classics of the genre. It is to these exceptions we shall therefore turn our attention. Song Of The Heroes is a historical ballad from the south which tells of the brave leaders of the country who organised the struggle against foreign invaders; this song was originally composed as a war-cry against the French but, with slightly altered words, resurfaced in an even more vitriolic form once the Americans invaded.

   A beautiful example of a ballad which captures the mood evoked when a friend or relative hears news of the death, during the liberation struggle, of a loved one, is nowhere better revealed than in Poem Of A Buddhist Monk; the text was written by Thich Nhat Hang, a young monk, not long after he received news that his brother had been killed as he defended his village against American tanks. Perhaps the most famous modern song composed so far is by Pham Duy called The Wounded Soldier. This tells of a man who leaves his girlfriend to go to war (originally against the French but the song was updated after the American invasion), loses an arm then comes home to find that his girl loves him even more and he is honoured by his entire village. They work the land between them and together strive for peace and national liberation.

   I trust this brief essay has now provided you with at least a rudimentary idea of the rich cornucopia of folk arts to be found in Vietnam. I have not even tried to include other genres such as classical or religious arts or give detailed notes because to do so would require the best part of three issues of this magazine! However, if I have generated in you an interest in the poetry and music of Vietnam as a result of this short survey then my work has been successful.

Andy Martin ă 2001.




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