The south-central coastal province of Khanh Hoa, home of Nha Trang, is not only well-known for its beautiful natural scenery, beaches and luxury resorts but also for its cultural folk songs and dances.
Some of the most popular forms of music and dances include bai choi (hut cards), Cham dances, plays, and Ba trao folk songs. Visitors to Nha Trang can now watch these shows on the city’s streets in the evenings.
Music bridges cultural differences
‘Traditional Vietnamese music is very soft and melodious and Vietnamese instruments can play Russian music beautifully!’ said Mr Karlin, a Russian tourist who was impressed by the performance of the popular Russian folk song Kachiusa using traditional Vietnamese musical instruments, made mainly from bamboo and leaves.
This was the second time he had seen the street performance during his two-week holiday in Nha Trang. The distance between performers and the audience and the differences between the two cultures were eliminated by the free street music shows.
Introduced in 2012, the music shows have been performed in front of thousands of people, mainly visitors to Nha Trang. Plays and folk songs have been performed most often because they represent the cultural arts of Khanh Hoa province in particular and those of the south-central region in general. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evening, shows are performed in front of the city’s convention centre.
To make it easy for everyone to recognise the content of each performance, before they begin an MC provides a brief introduction in Vietnamese and English. Performers from the Traditional Music Art Theatre of Khanh Hoa then perform classic plays such as ‘Ho Nguyet Co turns into a fox’, ‘Dao Tam Xuan’, and ‘Old man carries his young wife on his back to a festival’.
Between the traditional folk performances are popular minority ethnic dances, like Cham dances and Raglay gong dances, which are popular in the central highlands. There are also instrumental performances of famous songs from other countries, played on traditional Vietnamese musical instruments. One is Kachiusa, which is popular with Russian and northern European tourists.
After each show the performers stay by the outdoor stage to meet and have photos taken with members of the audience, who can also see the preparations made for the costumes and the equipment. This is one reason why the performances attract large crowds.
Bai choi (hut card) folk game
In addition to plays and folk songs is a popular game called bai choi, which is played on weekend evenings at Tran Phu Park, opposite the Novotel Hotel, by performers from the Cultural Centre of Khanh Hoa Province. Bai choi is a popular game among people along the coast of Vietnam’s south-central region, including people in Khanh Hoa. For more than 100 years the game has been played at festivals and when farmers have free time. Over the years, however, bai choi has become less popular and fewer people now play.
On the ‘playing field’, nine thatched huts on stilts are decorated in the countryside style, with a ladder for entry. Bamboo tubes hold cards and wooden bells. Spectators can simply watch or play two games for just VND50,000.
With the sound of music and drums in the background, two main singers, a man and a woman, start and keep the game going. The male singer shuffles the cards (made from bamboo with Vietnamese in different Chinese characters) and pulls out one and begins singing.
When a player sees that the card pulled out by the singer is the same as their card, he or she wins a point and hits his or her wooden bell to announce the winning point. A hut becomes the winner when it can score three winning points. At that time, the hut owner hits a wooden bell repeatedly, announcing the win. The male singer then holds a small flag and carries a tray of alcohol to the winner, as the prize. To make the games more exciting, the music band plays traditional music to celebrate when a player wins. Between games, singers sing pieces from traditional Vietnamese plays.
During Tet (the Lunar New Year) holidays, bai choi folk games are held from the first to the fifteenth day of the lunar January, with thousands of players joining in.
Passion for bai choi
Performing at bai choi games since she was 15, Le Thi Yen, who is now 68, lives in Vinh Luong ward in Nha Trang and is the oldest bai choi street performer, performing with her children on weekends or at festivals. They join the games because of their wish to restore the beautiful culture left by the ancestors. ‘We don’t mind performing during Tet or national holidays,’ said Ms Yen. ‘We only want to contribute to preserving this cultural heritage.’
The youngest bai choi performer is Nguyen Ngoc Thuy, from Dien Khanh district in Khanh Hoa province. She is only 14 years old and has been a performer for four years. When she has time away from school, Ngoc Thuy joins the older performers to sings songs for the folk game at significant events. The performers are from different areas and of different ages, but they have the same passion for the traditional art and the same desire to preserve the folk songs and introduce the traditional art to and entertain visitors to the beautiful coastal city.