The arrival of spring is heralded throughout Vietnam by the sound of traditional instruments and folk songs, announcing that the Lunar New Year has arrived. This is a time for people to relax after a hard year’s work, to remember their ancestors, to wish for bountiful crops, a good catch of fish, or prowess in the hunt. From the low-lying river deltas to the highest mountains and in villages up and down the coast, traditional festivals, games, and of course, folk music are performed to enrich the people’s spiritual lives.
Music for intellectuals
Sitting on the stage of a tidy performance hall inside the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi’s Cau Giay district, a Quan vien or Ca tru judge in his traditional ready-to-wear turban and silk robe beats into his small drum calling for his fellowship - an A Dao or Ca tru singer. The beautiful female singer in her brand new calico Vietnamese dress hurriedly approaches and sits down on the side of a large straw mat unfurled on the ground in the village square. In front of them, young hip Vietnamese, white collar officials, older scholars and foreigners have gathered, ready to join the performance. Both performers and the audience passionately listen to the magic voices and music. Ca tru folk music is played every Sunday at the museum.
Ca tru evolved into an art form enjoyed by scholars and mandarins centuries ago. Photo: Le Bich
Developed around the 10th century, this refined classical art marries poetry with music. The songs require a unique and hard-to-master singing technique that produces a high-pitched, nasal tone. Ca tru evolved into an art form enjoyed by scholars and mandarins centuries ago. The combination of words, singing voice and traditional musical instruments requires a comprehensive knowledge of Vietnamese history, poetry, literature and music on the part of the audience.
It ranks 20th among the world’s most unique vocal methods, after hat ngam, a vocal method that allows the singer to close their mouth while singing but still involves vocal articulation, which is in contrast to opera singing, where the singer’s mouth must open wider when singing high notes. After a half century of oblivion, this genre of classical singing beloved by high society has expanded and become more and more popular among all classes of people, including farmers.
Ca tru also has another name, A Dao or Lady Dao, which is specifically used to identify the only actress in the performance. She was always blamed for using her magic voice to bewitch rich male members of audience and then asking them for money. This was also the reason Ca tru almost disappeared from official performance lists during the two national wars of liberation against France and the US and the decade or more of the post-war subsidy period.
Most foreign visitors to the Museum of Ethnology are interested in the folk music performances. They are initially attracted by the performances because they are unfamiliar but then fall in love with them later and some even wish to learn how to sing. Almost 200 years after its birth, together with other folk performances, this form of Vietnamese music was declared a masterpiece of humanity by the government in 2003. Later, in October 2009, Ca tru was officially recognised by UNESCO as a world intangible cultural heritage in need of preservation.
People who wish to listen to Hat xoan, another genre of Vietnamese folk music performed in the spring, will have to take the 600 steps of three stone stairways to reach the Den Thuong, or High Temple, on the top of Nghia Linh Mountain in Phong Chau district, northern Phu Tho province, where the honouring ritual for the 18 Hung King takes place. Once a year, Hat xoan is performed to honour the first illustrious ancestor of Vietnamese today.
Hat xoan singing is also called Hat cua dinh, or singing at the communal house doors.. Photo: Le Bich
Legend has it that many thousands of years ago, the union of a fairy called Au Co and a dragon called Lac Long Quan produced 100 children from 100 eggs. The eldest, the Hung King, became the first king of Van Lang, as Vietnam was then known, and settled down in the Kingdom in today’s Phong Chau district. The region therefore became the birthplace of the nation. Another 17 Hung kings followed in a direct line of succession.
Every year, on the tenth day of the third lunar month (on 28 April this year on the western calendar), the mountain swarms with pilgrims honouring their ancestors, and as part of its new emphasis on promoting tourism the government has turned the Hung Temple Festival into the biggest event of the year. Apart from official honouring rituals, a variety of extra activities also take place involving Hat xoan singing.
Hat xoan singing is also called Hat cua dinh, or singing at the communal house doors, and performed in several places in Phu Tho province only. Traditionally, each team of Hat xoan performers have a certain number of communal house doors so there is no dispute among the teams.
According to UNESCO documents there are three forms of Hat xoan singing: worship singing for the Hung Kings and village guardian spirits; ritual singing for good crops, health and luck; and festival singing, where villagers alternate between male and female voices in a form of courtship. Each Hat xoan music guild is headed by a leader, referred to as the trum, while male instrumentalists are called kep and female singers dao. Although only four traditional guilds remain, in recent years the singing has been taken up by clubs and other performing groups. In recent research, of 31 old Hat xoan performance sites were found in the province, 15 were lost, and two were seriously damaged.
Hat xoan singing is accompanied by dancing and musical instruments such as clappers and a variety of drums. The music has a sparse structure with few ornamental notes and simple rhythms, and the singing is characterised by modulation between singers and instrumentalists at the perfect fourth interval. Knowledge, customs and techniques for singing, dancing and playing drums and clappers are traditionally transmitted orally by the guild leader. However, the majority are now over 60 years in age, and the numbers of people who appreciate Hat xoan singing have fallen, particularly among the younger generations.
Music of love
Quan ho is a form of folk singing that originated in Bac Ninh province in the 13th century. Photo: Le Bich
‘Come and sit beside me under the shade of a Banyan tree if you are still in love
Let’s sit next to a Rose tree and collect the flowers if you are no longer in love’
The beautiful voice of the female singer echoing through the village of Lim town in Tien Du district of Bac Ninh province marks the most important event of the town - the Lim Festival.
Acknowledged as one of the oldest arts in northern Vietnam, Quan ho is a form of folk singing that originated in Bac Ninh province in the 13th century and soon became an important element of the whole Red River Delta culture.
Traditionally, Quan ho songs are performed as alternating verses between two women, called lien chi, from one village, who sing in harmony, and two men, or lien anh, from another village, who respond with similar melodies but with different lyrics. The lien chi wear distinctive large round hats and scarves while the costumes of the lien anh include turbans, umbrellas and tunics.
The first noticeable feature of Quan ho is that this is a kind of singing battle. It might be rather loosely compared with a rap battle in Western culture, where rappers fight each other with lyrics. But the singing battles in Quan ho are much gentler and more of an exchange than a battle. Quan ho singers are courteous, with light movements and touching voices that express their elegance and bring about an emotional rhythm for the audiences.
The more than 400 song lyrics of Quan ho, sung with 213 different melody variations, express people’s emotional states of longing and sadness upon separation and the happiness of the meeting of lovers, but custom forbids marrying a singing partner. Through their vivid voices, people express their love as well as sharing a cherished cultural practice.