A blind male singer takes the stage, his voice smooth and sad, shedding tears of an unhappy life, breaking the hearts of passers-by who find it hard to keep walking.
He’s replaced by a spring market just before daybreak. In the dim light of oil lamps, the voices of vendors and buyers create a cacophony of noise and excitement abounds.
Then, all of a sudden, everything changes again, and the stage resembles the hustle and bustle of a scene from the city. Boys and girls and men and women from all walks of life join stroll around. One is dressed as Queen Nam Phuong, wife of Emperor Bao Dai, who was the last emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam’s last. She looks graceful and powerful. Elsewhere are wavy-haired girls in improvised versions of the traditional Vietnamese costume, the ao dai, walking hand in hand with their boyfriends and enjoying the atmosphere of the spring market.
Calls of vendors fill the air, selling brooms, bread, sweetened soup, yams, and rice pancakes, and customers are invited to enjoy cakes and food on the spot.
All of the scenes are arranged in a way that together make up a chain of events. After an absence of ten years, performances of Diem den mot thoi began again in early January, with the new edition intended to entertain visitors to Nha hat Ao dai (Ao dai Theatre) on Nguyen Hue walking street in HCMC’s city centre.
Time of popularity
Diem den mot thoi was first introduced in 2002 on a small wooden building in Ly Tu Trong Street in District 1 and was performed every evening for five years until 2007, when it came to an end because artist Si Hoang, its driving force, wanted to concentrate his efforts on a project building an Ao dai Museum in District 9, which was opened in 2014. The museum is now running smoothly, so Si Hoang and his associates have brought Diem den mot thoi back to life.
‘I want the Ao dai Museum to be not only a place that preserves precious objects,’ the talented artist said. ‘It should also be a space that shows once-popular culture and lifestyles. Old-fashioned clothes and musical instruments shouldn’t gather dust on shelves anymore. They should live the lives they used to live.’
Diem den mot thoi once welcomed thousands of visitors and diplomats and in 2004 had the honour of welcoming a Swedish royal delegation, including the King and Queen.
‘At that time, when visiting HCMC, many groups especially asked to be taken to see Diem den mot thoi, rather than a “grand” show at the Opera House or anywhere else,’ said Dang Hung, Director of the Bong Sen Folk Song and Dance Theatre. This despite the fact that it’s all in Vietnamese, which gives some indication of how interesting it was and still is.
Back to the source
‘After 20 years of many tours abroad with other artists, I realised that we had one thing that made us equal to other countries and made us hold our heads high,’ said Si Hoang. ‘And that was our culture, which has developed over 4,000 years through countless ups and downs and is still in our blood. A lullaby, a song or just the calls of vendors remind us of our culture.’ This is why he has focused all his efforts and spent a lot of money on restoring Vietnamese culture in the liveliest way possible.
Diem den mot thoi has touched the hearts of many interested in Vietnamese culture, with eleven separate performances over the course of 70 minutes. Its begins with Hue songs, hau dong and hat xam (traditional plays), followed by the high-pitched sounds of the dan tranh (a 16-chord zither) and the low-pitched sounds of drums. And when the lithophone (a traditional Vietnamese musical instrument made up of a set of stone slabs) is played, everyone listens in silence and only clap at the end. Many Vietnamese also struggle to figure out how such wonderful sounds come from such a simple instrument!
Between the musical performances are moments for the audience to see differing styles of the ao dai from the 17th to the 20th centuries, as well as the popular costumes of the 54 ethnic minority peoples in Vietnam. All models are students selected by the Ao dai Theatre and are trained for just 15 days.
Si Hoang prefers not to invite professional models as he wants to breathe normality into Diem den mot thoi and wants the actual beauty of the models to be real for the audience. The model playing the role of Queen Nam Phuong is a good example of his idea, as she actually resembles the Queen, who has been dubbed ‘the most beautiful Queen in history’. Si Hoang shows the students pictures of the old style of ao dai so they can make necessary preparations to reflect the actual style.
The show comes to an end around 10pm. Rapturous applause continues for some time and many audience members linger long after. Not only are they impressed by the return of Diem den mot thoi after a decade of absence but also by the enormous efforts of Si Hoang and his associates, including director Luong Duyen, composer Tran Manh Hung, journalist Trac Thuy Mieu as MC, and the artists, models, actors and actresses involved.
Diem den mot thoi, Si Hoang said, is like a living room, where all the best things should be displayed to entertain distinguished guests.
He is so dedicated to Vietnamese culture that Dang Hung said ‘Only Si Hoang can do this! The decorations and arrangements are so pleasing, with space for artistic performances in the middle and seats for the audience on the sides. The program is superbly conducted to take the audience from one surprise to another. I am proud of my friend [Si Hoang] and Diem den mot thoi!’
Diem den mot thoi is on every night at the Ao dai Theatre
77 Nguyen Hue Street, District 1, HCMC
Tel: (08) 6683 2740; 0909 880 663
The shows begin at 8pm
Tickets are VND700,000-800,000
Entry is free for children under 6 years of age