We arrived in Da Nang almost a week ago. We hadn’t planned on spending more than two or three days here, but then we met Tien.
By the time we reached Da Nang, our fascination with Vietnamese folk music had become all-consuming. We’d seen black-and-white photos from the 60′s of soldiers playing nylon string guitars. We’d scribbled down the name Trinh Cong Son after hearing it linked to Bob Dylan’s. And we’d heard Dona, Dona — a Yiddish song written for vaudeville — performed in Vietnamese by a blind musician.
Who were these old folk musicians? What influence did the North American folk revival have on them — and vice versa?
We needed answers. So, like two detectives in a Raymond Chandler novel — only infinitely nerdier — we hit the rainy streets of Da Nang.
Actually, before we did that, we stayed up all night feeding Vietnamese Wikipedia articles through Google Translate. We were particularly interested in the song Dona, Dona. We knew that Joan Baez had made it famous in the 60′s with her English version. She was also one of her generation’s most vocal critics of the war. Could she be the link?
Delving deeper, we discovered that Joan Baez had come to Vietnam in 1971 as part of a peace delegation. She was in Hanoi when the Americans bombed the city that Christmas. During the bombing, she recorded part of her album, Where Are You Now, My Son?, from the bunker. The b-side audio features explosions, sirens wailing, and a mother crying out in Vietnamese, “Where are you now, my son?”
We learned that Joan Baez is credited for christening Trinh Cong Son as “the Bob Dylan of Vietnam.” Trinh Cong Son, who is now a national hero, composed over 500 songs before, during, and after the war. A guitarist and a folk musician, he sang about love and country, often hiding a protestor’s sentiments in romantic metaphors.
Joan Baez has a Vietnamese counterpart, as well — as much in voice as in relationship to Bob Dylan. Khanh Ly helped make Trinh Cong Son’s music famous throughout the 70′s. Michele and I listened to as much Khanh Ly as our slow connection to Youtube would allow. We were moved by her soaring voice; we only wished that we could understand the meaning and context of the music.
Beautiful people in black-and-white armed with guitars, cigarettes, and conviction — in my romantic mind’s eye, 1960′s Vietnam and the U.S. were becoming mirror images of each other.
Michele and I wanted to know more. What was the legacy of this music today? Who still sung it? Who still cared?
The night after our Wikipedia binge, we decided to find some live music. We looked online, but there didn’t seem to be much — just a few places to see party bands and DJ’s (which would have been fine). Then one listing caught my eye: Nep Cafe, where “an old trombone, a Che poster, and a bicycle poking out of an exposed brick wall are just some of the oddments decorating this indie hangout. Live bands play upstairs three times a week.” So we walked over.
When we got there, I saw no old trombone, no Che poster, and no bicycle. The sign read “Cu Cafeteria,” so I assumed ownership had changed hands. We walked up to the waitress — the first Vietnamese woman I’d seen with short, curly hair — and asked if there was live music.
She looked surprised. “Yes, I play music and tell stories here every night. How did you hear about that?”
Online, we told her. She told us to come back by 7:30; she would save us two seats because it would be crowded.
That evening, we arrived around 7. The waitress met us at the door and asked if we’d had dinner. “I sing from 8 until 10, so you should eat first.” We agreed and walked off, a bit taken aback. We joked about how many bathroom breaks we’d be allowed during the performance.
Dinner went late and it was 9 by the time we were back at the cafe. Neither of us like being late, but we didn’t figured it would matter much. We were dealing with musicians, after all.
I pushed the door open and was mortified to realize that we were interrupting a very intimate concert. It was dimly lit and the waitress was sharing a small stage by the door with a guitarist. No wonder she had told us to arrive early.
Everyone looked at us as we walked in; the waitress gestured mid-song to two chairs she had shared right by the stage. We sat down and tried to make ourselves small.
The singer seemed undisturbed. Once the embarrassment had melted away, I realized how beautiful her voice was. As she sang, her face was intensely expressive.
She finished her song and spoke to the audience in Vietnamese. Then she looked at us and apologized. We wouldn’t be able to understand her stories, she explained. She had started the evening off with Christmas music, but “it wasn’t working, so I started singing and telling stories about love.”
The singer and guitarist had great rapport and the audience’s rapt attention. There was no amplification, but the acoustics carried throughout the cafe. Nobody spoke during the music. Most of the songs were in Vietnamese, with haunting, soaring melodies.
After the show, we introduced ourselves again to the singer. Her name was Tien, she told us, and she owned the cafe. Her father was a professional musician, and had forbid his children from following his path — but they all loved music too much to listen to him. Tien’s sister is a famous pop star, but Tien is content to run the cafe, where she has a space to sing and tell stories every night.
We told Tien that we were interested to learn more about Vietnamese folk music. She was happy to hear that we knew of Trinh Cong Son and Khanh Ly and promised that, if we came back the next night, she would sing their songs for us.
So come back we did, and punctually this time. It was Christmas evening and Tien was wearing a red dress. Before the show, we asked her if we could play a few songs. She was thrilled, especially when she learned that Michele is a professional singer.
As Tien sang, time flew by. She did songs both by Khanh Ly and Trinh Cong Son. Her guitarist played and sang an incredible five-minute solo piece; we asked the people sitting next to us to write down the title so we could look it up. Tien then asked us to come up.
We introduced ourselves to the audience and asked if anyone had heard of Neil Young. Tien translated and a few hands went up. We played After the Goldrush, then Pancho and Lefty (“a song about cowboys and hard decisions”).
Michele then told everyone how shocked she was as a student of Yiddish music to hear Dona, Dona in Vietnamese. Everyone in the audience knew the song, but only Tien said she had heard of the Yiddish language. Michele sang Dona, Dona in the original, as beautifully as ever. Tien seemed elated.
When we had finished, we stepped off stage. Tien closed the show with Puff, the Magic Dragon; it was surreal to see the young Vietnamese audience singing along.
After the show, we sat and talked with Tien. She was excited. “So tomorrow, you come during the day and we talk about folk music. But so many of my friends are interested in learning about Western music. So in the evening tomorrow, I could invite all of them to come and you can do a concert of Canadian and American songs!”
Play for two hours? Michele is a professional, so she could do it in her sleep. But could I? The self-doubt gave way to excitement. We agreed; Tien was giddy. We rushed home to set up a playlist.
We decided to focus mostly on American and Canadian folk and pop musicians with anti-war reputations from the 60′s and 70′s. Joan Baez was in and so was Bob Dylan. Neil Young, too. Oh, and Cat Stevens. Gordon Lightfoot? Sure. Buffy Sainte-Marie. Keep Townes Van Zandt. And, of course, Leonard Cohen.
The next morning we printed our song sheets and headed over to Tien’s cafe. She invited us to talk and practice in the room upstairs, which is where she lives. We walked up and were blown away by what we saw: a huge, cavernous room filled with instruments, books, and art. It was a bohemian dream.
Michele and I spent a few hours running over the songs. There were a few that I was hung up on, but Michele was supportive and encouraging. “Don’t worry about making mistakes. Tonight is about sharing the music we love, not about playing perfectly,” she told me. It helped.
Downstairs, we talked with Tien and learned more about her family. Life was difficult for them growing up. Her father had failed his cumulative high school exam and was forced into the army during the American war. Because Da Nang is in the south, he fought for the losing army. After the war, he was sent to a reeducation camp. Her grandfather, a politician in the north, was able to pull him from the camp after serving “a very short time there.” How long? “Only one, two year.”
Post-camp, her father started playing music. It was his only career option, and it was not looked upon favorably in Vietnam of the late 70′s. He hustled for a long time. For the first decade of her life, Tien was quite poor.
But things changed around 1994. Socially and economically, Vietnam was opening up; suddenly, musicians were in demand. Tien’s father played at official functions and weddings, as well as bars and nightclubs. He was able to provide for his family better than ever before, and eventually opened a cafe.
Tien did her best in school and went on to university. After that, she taught and worked in private companies. Eventually, though, her love of music and the artist lifestyle won out. She opened Cu Cafeteria three years ago.
If the business fails, she told us, she won’t mind. She’s also a carpenter, an artist, and a language expert; if the cafe tanks, she’ll have options.
Later that night, we stepped onto the stage. Tien introduced us to the crowd, which was older than the night before. The audience had been hand-picked by Tien herself, who encouraged us to tell the stories of the songs we had chosen to perform. She asked if anyone needed translation; nobody raised their hands. It was dark and smoky.
Michele told everyone about how our fascination with Vietnamese folk music had led us to the cafe. We were only supposed to be in Da Nang for two days but had stayed longer because we fell in love with the place. Now we wanted to share some music that was special to us, just as Tien had done these last few nights.
The performance was a joy. I messed up a few times, but was too overwhelmed by happiness to stay embarrassed. Michele’s voice was radiant and free. I was so proud to share the stage with her.
We played twelve songs. In the middle of our set, Tien asked us to play Dona, Dona “in that funny language from last night.” We did and the audience accompanied us.
When we were finished, an older man from the crowd spoke from his seat. Tien translated. He said that he hadn’t understood the lyrics or our stories, but our music and energy had moved him. He wasn’t the best singer, he said, but because it was too early to go home, he’d play a song for all of us.
It was moving to watch him perform. He finished and brought up his wife to accompany him on the next song. It was lovely. We learned later that this man, still strikingly handsome, had lost his good looks during a decade spent in a reeducation camp. He had also serenaded Tien’s mother at her wedding, much to the ire of Tien’s father.
After that, a friend of Tien’s performed. She’s a professional singer who has recently transitioned genres — from folk to dance music. The career shift is reflected in her pink and blue hair. She sang two songs, one by Trinh Cong Son. Tien accompanied, their voices weaving intricate harmonies with each other and the guitar. The music was delicate and powerful.
Next was a man named Hoa who makes instruments from scrap metal. He recycles defunct American bombs to produce hang drums. Hoa played a “sky drum,” one of his multi-pitch percussive creations made from a gas can. He passed it around; the older man who had performed with his wife took it and hammered out a quiet melody with the mallets.
A friend of Tien’s who works at the coffee shop closed out the evening with a slow, minimalist version of Leaving On a Jet Plane. She was serious and heartfelt. It was nice to hear a song so overplayed approached with such earnestness.
And that was that. We took a group photo and went out for fried chicken on the street afterwards, where we talked about war, guilt, and family. Michele and I returned to our hotel in a state of bliss.
It has been such an incredible surprise to find this group of creative, free-thinking of people and to be welcomed with open arms. This sense of connection is one of the true pleasures of traveling.
We’re still fascinated by Vietnamese folk music. Da Nang gave us a glimpse into its modern legacy, and we’re eager to explore more.
We leave for Hoi An tomorrow, but we’ll be coming back to Da Nang soon.