You’d be hard-pressed to visit Vietnam without getting a taste of the country’s long and fascinating history. The food, the architecture, the art – there’s a story behind nearly everything in Vietnam. But one of the best ways to really discover the history of this incredible country is taking the time to listen. After all, there’s no cultural element as intertwined with the country’s incredible history as its music!
And just like Vietnam’s lengthy and dynamic history of foreign occupation, war, liberation and eventual peace and prosperity, music in the country has an equally dynamic musical past. Perhaps the best history lesson you’ll ever have is making time to experience traditional music on your travels in Vietnam – but where to start?
To really get a taste of Vietnam’s musical culture, it’s just a matter of knowing what to listen for – and where to go to hear it! This is what you need to know to make the most of your musical journey through Vietnam, and which locations to put on your to-do list while you’re at it!
‘Ca Tru’ (AKA Court Music)
When most imagine “traditional” Vietnamese music, ‘Ca Tru’ is often what comes to mind. Rising into popularity as early as the 13th Century, Ca Tru music was popular in the royal courts and traditionally performed by three “masters” of the art – two male, and one female – along with a group of dancers. With the skill of a master songstress and two instrumentalists playing the “phach” (a stringed instrument), a “dan day” (a long-necked lute) and a “trong chau” (or praise drum), ‘Ca Tru’ was the music of choice for religious and cultural ceremonies alike in imperial courts.
Like so much of the court arts during imperial times, mastering the art of ‘Ca Tru’ meant years of practice, and only a small minority of singers and instrumentalists ever reached a level that would be welcome in the court. Those singers and players would master Ca Tru’s 56 set melodies, which demanded exceptional vocal control and accompanied by dancing. So incredible and complex is Ca Tru that it was recognised in 2009 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Consequently, seeing Ca Tru performed now is the closest thing you can get to stepping into Vietnam’s imperial past – and a great way to reward musicians who have dedicated their lives to mastering this demanding art form.
Where to hear it now:
Thanks to its recognition by UNESCO, Ca Tru music has seen a resurgence in the country, and has even earned itself a musical club dedicated to its performance! Head to Ca Tru Ha Noi Club at 42 – 44 Hang Bac Street in the historic Old Quarter for the city’s best and most vibrant Ca Tru performances.
‘Nhac Do’ (AKA Red Music)
Nhac Do, otherwise called Red Music, is perhaps the most iconic of all Vietnamese music thanks to its connection with the Vietnam-American war in the 1960s and 70s. Borrowing its name from the quintessential colour of the Vietnamese Communist revolution, ‘Red Music’ enjoyed strong promotion across the country following the French colonial period, and focused on themes like independence, socialism and anti-colonialism.
For a time following the country’s reunification, Red Music was technically the only music that could legally be played throughout the country. It took the place of other forms of banned music that revolutionaries deemed “bourgeois” and “capitalist”. Characterised by rousing melodies that lent to marching rather than dancing, ‘Red Music’ has lost its popularity in recent years, but during national holidays and revolutionary anniversaries, makes a grand reappearance on the streets of the capital for a few days.
Where to hear it now:
‘Red Music’ is rarely played live in recent years, but if you’re visiting Vietnam during the lead up to a national holiday, you’ll inevitably hear the rousing chorus of the genre over loud speakers!
‘Nhac Phan Chien’ (AKA Anti-War Music)
Perhaps one of the most controversial and equally intriguing forms of music in Vietnam is ‘Nhac Phan Chien’, or anti-war music. Rising into hidden popularity around the same time as Red Music, ‘Nhac Phan Chien’ rose to significance alongside the country falling into war. Sometimes compared to the Western anti-war ballads of Bob Dylan, this particular brand of music borrowed themes from the plight of Vietnamese refugees and lovers torn apart by war. Consequently, many of its themes are heart-wrenching tales of love and loss.
The most prolific of Nhac Phan Chieu’ music is Trinh Cong Son, lovingly referred to as the Bob Dylan or Joan Baez of Vietnam. His over 500 classic songs have risen to the status of national anthems for the country. This is especially surprising given that this kind of music was almost entirely banned for decades during and following the war.
Where to hear it now:
You’ll hear plenty of Trinh Cong Son’s classic ‘Nhac Phan Chien’ songs on a wander through southern Vietnam, but for a better taste, head to Ca Lat Coffee House at 3 Dang Dung in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Musicians here follow themes throughout the week, often allotting a night dedicated to ‘Nhac Phan Chien’ music!
Explore every aspect of Vietnam’s incredible culture and history with our Vietnam Highlights tour, visiting the country’s best destinations (and hearing the sounds of the country’s traditional music along the way!).