Lesson 7B

Period of “Destruction of music

and inhibition of songs”

In Vietnam, people often make distinction between two flows of music:

– The flow of socialist music: Red music, and Green music,

– The flow of Golden music of the free Republic of Vietnam.

Red music

Red music came to life during the resistance war against the French, usually as marching songs composed in either waltz, or slow ballad, or Boston. These musical pieces were all expressing the fighting spirit and exploiting the following themes:

-Boosting the fighting spirit, sacrifices, displaying the class struggle within the communist thought framework

– Boosting and disseminating Government of Vietnam’s policies

– Praising the Party, Uncle Hồ, other leaders, and the Communist thought

– Praising youth, labour, country building based on socialism

– Praising the social spirit, community life

– Connecting personal and family sentiment with patriotism, and the duty of country building and protecting based on the Communist thought.

Green music

The socialist Green music includes songs calling everyone to participate in increasing agricultural production.

Golden music

Golden music was the flow of music of the Republic of Vietnam coming to life after the country was divided into two parts. Golden music was the opposite of the Communist Red music. The Golden songs were written with slow rhythms (bolero, slow rock, rumba, ballad …) with popular romantic lyrics comprising many themes such as love for the country with variations from Southern folk songs, soldiers’ songs, story songs … Many Golden music songs were written by famous composers such as Phạm Duy, Trịnh Công Sơn, Phạm Đình Chương …

Bolero is a romantic tune often used to deeply express the sadness, the pain felt in scenes of mourning, separation, loss caused by the fratricidal war between Vietnamese nationalists and communists. After the civil war was ended, young people in both the North and the South all had the same feelings about it. Golden music allowed people to have their own personal human feelings while Red music only displayed the common spirit of the collectivity.

Composer Võ Công Diên made the following observation: “Nhạc vàng thực chất là dòng nhạc quê hương mang âm hưởng dân ca các vùng miền Tổ quốc, nó rất gần gũi với tâm tình của người Việt Nam chúng ta, do đó nó có sức cuốn hút với số đông. Chính vì yếu tố này, dòng nhạc quê hương luôn được đa số công chúng chọn lựa. = Golden music is the real flow of music of our homeland, carrying the sound influence of folk songs from different regions of our country, it is very close to our sentiments as Vietnamese, and thus most people are attracted to it. For that main factor, Golden music is always chosen by the majority of people.”

Period of “destruction of music, inhibition of songs”

During the period of 1975-1990, the Communists destroyed Saigon music by two means:

– Burning cultural products like music cassettes, disks, and any printed materials of Golden music,

– Absolute inhibition of Golden music following political cultural instructions from Hanoi.

Like many other cultural activities in the South, this music flow is forbidden to be performed in radio and television broadcasting programs, and, at the same time, is also considered as “reactionary music” or “debauched” or “deceiving, weakening” unable to express the love for the collectivity, for labour work of socialism.

In spite of this inhibition, Golden music has still been enjoyed in secret by people from the North to the South through the VOA and BBC broadcasts from overseas. Among the war trophies brought back to the North by the Communists cadres, Golden music tapes and cassettes were always present. Poet Huy Cận has confessed that the most precious gift for him from the South was the tape that recorded his poem Ngậm Ngùi.

Period of limitations

Having marked a period of dramatic and painful history of the fratricidal civil war, this softly sad Golden music is now empathetically enjoyed by the young people of the North, who aspire to free and open artistic forms after being confined for years in the proletariat culture.

At the beginning of the period of innovation, because of their impotence and failure in front of the resurrection movement of Golden music, the communist governmet had to reconsider and allow a limited dissemination of it based on a list of composers and their works. In 1986, for the first time, the government released a list of 36 songs, composed under the former government of the South, which could now be publicly performed, and a list of 297 songs that were still forbidden, mostly belonging to the category of Saigon soldiers songs, such as “Người ở lại Charlie = The man who stays at Charlie,” “Anh không chết đâu em = I will never die, my love” … From that time on, the number of people listening to Golden music has been increasing, not only South of the 17th parallel and overseas but also in the North, even following the Vietnamese exported workers to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the 1980s. Golden music was then spreading like a crushing wave. The Government’s hands were tied, and having no way to fight back, they had to allow the dissemination of Golden music.

Right at that moment, the musical tapes produced overseas were brought in and overwhelmed the internal market. The musical entrepreneurs and organizations in Vietnam have organized many programs where Golden music was performed and the performance by old former singers of the South with attractive voice was warmly welcome.

Today, Golden music is publicly performed live or through disks (DVDs), at concerts, hotels, restaurants, even on buses … The resurrection of the culture of the Republic of Vietnam is only the consequence of the failure of the socialist culture.

Many people have wondered why the Communists accepted to allow the comeback of the culture of the Republic of Vietnam. They wanted very much to prevent that from happening but they simply could not in front of that tornado. Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc signed the decree no. 28 on March 30, 2017, which stated: “Bán, cho thuê, lưu hành ghi âm ca múa nhạc, sân khấu chưa được cấp giấy phép; tàng trữ, phổ biến trái phép các tác phẩm chưa được phép phổ biến sẽ bị phạt từ 10 đến 15 triệu đồng …” = “Selling, renting, circulating recorded or on-stage musical performance without a permit; unlawful storing, disseminating musical works not yet allowed to disseminate will be fined 10 to 15 million đồng…” A week after that, Mr. Nguyễn Đăng Chương, Director of Performing Arts, forbade for good the dissemination of 5 pre-1975 songs: Cánh thiệp đầu Xuân (The card at the beginning of Spring, by Lê Dinh and Minh Kỳ), Rừng xưa (Old forest, by Lam Phương), Chuyện buồn ngày Xuân (The sad story on Spring day, by Lam Phương), Đừng gọi anh bằng chú (Don’t call me uncle, by Diên An), and Con đường xưa em đi (The old street you walked, by Châu Kỳ and Hồ Đình Phương).

Reason of the prohibition: the lyrics have been changed from the original version, thus a violation of copyright law[1].

There was some heated discussion about it. Public opinion was against it for the following reason: these songs had been allowed to be performed and now are forbidden. The Vietnamese Association of Musicians sent a mild protesting letter to the Central Council for Artistic and Literary Criticism, citing the reason that these 5 songs did not violate the governmental regulation, and, in principle, had been given permission to be performed.

According to Mr. Nguyễn Bắc Truyền: “The government’s main targets are the concerts. The public continue to play and sing these songs appearing to ignore the banning order.”

Composer Tuấn Khanh stated: “The biggest wealth of humanity is the culture, not the powerful government. Music or books –knowledge and feelings—will stay forever, tirelessly challenging powerful government of all times.”

The only person defending the inhibiting order was researcher Nguyễn Thụy Kha, who said that the five banned songs did not deserve all the brouhaha that was created, and lamented: “Hundreds of choirs of mine and of my colleagues, thousands of great revolutionary songs are not remembered or praised by the people while these five songs, which were just only temporarily banned, were brought into attention, discussed, advocated for …”

In reality, nobody observed the banning order. The order could not prevent people from singing them, from listening them on the Internet, from singing for one another, from making video clips and disseminated on the Net. People continued to share the links for the recordings of these banned songs. They even performed the songs themselves, recorded them themselves and posted them on the Internet themselves. The order was too late: how could the government inhibit Youtube, Google, and Facebook?

The current problem for the Communist is the Golden music being spread like a tornado. The government does not have the capability to suppress, inhibit, control of information like in the old days. Mr Nguyễn Bắc Truyền stated to VOA that: “The more they try to ban the more people invite one another to sing, because the biggest wealth of humanity is the culture not the powerful government.”

The Bolero tornado

Phạm Tín An Ninh wrote: “Perhaps never before, even under the Republic of Vietnam, Bolero music has become so popular and passionately enjoyed by the people like today, especially in the North … Currently Bolero is like a tornado, destroying all fortresses, occupying all territories, from the city to the countryside, from the most magnificent “focus points,” stages to the most obscure, remote places, even at funerals, weddings, intoxicating people from old to young, from high-ranking officials, milllionnaires to ordinary and poor people. Everywhere you go, you will see people enjoying Bolero.”

This tornado is marked by the following musical events:

– Return of the former Saigon singers,

– Tea rooms.

The return

Regarding the resurrection of the old sound of the Saigon culture, let’s take a look at the live shows and tea rooms in Vietnam.

Live shows

After 1990, many former Saigon singers such as Thanh Lan, Vũ Thành An, Khánh Ly, Phạm Duy … returned to perform in Vietnam. On February 2, 2011, at the big theatre of Hà Nội, thousands of people came to enjoy Golden music songs performed by Tuấn Vũ, Hương Lan coming back from abroad in 10 live shows sold out after the Thăng Long 1000-year Big Celebration.

Another typical example was the live show by singer Chế Linh in Mỹ Đình, Hà Nội at the end of 2011. The billboard for this Chế Linh’s live show with the inscription of Huyền Thoại Dòng Nhạc Tình = Myth of the Love Music Flow (Golden music) was sufficient to show that the uniforms of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam as well as the Golden music have finally blatantly walked into the capital city of Hà Nội.


On the occasion of Tết of 2018 (Tết Mậu Tuất = Tết of the Year of the Dog), during the evening live show of “Góp lá mùa Xuân = Contibution of leaves of Spring” on January 22, 2018 at the musical theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, songs by Vũ Thành An, Từ Công Phụng, Lê Uyên Phương, Trịnh Công Sơn were performed by Khánh Ly just like in the old days. On January 6, 2018, at Hoa Bình theatre in Sài Gòn, Golden music was again performed and deeply moved the audience through the voices of singers Thanh Tuyền, Giao Linh, Phương Dung, Họa Mi, and Hương Lan.

Billboards for Live shows by Chế Linh and Khánh Ly

According to composer Trần Chí Phúc’s observation, Golden music has gone from being banned in 1975 to being crowned in 2010 right at the centre of the capital city of Hà Nội. Many in-country singers have gone abroad to perform Golden music songs. Composer Việt Dzũng had the following observation on Golden music and its current status: “OK, let me ask you this: how many singers are there in Vietnam, and how many of them have gone overseas to perform? And what kind of songs do they sing overseas? The answer is that they still have to rely on pre-1975 Golden music songs to make money for their living.”

Tea rooms

Many pre-1975 Sài Gòn singers returned to Vietnam to appear on popular television game shows and do not forget to also appear in old and new tea rooms of Sài Gòn, which are deeply reminding the culture of traditional Sài Gòn. And then, just like a silent but strong comeback, the ambience of tea rooms, Saigon-styled cafes fully come into existence together with the Bolero music flow in many cities all over the country. Tea rooms together with free display and sale of old books next to new books having past memories like “Sài Gòn in the old days” … have made important contributions to the re-assessment of the value of the Sài Gòn culture, which has been covered, hidden, drowned for the past two or three decades. In order to help you see clearly this phenomenon, and after our visit with the Nguyễn Văn Bình Book Street, let go visit some of the following famous tea rooms.

Cafe People of Sài Gòn (9 Thái Văn Lung Street, District 1): going inside, visitors will see a background curtain on which are painted pre-1975 Sài Gòn street scenes, sidewalk vending stalls, street names, names of famous tea rooms, a painting of composer Trịnh Công Sơn in deep thought and smoking a cigarette by the window, wobbly-walking poet Bùi Giáng, the famous couple Lê Uyên Phương on a Vespa scooter. On top of the painting is the slogan “Sài Gòn still sings.” Evenings with music by composers Phạm Duy, Lam Phương … are organized here. The audience is consisted of young people of 20-30 years old, addicted to pre-war music, Bolero rhythm and fond of the Sài Gòn-styled musical ambiance.


Musical café-tea room People of Saigon (Photo: NVN)

Tea-room Overture café (109 Trần Quốc Toản, District 3), providing a newer and modern ambience with more delicate sound system, organizes special evenings of Bolero rhythm, with songs by Nguyễn Ánh 9, Phạm Duy, Trịnh Công Sơn …

Tea-room WE on Lê Quý Đôn Street (District 3), frequently provides minishows with old voices such as Tuấn Ngọc, Lệ Thu … beside the newly famous singers of the romantic, pre-war music, such as Trọng Bắc, Đức Tuấn.

At tea-room Uyên Voice (33 Trần Bình Trọng, District of Bình Thạnh), frequently into the night, more and more people from the audience would volunteer to sing pre-1975 old songs.


Tea-room Uyên Voice (Photo: NVN)

At tea-room Hi End on Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street, the audience is reunited with Hồng Vân, a voice of old Sài Gòn beside the new voices specializing in the performance of songs composed in Saigon before 1975: Ngọc Mai, Thụy Long, Tương Phùng, Hoàng Kim, Ngọc Quy …


Tea-room ambience (Photo: Eskimo)

Observations by in-country artists

According to the remark by the journal An ninh thủ đô = Capital city’s security, Golden music has now become the spiritual food of young people and its dissemination is irreversible. On March 17, 2017, through the VOA, composer Nguyễn Thụy Kha, a government official having served in the propaganda and training agency, considered the explosion of the Bolero musical flow as an ordinary phenomenon because it was popular, suitable for many categories of audience.

Music critic Nguyễn Lưu stated: “Những bài viết về người lính Cộng Hòa sẽ khiến cho giới trẻ phân tâm, lo lắng. Họ sẽ đặt câu hỏi, liệu con đường mình đang bước đi có đúng không, hay cái kia mới đúng. = The writings about the Republican soldiers will make the young people to be distracted, worried. They will ask themselves if the road they are taking is correct, or the other one is correct.”

Mr. Nguyễn Bắc Truyền told the VOA that: “Càng cấm đoán, người ta càng rủ nhau hát nhiều hơn vì tài sản lớn nhất của con người là văn hóa chứ không phải cường quyền. = The more they try to ban the more people invite one another to sing, because the biggest wealth of humanity is the culture not the powerful government.”

Composer Lê Minh said: “Khi cái mới không đáp ứng được nhu cầu, cái mới không hay hơn, không có cái gì đặc biệt hơn thì người ta quay về cái cũ. = When the new does not meet the needs, the new is not better, does not have anything more special, people will go back to the old” and made the following observation regarding the karaoke “focus point”: “Người ta không hát nhạc đang thời trang đâu, có chăng là một số ca khúc dân ca mới, còn đa số “sang” thì họ hát nhạc của Ngô Thụy Miên, Từ Công Phụng, Vũ Thành An, Phạm Duy, Trịnh Công Sơn … = People do not sing currently fashionable songs, except for a few new folk songs; the majority of them, being “classy,” sing songs composed by Ngô Thụy Miên, Từ Công Phụng, Vũ Thành An, Phạm Duy, Trịnh Công Sơn …”. When asked for the reason, singer Trà Mi answered: “Nhạc bây giờ cũng là lời nói (kể chuyện) nhưng nghe nó ngang phè phè. Còn lời của nhạc vàng chỉ là lời nói bình thường thôi, nhưng thấy nó khác, nghe nó không chướng tai. = Songs of today are also speaking words (telling story) but hard to listen to. On the contrary, the lyrics of Golden music songs are also only ordinary speaking words, but they are different, easy to listen to and nice to our ears.”

The journal “Người lao động = The worker” made the following observation: “Khi các ca khúc mới không đáp ứng được nhu cầu cả nội dung lẫn nghệ thuật, nhiều ca sĩ trình diễn, nhà sản xuất chương trình lại tìm các ca khúc xưa. Sự bùng nổ của các chương trình Bolero hiện nay là một minh chứng. = When new songs do not meet the needs both artistically and in terms of contents, many performing singers and show producers have to search for old songs. The explosion of these current Bolero programs is a proof.”

Within that longing for Golden music, the real aspiration is for the Freedom in the Sài Gòn cultural ambience of the old days. While listening to it, the audience feels like being in a dream, a happy time, which, for people of the South, has been lost in their sorrow, and for people of the North, has been longed for several past decades in the dark confinement.

The composers of Golden music such as Nguyễn Văn Đông, Trịnh Công Sơn, Anh Bằng, Ngô Thụy Miên, Phạm Duy … could not have thought that they have created invisible weapons, which have transformed the Republic of Vietnam into The Real Winners in the cultural front.

Ending the field trips

After each of the field trip, each of you should sum up your thoughts on what you have heard, have seen from our homeland and come up with your own conclusion. We only hope, after the field trips, coming back to the country that has accepted and helped you, and when you feel homesick, that you will sing this song Làng tôi = My village composed by Chung Quân:

“… Quê tôi chìm trong trời mờ sương,

(My village sinking in fog-covered sky,)

Quê tôi là bao nguồn yêu thương,

(My village is the source of much love,)

Quê tôi là bao nhớ nhung, u buồn,

(My village is countless longing and sadness,)

Là bao vấn vương tâm hồn người bốn phương.

(It causes attachment for people living far away.)

  1. Reason for the inhibition: The song “Đừng gọi anh bằng chú” by Diên An, in fact, was composed by Anh Thi, a navy man of the Republic of Vietnam. In his article about the inhibition of the song“Con đường xưa em đi,” Nguyển Đình Bổn stated: “It is really laughing stock that the song was forbidden just because of a few words like “phiên gác = watch,” “chiến trường = battlefront.” But the inhibition could not erase the beauty, and the humanist nature of these songs composed under the Republic of Vietnam. Tthe song “Ly rượu mừng = The glass of wine to welcome Spring”is banned because it is sung instead of “Welcoming Spring, Welcoming the Party”; soldiers’ songs are banned because they are sung by young people wearing combat fatigues.