1968: Birth Year of Vietnam’s Peace Songs

Philip Phu Bui

Trinh Cong Son

It was early morning of the second day of Tet. As part of the New Year’s tradition, people were gathering at street corners to gamble. Firecrackers had been going off since the New Year’s Eve to welcome the Year of the Monkey, but this morning, they sounded somehow sharper, more shrill.

While everyone was enjoying the games, a man in his fifties suddenly sprung from the crowd and proclaimed that the city was under attack. He confirmed the strange popping sounds were from AK-47 machine guns. Then, he told everyone to disperse and go home. The festive spirit of Tet quickly evaporated and an eerie atmosphere took over.

The New Year’s celebration was over. The Vietnamese remember 1968 by bloody “Tet Offensive” or Tet Mau Than.

In early May, the Viet Cong launched a second wave of attacks. The battle spread to the north entrance of Tan Son Nhut Airport which is very close to my home. One late afternoon I saw a “Skyraider” attack plane swooping down and releasing two bombs. After several loud explosions, a piece of shrapnel landed right in front of my house. Playfully, I grabbed the hot piece of metal, and then feeling the intense hear, dropped it immediately.

The war destroyed hundreds of homes. My junior high school became a refugee center. When the fighting stopped, hundred of dead Viet Cong’s and civilians were buried in a mass grave.

The battle at the airport took the life of Air Force Colonel Luu Kim Cuong, whose death was immortalized in a song by Trinh Cong Son, entitled Cho Mot Nguoi Nam Xuong – “For a friend who just died.”

With Trinh Cong Son playing guitar and Khanh Ly singing, the song touched millions of Vietnamese and made them a very popular duo. In fact, they were known then as the Bob Dylan and Joan Baez of Vietnam. Son’s music was so profound that as a teenager, I determine to learn to play the guitar.

During the Tet Offensive, Trinh Cong Son was in Hue and survived the massacre. His experiences during the aftermath of the battle inspired him to write the following lines from his sorrowful ballad about a tragedy at Hue:

Which one is my brother
among human body floating in the river
displayed in the field
on roofs of buildings
or in the trenches?

The Tet Offensive gave birth to his album Hat Cho Que Huong Viet Nam – “Singing for Vietnam,” – which includes songs about sufferings of the Vietnamese in time of war and their love of peace as performed by Son’s longtime companion, Khanh Ly. It instantly became a top hit. The Vietnamese see themselves in his songs. During the war they were played on university campuses, in cafes, and on the streets from the cities to the countryside. Many young Vietnamese considered this album to be a symbol, even a kind of bible of the war. Ironically, the South Vietnamese government censored his songs, which they claimed to have pro-communist and anti-war overtones.

According to Son, singing is a form of mourning for the dead, for the country at war. His poetic and humanistic lyrics are the sobbing cries of the widows who have lost their husbands, mothers lost their sons, and sweethearts lost one another in the midst of war.

His music carries the irony of a funeral procession, a column of living survivors escorting the dead to their final resting place, being blown by the mine on a countryside road. With so many tragic deaths, he simply called for the people of North and South Vietnam to reconcile and stop senseless slaughter of brother against brother with foreign-made weapons.

On the morning of April 30, 1975 while the communist tanks were rolling into the city, Saigon Radio broadcast Son’s most popular title in his own voice Noi Vong Tay Lon – “Joining Hands to Make a Great Circle” – to inspire a feeling of peace and reunification in the land. This song celebrates the coming of a new dawn in Vietnam, which people enthusiastically join hand to rebuild the war-torn country. The event also marks the separation between Trinh Cong Son and Khanh Ly.

Remaining in Vietnam after the war, Son was appointed temporary head of the Cultural Office in Hue before falling out of favor with the new government. He stayed behind only to face the banning of his albums by the communists and to witness the deaths of tens of thousands Vietnamese during the Cambodian war four years later. He was ultimately sent to a new economic zone, where he spent years under harsh conditions, and many of his friends and artistic counterparts were sent to re-education camps.

Khanh Ly had left Vietnam just hours before Saigon fell. She continued to faithfully sing Trinh Cong Son’s songs, even sending money to Vietnam to support him, but encountered bitter protests from some spectators, who ironically blamed Son for contributing to the demoralization of the South Vietnamese people. However, his music expresses only a deep-rooted love of country and the aspirations of the people for peace and freedom, as opposed to hatred and political motives.

In the past several years, Hanoi initiated policy of Doi Moi, which, like Glasnost in the former Soviet Union represents a more tolerable stance towards artists. In Saigon today, Trinh Cong Son is finding his artistic activities, in his own words, more “breathable,” but he confines his song writing to love songs.

He and Khanh Ly had a chance to meet each other in Canada and in France, but they did not appear together in public.

I hope someday Trinh Cong Son and Khanh Ly will come together hand in hand, singing their favorite tunes to celebrate a new era for Vietnam. In the meantime, I still love to pick up the guitar and play Trinh Cong Son’s love songs with nostalgic feeling – and his peace songs to remind myself of the Vietnamese aspiration for liberty, justice and humanity.

© 1993 Buivanphu


[Bài đã đăng trên tạp chí Thế K 21, 12.1993]

About Bùi Văn Phú

Bùi Văn Phú is a community college teacher and a freelance writer from San Francisco Bay Area. He worked with Peace Corps in Togo, Africa and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Southeast Asia. Bùi Văn Phú hiện dạy đại học cộng đồng và là một nhà báo tự do sống tại vùng Vịnh San Francisco, California. Trong thập niên 1980, ông làm tình nguyện viên của Peace Corps tại Togo, Phi Châu và làm tham vấn giáo dục cho Cao ủy Tị nạn Liên hiệp quốc tại Đông nam Á.
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