The Vietnamese Music in Wars


The Vietnamese traditional music particularly folk songs and a large variety of tunes in pentatonic scale have been prolific since the ancient time. But Western style music introduced by the French in the first three decades of the colonial period drew the interest of only those who were close to the French or attained modern education. 

Since the early 1930's, there were more and more song writers who begun exploring new horizons of music. In only a few years, by the early 1930s, many song writers produced dozens of new songs in Western seven-note diatonic scale. And the "new music" as it has been called, was developing quickly.  

From then on, beside entertaining, music has been employed as an effective weapon in the fight for national independence. Later, the Vietnamese modern music has developed along with the wars. 

The late 1930s and early 1940's saw many "new music" songs, written by a dozen pioneer composers. The first songs were mostly romantic, about love and love stories, and the beauty of Nature. As the movement progressed, more heroic and patriotic songs were composed.  

Composers who were patriotic activists produced a lot of songs praising triumphant victories in ancient battles, promoting patriotism but not directly mentioning the cause of independence from the French colonial rule.  

Actually, patriotic songs in primary stage or in the form of folk songs were supporting the revolutionary movements such as the "Dong Du" (Go Schooling in the East), and the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang in the late 1920's. But only since the early 1940s, were the more assertive patriotism in such songs propagated largely among school children and students as well as young men and women, mostly in cities. Every musician strove to inspire people with national identity and characters and spirit in their compositions. 

After 9 March 1945, in the nominal independence given by Japan after the Japanese army had overthrown the French colonial regime, people were free to sing anti-French songs. And since the Viet Minh seized power on 19 August 1945, patriotic and heroic works in music and poetry has risen to a very high level, and to the peak of the Vietnamese patriotic music and poetry history during the Resistance against the French aggressors(1946-54). 

It's apparent that music and in some lesser degree, poetry, have contributed an important part to the high morale of the Vietnamese people during the War of Resistance.  

Most of foreigners studying the two wars in Vietnam have ignored such impact on people's minds and hearts. Certainly they had never attended a "field cultural show" given to the soldiers a few hours before they attacked a French Army outpost. Therefore, they have not been able to feel how strong willing to fight could be built by patriotic songs, and poems and plays.  

The "new music" in patriotic forms was introduced to the rural youth for the first time in the 1945-46 period, so it gained the highest effects. There were scores of musicians who contributed to the Resistance with numerous popular patriotic songs. The typical among them were Pham Duy, Van Cao, Luu Huu Phuoc and many others. 

After the Viet Minh began its new cultural policy in 1950 and the Lao Dong Party (Communist Party in disguise) began operating overtly as the only governing power, artists in general, were under its harsh control. A large number of those musicians fled to the French control areas.  

The famous songwriter Pham Duy fled to Ha Noi in 1951. He has composed the largest number and probably the best patriotic songs serving the anti-French resistance.  

In the French controlled areas, non-communist musicians composed mostly love songs. Meanwhile, those who stayed on in the Viet Minh areas including Van Cao, Luu Huu Phuoc, had to work under the Communist strict directives. 

All love songs and most of patriotic and heroic songs not conforming to the Communist teachings were forbidden. In this period, most songs and poems - like To Huu's poems - in the Viet Minh areas, were idolizing "the Uncle and the Party" as God and Saints, or praising the great Stalin, Mao Tse Tung to the skies.  

The lyrics contain so much despicable obsequiousness that they might be very embarrassing to people with some education. Besides, one could recognize easily the undeniable likeness between songs of the two Communist regimes, Chinese and Vietnamese, since then till 1975 when Hanoi began breaking company with Beijing.


After the Geneva Agreement, the Viet Minh regime strengthened its cultural control system. In the Vietnam War, the North Vietnam government put every effort to push musicians into composing "anti-American Imperialists" heroic songs. But the works proved themselves much less artistic, compared with songs in the Resistance period.  

At the time, many young men and women in North Vietnam preferred South Vietnamese songs. Those who owned radio sets, secretly listened to the music programs of South Vietnamese radio broadcast - and foreign radios such as the VOA, BBC, Australia Radio. They copied them by hands and circulated them in their confidential groups. In 1968, a court in Hanoi sentenced to death two young men who did just that. 

In the pre-Geneva Agreement period, musicians on the nationalist side had not composed any anti-Communist work. They would do so only since 1955 when the Republic of Vietnam (RVN)was officially declared.  

However, South Vietnamese did not appreciate any song written "on government's order." So only popular are those heartily composed by free-lancers who wrote numerous songs praising ARVN brave soldiers, tragic and heroic battles and victories. Most have artistic value because of natural inspiration but are small in quantity compared with others. Composers were also free to write anti-war songs. 

Most of compositions in South Vietnam since 1955 have been sentimental love songs of high values. A part of them are too flaccid that musical literate call them "cheap music." Love and romantic music thus took up the largest part.  

At the same time when American GI's were generous customers of bars and night clubs in South Vietnam cities and towns, Vietnamese string bands and singers made good money every evening with rock music without any effort to introduce Vietnamese beautiful songs to the Americans. 

Cultural groups from both Vietnamese sides of the long conflict, were organized to serve their combat troops. South Vietnamese Army cultural groups played more love songs than heroic and patriotic songs. Frequently, those groups also presented field cultural shows to American and allied troops at their base camps. Their repertoires included "rock and roll" in English, mostly, and a few in Vietnamese, although most singers did not speak English.  

On the contrary, their counterparts in North Vietnam presented their troops almost only "fighting songs." Such North Vietnamese music proved very effective especially through presentations of the cultural groups but they fell into oblivion after 1975.  

It could be said that during the 20-year existence of the RVN, South Vietnamese musicians had done a great deal to the art of music, with a great number of beautiful songs of all categories, including many famous war protesting songs. A large number of them exists forever. 

After 30 April 1975, millions of transistor radio sets, tape cassettes and books from South Vietnam flooded North Vietnam. They conveyed to people in the North what they had been previously prohibited. Hanoi lately has permitted a lot of songs from the pre-75 South Vietnam, except for anti-Communist songs and "all of songs by Pham Duy."  

It's incredible that many high ranking Communist cadres in their first months in South Vietnam were searching for tapes with large number of love songs, including songs worshipping the heroic dead warriors of the South Vietnam armed forces. Some of the kind are still popular in North Vietnam.  

Before 1975, any song by composers who were in North Vietnam which did not contain lyrics against the RVN or anti-American, were not banned in South Vietnam. Since 1948, the RVN's national anthem has been "Tieng Goi Thanh Nien" (The Call to Youth) written in 1945 by Luu Huu Phuoc, who has been serving the Communist regime. The RVN considered such famous songs were no longer private assets of the composers but that they belong to the nation. 

Ironically, both sides, the ARVN and the North Vietnam Army have been using the same song to commemorate their war dead in memorial ceremonies.  

After 1968, most South Vietnamese get clear messages from both directions: from Hue mass graves, and from war protests in America. Their attitude changed dramatically.  

Previously, cultural shows for the troops were entertained by mostly professional female singers, whose behavior was not appreciated by general public because loose conduct of the few. Since 1970, the General Political Warfare Department, a part of the Joint General Staff, succeeded in recruiting some five dozen young female instructors for the "Political Indoctrination Teams."  

Each team consisted of 4 young girls including the team leader, and a male guitarist. They were to visit troops in reserve or resting areas, discussed with them political issues and other news events, led them playing collective games, sang along with them. The songs they used were by some little known song writers, which have been the best in patriotic compositions that convey a high spirit in their tune and lyrics. 

The young women all were from nice families, some were daughters of high ranking officials and military officers, rich businessmen and from the high society. They were paid no more than street sweepers, at the bottom of the unskilled workers' pay scale.  

If they were killed, their families would be paid nothing more than 12 months' salary .  

The teams were highly appreciated by the troops. Two or three of the girls were wounded by Communist rockets and mortars. Some even refused to stop the ongoing session when the Communist shells exploded all around - at ARVN 17th Armored Reconnaissance Cavalry in Quang Tri 1972, for example. The teams and their songs really indicated the surge of people's morale before being defeated in 1975.  

After 1975, nearly 2 million Vietnamese mostly from the South left Vietnam for Western countries. The Vietnamese communities abroad have helped preserve the great treasure of beautiful songs and continue promoting Vietnamese music. Thanks to sophisticate sound equipment, pre-75 and newly composed songs could be recorded on CD disks, video tapes and audio cassettes at low prices. Music production is a lucrative business among the Vietnamese communities abroad. Moreover, those tapes and disks have been invading Vietnam at a large scale. Meanwhile, the reverse flow from Vietnam is much smaller.  

Many younger composers in Vietnam and abroad are emerging. Those abroad continue the pre-75 trend with new influence from Western music. Meanwhile, their counterparts in Vietnam are still restricted within the Party policies concerning culture.  

Since the late 1980's, the Communist authorities has loosened the restriction. But songwriters in Vietnam are unable to make the best use of their talents in such a Communist regime. There is good progress, however, in musical presentation. Many young singers become popular, but only at best with South Vietnamese pre-75 songs. 

South Vietnam was defeated politically and militarily. But it triumphed culturally in that the Vietnamese Communist side has surrendered unconditionally to the South Vietnamese culture, especially in music.