All You Need to Know About Vietnam's Music

Blogs - Vietnam: April 23, 2018

Vietnamese music, just like its food, is complicated, diverse and yet, still largely unknown to the rest of the world. Due to the country’s turbulent history, the subject matter and the types of music that appeal to the different demographics tend to differ.

From pre-war tunes, to music echoing the Western ideology of individualism, Vietnam’s musicians have, over the years, been able to champion their own brand of music while at the same time gathering influences from America, as well as regional powerhouses like Korea and Japan.

The History

Historically, Vietnamese music consisted mainly of folk tunes featuring traditional musical instruments such as the monochord zither and various two-stringed instruments with a diverse range of forms such as Quan họ, which consists of alternate singing and Ca trù, which is performed mainly by females and is widely known as the Vietnamese equivalent of the Geisha movement.

musicImage source: thelilacaroundtheworld.files.wordpress.com

Another prevalent form of music was classical music, with composers such as Do Nhuan whose work, Co Sao, is credited as the first Vietnamese opera. Another composer, French-trained Nguyen Van Quy, wrote nine sonatas for violin and piano.

Between the 1940s and 1980s when the country experienced the French and American wars and the Fall of Saigon, notable composers such as Pham Duy and Trinh Cong Son, and singers like Khanh Ly and Le Thu started an era consisting of musical pieces inspired by the plight of Vietnamese refugees that eventually became ‘anthems’ for the Vietnamese people.

Video source: nghtuanz

As nationalism reached an all-time high during that period, many composers, especially in the North, also composed Vietnamese revolutionary songs known as nhac do, or “Red Music”.

The Birth of Vietnamese Mainstream Music

The transition towards modern music didn’t happen overnight, as musicians retained the essence of their music and incorporated them into ballads or emotionally-driven slow numbers. However, when radio and television started to reach more households and networks bought into the age of music videos, it also heralded the beginning of mainstream music in Vietnam.

Vietnam does not have an official music chart, nor does it have digital sales figures, therefore the definition of mainstream here reflects artists who enjoy airplay on radio or music video channels. The quirk here is that the songs are based on a “favourites” list, instead of “what’s new”. Therefore, evergreen tunes from decades ago can sometimes end up at top spot on the list.

Video source: My Tam

However, this didn’t deter artists from releasing new pieces, and the rise of J-Pop and K-Pop introduced a much faster paced, bubblegum pop music that took root in Vietnam.

During the turn of the century, Vietnamese musicians, influenced by Westernised music, together with the fashion styles of Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, created what is now known as V-Pop: a combination of bubblegum pop and fashion.

Popular Vietnamese singers such as Ho Quynh Huong, My Tam, Ho Ngoc Ha, Lam Truong and many others were blazing the trail in the local music scene and it was not long until regional organisers such as the Asia Music Festival in South Korea invited these artists to perform, thus resulting in the expansion of V-Pop outside of Vietnam, and to the world.

This generated interest and inspired many other talented artists, and with the improving standards of music production, mixing and mastering, V-Pop was now getting recognition in many other countries. Although not as huge as K-Pop or J-Pop, it was enough to inspire a new wave of artists who performed other genres such as hip hop, r&b, dance music and rock.

The advent of the internet and the ability for home-based musicians to produce and release music online with minimal costs also propelled the likes of M4U, Bao Thy, Wanbi Tuan Anh, Khong Tu Quynh, Radio Band, Tran Khoi My and many others to fame.

Video source: Pink-EL Production

The other genres of music that have surprisingly done well in mainstream circles are rock and metal.

First introduced to the country by American soldiers, rock and roll was popular in the South during the American War and the genre evolved over time to modern rock and metal.

Buc Tuong, a Glam Metal band made up of students from the National University of Civil Engineering, was formed in 1995 and introduced Hanoi to the heavy sounds of metal. They became so popular that in 2003, they were chosen as Vietnam’s representative for contemporary music at the Vietnam Festival Faces – Face of the French language in the city of Cahors, France.

The band has since gone on hiatus after the death of lead singer Tran Lap in 2016. However, it had helped start Vietnam’s rock revolution with bands like Unlimited, Ngu Cung, Microwave and Black Infinity currently ruling the country’s mosh pits.

musicImage source: thegioivanhoa.com.vn

Another genre of music that has featured prominently around the world over the last decade is EDM, and in Vietnam, there is a knockoff version known as Vinahouse. One of the most divisive genres in the country, you’ll either love it or hate it but the often campy sounding tracks have featured prominently in mainstream and vinahouse dedicated clubs across the country and the genre shares a huge popularity among young locals, and mixed reactions from foreigners.

However, as mainstream music is reaching, or has reached its peak, there are concerns on how this can be maintained. According to an article by Tuoi Tre, there is a dearth of ‘new’ songs in Vietnam.

Dr. Van Thi Minh Huong, head of Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory of Music, pointed to the inadequacy of music education as one of the main reasons for this. “In most education authorities’ current thinking, music remains a tool to teach other subjects, such as politics, ethics and hygiene,” she said.

“Therefore, though elementary students do learn music at school, they are provided simply with brief glimpses of music, leaving most of them unable to appreciate good music or choose which music to listen to,” she added.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no room for autodidacts, or talented musicians who are ready to break boundaries because beyond the mainstream, there is another layer that has already been breaking new grounds.

The Indie Music Scene

Beyond bubblegum pop and pre-war oldies, there is another component of music in Vietnam made up of musicians who produce and market their music independently. These artists generally stay away from traditional broadcast media and focus on distributing their music online, or in small-scale live performances.

With genres ranging from hip hop to house to rock, most of these musicians are still mainly known among like-minded music-lovers in the country, although they do have followers across the world via sites like SoundCloud, MixCloud and BandCamp.

Ran Cap Duoi project consists of members from Vietnam, USA and Canada, and blending post-rock with experimental sounds, has built up a unique sound in the country’s already diverse soundscape. Another artist who has been making waves with his music is Touliver, whose meaningful lyrics and highly-polished music videos have led to a cult following among Vietnamese youths.

musicImage source: sohanews.sohacdn.com

With his music spanning the genres of house and hip hop, and his refusal to “sell out” to the mainstream, he represents the archetypical artist who values artistic integrity over making money.

Another notable independent singer is Thuy Chi whose brand of music appeals to the younger demographic, and her popularity is evident with her endorsement deals with international brand names, as well as her inclusion in Vietnam’s Top 10 Artist of the Year. She currently has over 10 million Facebook fans from countries such as South Korea and the USA.

Video source: THÙY CHI OFFICIAL

However, not all artists currently plying their trade in Vietnam are Vietnamese. American Sean Trace moved to Vietnam, and with his wife, singer and the winner of the first Vietnam Idol competition Phuong Vy, have been performing as a musical duo since 2014.

Although their fan base is largely local, Trace promotes their music by producing their own music videos and releasing them online, as well as producing a steady stream of vlogs, garnering a strong online following.

Video source: Phuong Vy Idol

“The Vietnamese music scene is actually much more diverse and interesting than what is known outside,” he said.

The Rise of the Underground

Vietnam’s underground music scene is not only diverse in the range of genres available, but also in the range of artists themselves consisting of a mix of locals and foreigners based in Vietnam.

This is most prominent in the electronic music subgenre which has seen its diversity and popularity in Vietnam rise crazily over the last five years. Heart Beat, formed by a trio of music aficionados, started the techno movement in Saigon in 2012 with monthly shows held at the city’s more underground venues like The Observatory.

Video source: Heart Beat Saigon

From their connections with Europe’s underground labels like Dekmantel, Token and many others, they have managed to invite DJs who have featured in prominent underground music festivals and venues like Berlin’s Berghain to Saigon. Now in its fifth year, and with a new sub-label called HRBR (Harbour), the team is still going strong with shows featuring both international guest DJs as well as young local DJs like Huy Truong and Max Cleo, who are starting to make a name for themselves both locally and regionally as serious upcoming musicians.

This ascent is also mirrored in the country’s trance and psytrance scene with promoters such as Asian Rave Connection and Chillgressive Saigon organising monthly events, as well as venues like The Lighthouse, La Fenetre Soleil and most recently, Shaka, playing host to these events.

CHECK EVENTS

Other than electronic music, there are also prominent artists such as Andree Right Hand, Big Daddy and Shadow P who have dominated the underground music circuit over the years; and with hip hop groups like the G-Family featuring rappers based in Saigon and many other such groups sprouting up across the country, Vietnamese rap is getting increasingly popular, even without mainstream broadcast support.

The metal scene also contains an underground movement that’s populated with much more extreme subgenres from grindcore to death metal. Shows are held at rundown malls at the edge of the city and even in living rooms.

Made up of a small community of not more than 200 who are mostly youths, they focus on more than just producing music with anti-establishment themes but rather, creating a sense of escapism from the realities of life.

Vietnam-based photojournalist Neil Massey chronicled the scene with the help of the founder of Bloody Chunks Records, Vietnam’s only record label dedicated to underground extreme music, in a series of black & white film photos titled Bloody Chunks released in 2014 that made its rounds in magazines around the world.

musicImage source: ibb.co

Vietnam has a very bright and diverse music scene with extremely talented artists across the country, but it will still take some time and effort working beyond strict civic and moral regulations before the full extent of what the country’s artists has to offer can be seen by the world. Until then, it’s the country’s best-kept secret.

Banner Image source: ibb.co