A good case can be made for this song to be ranked higher than the ninth spot, maybe even in the top five. But I’m going to keep it in this spot because it provides a sort of continuity from the #10 song, Quê Hương Chiến Tranh or Country At War.
The title means eight urban roads or ways. While nẻo đường is used enough in writing and speaking, it isn’t clear why Hoài Linh, author of the song, chose eight instead of four, six, or nine – all of which have the same accent tone as eight in Vietnamese, which is dấu sắc. In an online analysis last year, Cao Đức Tuấn makes the argument that the phrase tám nẻo đường thành is particular to the city of Saigon. He suggests an association to the old octagonal Citadel of Saigon – Thành Bát Quái – constructed in the late eighteenth century with crucial engineering assistance from French allies to the first Nguyễn emperor Gia Long. The evidence on this particular point is thin. But the larger point that the title refers to Saigon is plausible, if for other pieces of evidence in the lyrics.
In any event, let the lyrics speak for themselves, even though some are difficult to translate well into English.
Verse 1 – Bé thơ ơi! Bé thơ ơi! Nín đi đừng khóc.
Xót xa nhiều trào thêm nước mắt
Chiến tranh nào mà không tan nát.
Little child, oh little child, please stop crying!
Anguished laments and tears,
What warfare is not ruinous?
Khói lên cao trắng tay mau dân nghèo lơ láo.
Mẹ bồng con giờ về đâu
Nhìn vành tang con quấn ngang đầu
Smokes rise high from homes of the shocked poor people
Mothers carry children with nowhere to go,
Looking at the funeral head bands on their young.
Verse 2 – Xác ai đây chết hôm qua đến nay còn thấy
Vắt cơm gầy nằm trong gói dây
dưới chân tường nhà ai đang cháy.
Whose corpse is it, dead since yesterday yet still in sight?
A thin rice ball in a stringed bag
By the wall of a house still on fire.
Ðốt đêm đen trái châu treo thay đèn lấp lánh
Cầu chữ Y, Lộ Hàng Xanh
Lửa bao thiêu tám nẻo đường thành
Rockets fire up the night instead of city lights
Over the Y bridge and the Blue Neighborhood street,
Fire is destroying eight city roads.
Middle – Ðầu Xuân súng nổ reo rắc tóc tang
Giờ đây nhúm lửa thiêu đốt phố xưa
Súng nào giết trẻ đêm đen?
Súng nào banh xác mẹ hiền?
Một lần đêm vài tan biến mộ dày thêm.
Sounds of weapons spread mourning in early spring,
Fires now burn down the old city,
Whose guns have killed kids in the night?
Whose guns have destroyed their mothers?
Overnight, the graves have grown thicker and more.
Verse 3 – Khóc quê hương suốt hai mươi năm ngoài lửa khói
Cũng do một bàn tay anh mãi,
Nếu xa lạ thì không ai nói
Cry for our country of twenty years of war
Created not by foreigners but by your own hands,
Otherwise we do not speak of it.
Ðếm đi anh! Ðếm đi anh! Bao hồn oan đó,
Mộ chẳng sinh, cỏ chẳng xanh.
Người nghìn sau nhắc chuyện đường thành!
Count, please count all the innocent ghosts,
Whose graves are too fresh for grass to grow.
Let future generations speak of these city roads!
The last verse is quite interesting because it places the blame of warfare on the Vietnamese themselves. The speaker says “by your own hands,” which could be translated also as “by our own hands.”
This recognition appears in some other war songs. For instance, Trịnh Công Sơn’s Gia Tài Của Mẹ – Mother’s Legacy – includes the crucial line in the most repeated verse, Hai mươi năm nội chiến từng ngày: twenty years of daily civil warfare. The Vietnam Conflict was more than a civil war, but this aspect was firmly denied by communists during and after the war. Even to this day, the official line highlights and elevates the anti-foreign characteristics as the war against the Americans with very limited recognition of the intra-Vietnamese dimension. In other words, it has continued to counter what millions of Vietnamese experienced then and later.
Eight City Roads was not as popular as many other war songs. But it saw at least two recordings from Republican Saigon by Duy Khánh and, as gleamed from the photo on top, by Thanh Tuyền. The latter’s voice is usually scratchy and does not rank among my favorites. But it is more restrained in this version, and counts among her better recordings.
There are several postwar recordings, including a second one by Duy Khánh that is oddly upbeat. The best one – and by that I mean the all-time best – comes from a little-known singer by the name of Hồng Trúc. It isn’t on YouTube, however, and you will have to listen from another link such as the following.
Anyway, why is this song in the ninth spot? After the last post about this series, I realized that a “top ten” list may be too difficult, even impossible. It’s a little easier to create a list of “ten war songs to be in a row.” This list calls for, for among other things, coherence in the sequence. Which in effect means that there could be a number of lists – and this is my list with, hopefully, a coherent sequence.
In this case, both Country At War and Eight City Roads are about urban warfare. Hanoi and northern cities had already experienced warfare especially through U.S. bombing, and of course many parts of the countryside in South Vietnam. But war reached Saigon and other southern cities rather shockingly during the Tet Offensive, prompting inspiration for a good number of music, including these songs that I deliberately pair up.
It’s a good idea to listen to them back-to-back. Country At War is cooler in composition, arrangement, and Thanh Lan’s performance. Eight City Roads is more sentimental. Be it the Thanh Tuyền or Hồng Trúc recording, arrangement and voice move towards the weepy. It is no accident that Tâm Anh’s song begins with soldiers and works its way towards their sympathy for the dead and children. Hoài Linh’s song, on the other hand, commences with those poor kids right away. It is more elaborate in scenes, juxtaposing for instance a non-buried corpse to a piece of rice. Both songs articulate sorrow and provoke sympathy, but in somewhat different ways.
The remaining eight songs will address the sorrow of war too, but also in different ways. The next one, for instance, references urban warfare in setting but is also different from the songs above in important ways.