Of the ten songs on this list, this is the only one that tells a story. It is based on a true story, now told in slightly different versions, about two young lovers in South Vietnam: Phạm Thái and Nguyễn Thị Mộng Thường. Because of its personal nature and the artistry of the lyrics and melody, this ballad has been very popular among Vietnamese. One should always be cautious with comparisons, but I am inclined to think of it as the Vietnamese equivalent of “Where Do I Begin,” the theme song of the movie Love Story that came out two or three years earlier.
The standard version of the story is that Second Lieutenant Thái and flight attendant Mộng Thường met cute during a flight of Air Vietnam, the national airline. A romance ensued over long distance: distance between lovers or spouses was a common subtext in South Vietnamese romantic music. During the Easter Offensive of 1972 – it was called Mùa Hè Đỏ Lửa or The Fiery Summer in South Vietnamese lexicon – he was heavily wounded and went missing at the Siege of An Lộc. By experience, he was presumed dead and Mộng Thường was of course devastated upon receiving the news. Then it turned out that he survived after all, thanks to the help of a nun who hid him at a Catholic church in the area. After the siege was over, he invited her to see him in An Lộc. She took a bus there, but it came upon land mines and blew up, with Mộng Thường among the civilian dead.
The irony of warfare was not lost on Trần Thiện Thanh, himself an officer in the South Vietnamese military. One of the most popular Vietnamese songwriters from the twentieth century, he penned this ballad and called it “The Eternal Love of Nguyễn Thị Mộng Thường” – Tình Thiên Thu của Nguyễn Thị Mộng Thường. Since he also sang under the name Nhật Trường, he recorded it for the twelfth album in his own series: Nhật Trường 12: Tình Yêu và Nước Mắt – Love and Tears. It is likely the best album of the series. It has several of his own songs, including the best version of the great “soldier song” Rừng Lá Thấp. (See Jason Gibbs’ blog for an English translation of the lyrics.)
A point about the names of the lovers… There isn’t anything special about the officer’s name, as there have been countless men with Thái as their first name. But not many Vietnamese women were named Mộng, even fewer as Thường, and rarely as Mộng Thường. The last one is possibly a derivative from classical Chinese (?) But it literally means an “ordinary dream” in modern use. As late as the mid-twentieth century, some Vietnamese in the poorer parts of the countryside might still give their children colorless and even unattractive names out the superstition that they keep evil elements from their young. As cultural sensibility shifted to a more bourgeois mindset, personal names became more significant. Few parents or older relatives, especially grandfathers and older uncles who still held sway over such matters, would recommend giving a baby girl a name that literally means “ordinary dream.”
In Trần Thiện Thanh’s hand, however, Mộng Thường’s name is perfect precisely because of its literal meaning. The last verse begins, Xin cho yêu trong Mộng Thường nhưng mộng thường cũng tan: May I love Mộng Thường but even this ordinary dream has gone! The clever word play devastatingly captures the sorrow and poignancy of the Vietnamese experience of warfare.
Nhật Trường’s recording features brass, plucked strings, and a perfect use of the tambourine. (Remember, South Vietnamese records rarely used tambourines.) Strings, tambourine, and bass keep the 1-2 beat steady. Brass starts the song and fills in the foreground between the lines. Though prominent and loud, it doesn’t dominate the vocals. It provides the same support during the instrumental middle that is smartly led by the plucked strings.
The first verse offers a philosophical overview about romantic love. There is some rhyming in the lyrics, but I dispense with it this time and will have to come up with a better translation another time.
Vẫn biết trên cõi đời thường yêu thường mơ lứa đôi,
Nếu biết sống giữa trời tình yêu là con nước trôi,
Trôi lang thang qua từng miền, lúc êm ái xuôi đồng bằng,
Cũng có lúc thác cùng ghềnh chia đường con nước êm.
Mời bạn nghe chuyện thê lương, khóc cho người lỡ yêu đương,
Trời già như còn ghen tuông, cách chia người trót thương.
In this life it’s normal to dream for our love,
On this earth, love is like flowing water,
It flows through different regions, smoothly on the plains,
It moves rough over waterfalls and rapids that split the flow.
Listen to this sad tale and weep for the lovers!
Even the gods are jealous of this love and split up the lovers.
The next verse zooms in on the young woman.
Em tên em tên Mộng Thường, mẹ gọi em bé xinh,
Em tên em tên Mộng Thường, cha gọi em bé ngoan.
Đến lúc biết mơ mộng như những cô gái xuân nồng,
Nàng yêu anh quân nhân Biệt Động trong một ngày cuối đông.
Chuyện tình trong thời giao tranh vẫn như làn khói mong manh
Chàng về đơn vị xa xăm nàng nghe nặng nhớ mong.
My name is Mộng Thường, mother calls me a pretty girl.
My name is Mộng Thường, father calls me a good girl.
When coming at age like other young ladies,
She loves a young Ranger on a late winter day.
Love in wartime is dicey, unsettled, like drifting smoke.
He returns to his distant unit; she misses him in her heart.
Nhật Trường’s voice elevates to begin the chorus, which tells the heartbreaking pain of loss. Drumming pattern changes to support the lyrics that are divided into three sections of three lines each. The repetitive division makes it very easy to hum along.
Yêu nhau lúc triền miên khói lửa,
Chuyện vui buồn ai biết ra sao,
Nhìn quanh mình sao lắm thương đau.
Khi không thấy người yêu trở lại,
Tình yêu tìm không thấy ban mai,
Người không tìm ra dấu tương lai.
Nhưng không chết người trai khói lửa
Mà chết người em nhỏ phương xa,
Một xuân buồn có gió đông qua.
Falling in love amid unending warfare,
Everything is uncertain, no one knows what’s next,
Look around and see so much pain and anguish.
When she does not see her love return,
Love is in the dark about the morrow,
Lover does not find the way to future.
But death comes not to the young man at war,
Rather to the young lady far away.
Wintry winds blow through this mournful spring.
Having shifted from her to a narrator, the last verse now shifts to him. It begins as a lamentation and ends as a vow made in honor of love cruelly lost. Note the transitional words from the first three lines: nhưng, sao, bỗng – but, yet, suddenly. The last line uses mộng – dream – again, but this time it is a sleeping dream rather than a waking one. Nhật Trường almost always wrote his own lyrics, and this example reveals the deceptive simplicity of his phrasing that helps to popularize much of his music.
Xin cho yêu trong Mộng Thường nhưng mộng thường cũng tan,
Xin cho đi chung một đường sao định mệnh chắn ngang,
Xin ghi tên lên thiệp hồng phút giây bỗng nghe ngỡ ngàng,
Cô dâu chưa về nhà chồng, ôi lạnh lùng nghĩa trang!
Chàng thề không còn yêu ai dẫu cho ngày tháng phôi phai
Nhiều lần chàng mộng liêu trai, chàng hẹn nàng kiếp mai…
May I love Mộng Thường, but this ordinary dream has vanished,
May we walk the same path, yet fate has come between us.
May we sign our names in the wedding invitation, but suddenly I learn
The bride not yet at her new home but, alas, at a chilly graveyard!
He vows to love no one else in the time ahead,
Over and again he dreams of her as a ghost; he looks for her in the next life…
Listen to this sad tale and weep for the lovers: Trần Thiện Thanh makes the request in the first verse. How could you not shed tears for them by the end?
It is hardly a surprise that the song has been very well received among Vietnamese since its release. Nhật Trường’s original still stands as the strongest recording to date, but there have been many others made in Saigon before its fall and in the diaspora since then.
The most sentimental version comes the sixty-first DVD of Asia’s video series featuring Băng Tâm and Đan Nguyên. (Asia is a media company based in Little Saigon of Orange County, California.) It even includes a scene of dialogue, enhancing the personal and dramatic nature of this ballad.
If there could be only one classic among the handful of songs I’ve considered so far, this is the one! Thanks to the artistry of Nhật Trường Trần Thiện Thanh, the story of Phạm Thái and Nguyễn Thị Mộng Thường has been immortalized as one of the greatest tales about the Vietnamese experience of the war.