Here is the list so far:
The toughest choice for me is the fifth one. It didn’t take me long to settle on the songs above – or the fourth, third, second, and top songs. (Two of the top five belong to Trịnh Công Sơn; can you guess which songs?) For the fifth spot, I wanted to continue on the theme of romantic love and loss from selection #6. I thought of several possibilities.
One is another song by Trần Thiện Thanh, especially one of the duets that he recorded with Thanh Lan for the TV movie about Nguyễn Thị Mộng Thường and Phạm Thái that they starred. A logical choice is Người Chết Trở Về, “The Dead Returns,” which tells the news that Thái was alive after all. I was more inclined to Góa Phụ Ngây Thơ, or “The Youthful Widow.” Or, were I to opt for a second solo by Nhật Trường, a solid choice is Tình Đầu Tình Cuối – “First Love Is Last Love” – whose title also implies death.
Another option was Kỷ Vật Cho Em – Mementos for My Love – one of Phạm Duy’s many classics, in which a soldier-husband tells his wife about the uncertainties of returning and the likelihood of death on the battlefield.
Then there is the song named in the title of this post. But I wasn’t sure, and thought that I will wait until after Thanksgiving to decide. Then someone died last week and I immediately knew that it has to be this song.
That someone is Anh Bằng, author of the song under discussion. This northern emigré wrote hundreds of songs in South Vietnam, including some big hits. He came to the U.S. after the war and wrote more songs, but was perhaps best known for starting the recording and broadcast company Asia in Little Saigon, Orange County. He died on the same day as the terrorist attack in Paris, and is listed at 89, 90, or even 91 years old since his date of birth has never been verified for certain.
Vietnamese readers should check out a long article by Phạm Kim first published in Người Việt in 2008. A number of people have penned tributes and reflections in the past week, including Trần Chí Phúc, Jason Gibbs, and an on-going page of memories and photos at the website Cỏ Thơm.
In any event, this song is a variation of “the girl next door,” a minor category in Vietnamese popular music and literature from late colonialism to the end of the Vietnam War. The first famous tune was Cô Láng Giềng, “The Young Woman in the Neighborhood,” written by Hoàng Quý in the middle of World War II.
I mention the Second World War with deliberation. The long history of warfare in Vietnam happened to coincide and intersect with the rise of a new consciousness about marital and romantic relationships among Vietnamese. “Duty” still stood squarely at the center in the cultural discourse on marriage. But “affection” was more and more significant as an expectation for marriage since at least the 1930s. It is a long, multi-layered, and sophisticated subject that historians have barely cracked the surface.
This long period also saw growing urbanization and even suburbanization: the background to this tune. At least three tunes by Anh Bằng reference suburbanization in the titles: this song, Ngoại Ô Buồn or “Sad Suburb,” and Mưa Ngoại Ô or “Rain in the Suburb.” Few if any other contemporary composers exploited this theme as much as Anh Bằng did. “Rain in the Suburb” was written after 1975, wasn’t it?
Both also tell about young Vietnamese leaving their suburban existence due to warfare – and not necessarily because war came to suburbs. True, “Sad Suburb,” which I believe came out after the Tet Offensive, includes a line about “warfare destroying the suburbs and causing suffering.”
On the other hand, “The Suburban House” was written in the mid-1960s or well before that devastating event in 1968. There is no evidence of a military presence leave alone armed conflict in the suburb of this tale. At the time, suburban Saigon might not be as desirable or prestigious as Saigon proper. Nonetheless, it is portrayed as a safe place for growing up: schools and gardens and “moon-soaked” streets. It is, at least in this telling, an ideal place for budding romance, which is however disrupted by the realities of expanding warfare.
The first verse is setting of place, persons, and their age.
Tôi ở ngoại ô, một căn nhà xinh có hoa thơm trái hiền,
Cận kề lối xóm, có cô bạn thân sớm hôm lo sách đèn.
Hai đứa chưa ước hẹn lấy một câu, chưa nghĩ đến mai sau,
Nhưng đêm thức giấc ngỡ ngàng, nghe lòng thương nhớ biết rằng mình yêụ.
I dwell in the suburb, in a pretty house with flowers and fruit-trees.
Close is the house of a good friend and schoolgirl.
We haven’t said anything, nor thought of a future together.
But I wake up at night, pining and knowing I had fallen for her.
The second verse moves to their late-teenage years.
Khi hiểu lòng nhau, thời gian gần gũi đã qua đi mất rồi
Nào còn những phút, hái hoa vườn trăng suốt đêm chung tiếng cười
Tôi bước theo tiếng gọi những người trai, tha thiết với tương lai
Vui xa ánh sáng phố phường, xa người em nhỏ lên đường tòng chinh.
No longer we are in school when the mutual feeling is realized,
No more talks and play and laughter all night.
I follow the call of duty to young men that care for the future,
Joining the troops, saying goodbye to the suburb and my love.
The refrain is evenly halved into the countryside and the suburb. It also alludes to nationalism, plus frequent movement during a time of instability.
Là chinh nhân tôi bạn với sông hồ
Tình yêu em tôi nguyện vẫn tôn thờ, và yêu không bến bờ,
Niềm tin là một ngày mai non nước chung một màu cờ.
Rồi hôm nao tôi về ghé thăm nàng
Ngoại ô đây con đường tắm trăng vàng, mà sao không thấy nàng
Tìm em, giờ tìm ở đâu sao không gắng đợi chờ nhau.
As soldier, I travel and move in the countryside,
Love for her I keep, a love without end,
Believing that the country will share the same flag one day.
Then on leave one day, I come back to see her.
Here is the suburb, and its moon-soaked boulevards, but she isn’t there.
Where to look for her? Why hasn’t she waited for me?
The final verse ends with the dual feeling of pain and hope.
Tôi hỏi người quen, nàng nay là nữ cứu thương trên chiến trường
Dặm ngàn sóng gió, biết sao nàng vui dấn thân trên bước đường
Tôi đứng nghe gió lạnh giữa màn đêm, thương xé nát con tim
Em ơi, trái đất vẫn tròn, chúng mình hai đứa sẽ còn gặp nhau.
I learn from a neighbor that she is a nurse in another front,
Distant and perilous! Hopefully she joins in the war effort with joy.
Heart-broken, I stand and listen to the cold wind tearing off the night,
Dear love, this world is round and we will meet again someday.
This song is the only rumba tune in my list of ten: another reason to give the edge to it over Phạm Duy or Trần Thiện Thanh. There were many recordings of this song before and after the Fall of Saigon, and the best remembered is perhaps the original recording by Kim Loan (top photo).
I am, however, prejudiced to the recording from a very little-known singer by the name of Thụy Khanh. Virtually nothing is known about her other than the fact that she sang in several albums produced during the war. (It’s not her in the photo shown in the video.) It is one of the biggest mysteries about popular music in Republican Saigon.
Besides Thụy Khanh’s voice, I like this recording for the staccato-filled instrumental opening and the unspectacular but solid accompaniment led by acoustic guitar, woodwind, and bongos. It is a smart move that the flute plays the instrumental break, which enhances the feeling of loss but in a gentler way than the losses found in previous songs. It’s gentler because the song is about separation rather than death.
Still, the separation is considerable in physical distance and especially psychical pain. For young Vietnamese drawn to the ideal of marriage based on love and affection, it was their misfortune to encounter the problems caused by war on top of cultural pressure such as parental control over dating and marriage. That the end of the lyrics shows a bare thread of hope for reunion, only magnifies the pain and angst of unrealized love – and the aspiration towards a new kind of love – for the narrator and countless other youthful Vietnamese in a time of brutal armed conflict.