There are different ways to build a top-ten list. The way I employed for this list is twofold: pick the top song, then poke around to see if I could build a sensible list leading to this song. When I first thought of this list, I knew right away which song I’ll put at the top. My decision was pretty firm. It grew firmer when I made an important discovery that, as far as I know, has never been made by anyone before.
The literal if somewhat clunky translation of Một Mai Giã Từ Vũ Khí is Farewell to Arms One Day. Or “some day.” Or, if stretched, even “tomorrow.” “One day” isn’t unimportant: the absence of precision implies uncertainty, as war isn’t over until it is really over. For the sake of brevity and aesthetics, however, I will shorten it to Farewell To Arms, just like the title of Hemingway’s novel.
The author of Farewell to Arms is Nhật Ngân, one of the most successful South Vietnamese composers. He sometimes went by the name Ngân Khánh, as seen from the cover above, and was a member of the trio Trịnh Lâm Ngân. (Only two of them were involved in songwriting, with the third in other aspects of production.) He was the lone author of this song, although it is often credited wrongly to the trio. It is probably his most fully realized song. Well constructed and breathtakingly moving, it carries a perfect combination of thought and feeling.
Remember the acting trick to shed tears by thinking of something sentimental and sad? I am neither an actor nor a teary type, but this song should do that trick. Once or twice, I listened to this song while driving on the freeway and nearly got off an exit for fear of causing an accident.
To call Farewell To Arms well-known is an understatement. It may not match the enormous popularity of two other Nhật Ngân tunes. Tôi Đưa Em Sang Sông – I Take Her Across the River, but better is the loose translation Farewell My Love – is a “love lost forever” song about bidding farewell to a young woman soon to be married to someone else. Then there is Xuân Này Con Không Về – I Can’t Come Home This New Year – whose lyrics come from a letter by a soldier to his mother telling that he could not go home for the Vietnamese New Year Tết due to duty.
Still, Farewell to Arms has been quite popular ever since its initial release in 1973. Trịnh Công Sơn might be the most cited musician when it comes to war music in the Republican South, and he wrote some top-rated songs. But Một Mai Giã Từ Vũ Khí is my choice for the imaginary award “Best South Vietnamese Song About Peace.”
Further, it is my top choice because it provides wonderful continuity about the Vietnamese experience of war from another terrific “peace song.” And not just any song, but one composed by the greatest twentieth-century Vietnamese songwriter.
After making my choices, I was quite surprised that not a single song from Phạm Duy made the list. Upon reflection, however, I thought it makes sense because Phạm Duy’s best war-themed songs came from the period of the French War of 1946-1954.
Arguably, Phạm Duy’s most famous song in this category is Ngày Trở Về or Day of Return. It tells the perspective of a wounded veteran of the French War returning to his village at the end of war. Since its publication in 1954, this classic was recorded by many major singers in South Vietnam, including Duy Khánh (whose video is below) and Thái Thanh, Phạm Duy’s sister-in-law and possibly the greatest interpreter of his songs.
Ngày Trở Về was first published in the year of the Geneva Peace Accords that concluded the French War and divided Vietnam into half, supposedly for a short time. Nearly twenty years later, or around the time of Paris Peace Accords, came Một Mai Giã Từ Vũ Khí. They shared the same sentiment, desire, and longing for returning to normalcy and peace. Moreover, both songs feature a soldier from the countryside to articulate the desire of an entire people.
Having compared the lyrics closely, I find enough similarity in images and vocabulary to suggest – no, to conclude – that Nhật Ngân borrowed extensively from Phạm Duy. At the least, he was inspired by his older colleague’s classic when he wrote this classic of his own.
Below are the lyrics of each song. First is the Phạm Duy, whose long lyrics are structured according to a three-line pattern.
Ngày trở về, anh bước lê
Trên quãng đường đê đến bên lũy tre,
Nắng vàng hoe, vườn rau trước hè cười đón người về.
Mẹ lần mò ra trước ao,
Nắm áo người xưa ngỡ trong giấc mơ,
Tiếc rẵng ta đôi mắt đã loà vì quá đợi chờ.
On the day of return, he slogs the remaining foot
Over the dike to the bamboo village wall.
Laughing and greeting the returnee are golden sunlight and garden
Mother finds her way to the house pond,
Holding on to her son’s shirt as if it were a dream,
Oh too bad, her eyes are near-blind from the long wait.
Ngày trở về, trong bếp vui
Anh nói chuyện nghe, chuyện đời chiến sĩ,
Sống say mê, đường xa lắm khi nương hồn về quê.
Chiều lặn tà, anh bước ra
Vườn khuya sáng mờ, ruộng đất hoang vu,
Luống nghẹn ngào, hẹn sớm tinh mơ anh về đồng lúa.
On the day of return, in the happy kitchen
He tells stories about the soldier life:
Exciting life over long travel, but his soul often thinks of the village.
In evening, he walks out
To the darkened farm and uncultivated land,
The teary stalks await for his return in early morning.
Ngày trở về, có anh nông phu chống nạng cầy bừa,
Vì thương yêu anh, nên ngày trở về
Có con trâu xanh hết lòng giúp đỡ.
Ngày trở về, lúa ngô thi nhau hát đùa trước ngõ,
Gió mát trăng thanh, ôi ngày trở về,
Có anh thương binh sống đời hòa bình.
The day of return sees a wounded peasant in crutches
Out of love, on the day of return,
The buffalo shall labor hard for him.
The day of return sees rice and corn sing and play,
With cool wind and sweet moon, oh, day of return,
The disabled veteran now has a peaceful life.
Ngày trở về, những đoá hoa,
Thấm thoát mười năm nhớ anh vắng xa
Có nhiều khi đời hoa chóng già vì thiếu mặn mà.
Đàn trẻ đùa bên lũ trâu
Tiếng hát bình minh thoáng trên bãi dâu
Gió về đâu, còn thương tiếc người giọng hát rầu rầu.
Day of return after ten years of absence
Makes young women miss him so much,
Some have aged much without the menfolk around.
A gang of kids play by a herd of buffaloes,
A morning song spreads over the mulberry farm.
The wind blows in missing the singer with a poignant voice.
Người kể rằng : Ai hỡi ai
Ai nhớ chuyện ai, chuyện người con gái?
Chiến binh ơi, vì sao nát tan gia đình yên vui?
Đừng giận hờn, thôi tiếc thương
Vì Xuân đã về trên khắp quê hương
Chớ thẹn thuồng vì nếu tôi quen em ngoài đồng vắng.
They tell tales: Ah, who here
Remember the story of a young woman?
Veteran, what but war has separated the happy family?
Be not upset, be not mournful,
Because spring has come to our land,
Be not shy if I speak to you at the rice field.
Ngày trở về, có anh thương binh lấy vợ hiền lành
Người đẹp bên anh, ta cùng học hành,
Những khi tan công, hết việc, xếp gánh.
Ngày lại ngày, có em vui tươi xách gạo bếp nước,
Có nắm cơm ngon, ôi trời lạnh lùng,
Có đôi uyên ương sống đời mặn nồng.
The day of return, a disabled veteran marries a sweet wife,
She stays by him, they learn together
After doing their work at field and home.
Day by day, she happily takes care of the house,
There is warm meal even in cold weather,
There is this couple sharing a loving life together
Coupled to the slow pace of the music, the images drawn by Phạm Duy create a vision of normality, where the uncertain speed of warfare is replaced by the regularity of daily rural life. An urbanite, Phạm Duy nonetheless lived in the countryside during the French War and observed. Not only he puts out many loving details for this song, but the details also make up a whole picture and help to create a classic Vietnamese popular music.
Phạm Duy’s classic includes a good deal of anthropomorphism, especially on farming. There is little anthropomorphism in the Nhật Ngân song, but there is still much in common. Here are the lyrics, plus a recording by Duy Khánh.
Rồi có một ngày, sẽ một ngày chinh chiến tàn,
Anh chẳng còn chi, chẳng còn chi ngoài con tim héo em ơi!
Xin trả lại đây, bỏ lại đây
Thép gai giăng với lũy hào sâu,
Lỗ châu mai với những địa lôi,
Đã bao phen máu anh tuôn cho còn lại đến mãi bây giờ.
There will be one day when warfare is over,
I have nothing left, nothing left but this wilted heart, my dear.
I return and leave behind
Barbed wire and deep-dug trenches,
Crenels and mines,
Often have I shed blood until today.
Trả súng đạn này, ôi sạch nợ sông núi rồi.
Anh trở về quê, trở về quê tìm tuổi thơ mất năm nao.
Vui cùng ruộng nương, cùng đàn trâu,
Với cây đa, khóm trúc, hàng cau,
Với con đê có chiếc cầu tre,
Đã bao năm vắng chân anh nên trở thành hoang phế rong rêu.
Return these arms, oh, I’ve fulfilled my debt to the country.
I return to the village, to the village and find the lost youth.
Be happy with the land, with the buffaloes,
With the banyan tree, young bamboo shrub, betel hedge,
With the dike and the bamboo bridge,
Since my absence, they have been abandoned without care and repair.
Rồi anh sẽ dựng căn nhà xưa,
Rồi anh sẽ đón cha mẹ về,
Rồi anh sẽ sang thăm nhà em
Với miếng cau, với miếng trầu,
Ta làm lại từ đầu.
Rồi anh sẽ dìu em tìm thăm
Mộ bia kín trong nghĩa địa buồn,
Bạn anh đó đang say ngủ yên,
Xin cám ơn! Xin cám ơn người nằm xuống.
Then I will rebuild the old house,
Then I will welcome my parents back,
Then I will come over to your home
With betel and gifts to ask for your hand,
We begin anew together.Then I will take you to visit
The quiet grave in the sad graveyard,
There, my soldier friends in their eternal rest,
Thank you! Our thanks to the departed.
Để có một ngày, có một ngày cho chúng mình,
Ta lại gặp ta, còn vòng tay, mở rộng thương mến bao la,
Chuông chùa làng xa, chiều lại vang,
Bếp ai lên khói ấm tình thương,
Bát cơm rau thắm mối tình quê,
Có con trâu, có nương dâu,
Thiên đường này mơ ước bao lâu.
To look for one day, one day for ourselves,
We meet one another and open our loving arms,
Bells ring loud from the village temple,
Kitchens gush out warm loving heat,
A country meal of veggies and rice,
With buffaloes and mulberry hedges,
Long have I wished for this paradise!
Here are a few examples: the Phạm Duy in orange on the left and the Nhật Ngân in blue on the right.
RETURN – Ngày trở về, anh bước lê ~ Anh trở về quê
DIKE AND BAMBOO – Trên quãng đường đê đến bên lũy tre ~ Với con đê có chiếc cầu tre
BUFFALOES – Có con trâu xanh & bên lũ trâu ~ Cùng đàn trâu & có con trâu
MULBERRY FARM – Trên bãi dâu ~ Có nương dâu
KITCHEN – Trong bếp vui ~ Bếp ai lên khói ấm tình thương
RICE – Có nắm cơm ngon ~ Bát cơm rau
A longer comparison has to do with a very common reaction after war: the desire to get married and have a family.
Có anh thương binh lấy vợ hiền lành,
Người đẹp bên anh, ta cùng học hành
Rồi anh sẽ sang thăm nhà em
Với miếng cau, với miếng trầu, ta làm lại từ đầu.
The endings do not match in words; nonetheless, they share the same vision of normalcy and happiness in the old and simple.
Có nắm cơm ngon, ôi trời lạnh lùng,
Có đôi uyên ương sống đời mặn nồng.
Có con trâu, có nương dâu
Thiên đường này mơ ước bao lâu.
I suppose that Nhật Ngân pays tribute to Phạm Duy in copying some of the images and language from Ngày Trở Về. Bamboo walls or bamboo village gates in Phạm Duy, for instance, were characteristics of northern villages and not the southern hamlets. So Nhật Ngân turns them into a “bamboo bridge.”
I don’t mean to say that Nhật Ngân merely took after Phạm Duy; I don’t think the song could reach its potential if he did. He also innovated. For example, Mr. Cao Đức Tuấn has argued in a detailed analysis that the weaponry named in the first verse – the object of the farewell in the song title – are meant for defensive warfare: barbed wire, trenches, crenels (arrowslits), mines, and arms. They highlight the defensive nature of the Vietnam War on the part of the South Vietnamese military. I’ll need to think more about this interpretation, but it is definitely worth thinking about.
Another innovation is the special attention to deceased soldiers in the second half of the refrain. It illustrates the greater suffering than that during the French War. There is also a difference in attitude of the narrators. Both wars were long and exhausting for combatants and civilians, but I don’t think anyone will dispute that the Second Indochina War was far more brutal and destructive than the first one. The military experience of the veteran in Ngày Trở Về towards the Vietnamese country is one of adventure: Anh nói chuyện nghe, chuyện đời chiến sĩ / Sống say mê, đường xa lắm khi nương hồn về quê. The mood in Một Mai Giã Từ Vũ Khí, however, isn’t adventure but duty: Trả súng đạn này, ôi sạch nợ sông núi rồi. The soldier has fulfilled his responsibility to the nation and longs to return to the familiar and quotidian of village life.
I believe this song is still officially banned in Vietnam from commercial performances and recording. Yet as the case of many other banned songs, it is widely sung in private and semi-public space. The spirited singing and strumming of this young man is characteristic of the song’s strong emotional appeal.
In contrast is an older man singing at a slower pace, allowing for more careful enunciation.
Its popularity in the Vietnamese diaspora is evidenced by a number of recordings such as at a Little Saigon TV studio in Orange County and from major diasporic DVD labels such as Thúy Nga. One favorite version comes from Asia DVD, which is similar to others in employing a heavy-duty string arrangement.
The song is usually performed by male vocalists. But there have been recordings from Khánh Ly in the diaspora and at least two major female singers before the Fall of Saigon: Thái Thanh and Thanh Thúy.
The Thanh Thúy record is unique because, to my knowledge, it is the only one that to sings alternative (and original?) lyrics.
Nonetheless, the best one, in my opinion, remains the original recording by Duy Khánh from the 1970s as seen at the middle of this post above. So identified with this song that Duy Khánh, himself composer of several well known songs, was frequently mistaken as its author.
In the end, recognizing the proximity to Ngày Trở Về makes the song more poignant, more painful, and, ultimately, more cathartic. The Vietnam Conflict was long and brutal, and the linkage between these two classics is merely the latest reason to think of both wars as one piece and study them as such. There was a straight line from one war to another in suffering and, in this case, the desire for peace.
Calling the Vietnam Conflict a tragedy is a cliché, truism, even platitude. It is more accurate to call it a series of tragedies – and, at times, an overlap of tragedies – of which the unrealized postwar vision painted in this song was one. It was the misfortune of the Vietnamese people that they were caught in a horrible combination of internal division and Cold War politics, leading to twenty years of warfare.
It was their further misfortune that the postwar leadership failed to see the desire for normalcy from the Vietnamese masses as expressed by this song and, instead, hurried on with its radical revolutionary vision. There were attempts at reform, but they were half-hearted at best. The effects of the radicalism remain to this day, if evolved into less suffocating forms.
For the time being, we are left with some great songs for listening, pondering, and, hopefully, leading to some sort of catharsis at the end of the day.