Comparisons of music in different languages and styles could be a hazardous affair. Even at its best, a comparison could be pretty inexact because one could locate as many divergences and differences as parallels and similarities, if not more. And the differences may be too strong to render similarities ineffectual. With this caveat, I nonetheless wish to give this comparison a try.
A few months ago, I suggested that the Vietnamese equivalent to Where Do I Begin?, the theme song of the movie Love Story, is a ballad by Trần Thiện Thanh about a young couple in wartime. The song was based on a true story, albeit the deceased at the end is the man rather than the woman as in the novel and movie. There was also temporal proximity, as the Vietnamese song was written and produced two or three years after the release of the sentimental American movie. In other words, both songs came out of the early Seventies.
Let me try something else: what could be the Vietnamese equivalent to the most recorded song in history, which has had over 2500 covers and counting?
Ok, that last fact sounds intimidating. Maybe it is better to ask: What is a reasonable Vietnamese equivalent to the Beatles classic?
My nomination is Tôi Đưa Em Sang Sông. Its literal meaning, I Take You Across the River, doesn’t really make sense in English. Therefore, I’ll take after some folks from the Internet and call it Farewell My Love instead.
This song was composed and recorded in the Sixties just like “Yesterday.” Paul McCartney began writing it in 1964, finished in May 1965, and the Beatles recorded and released it soon after. From what I’ve gathered, the Vietnamese song was initially penned in 1960 by a young Nhật Ngân. He sent it to the established musician Y Vân, who revised it slightly but inexplicably put down the name of his younger brother Y Vũ as co-author. There has been some dispute about authorship, but let it pass for now. If reading Vietnamese, though, you should check out some memories of Y Vân and Y Vũ by their friend Trịnh Hưng.
But back on the Sixties, I haven’t been able to track down the initial recording – some attributed it to Lệ Thu – but it’s likely that recordings began to come out in the mid-1960s.
More important than timing is mood. I think this song is comparable to “Yesterday” because it is characterized by sadness rather than grief, by melancholy rather than tragedy, and by deep regret on part of the narrator rather than devastation.
Farewell My Love is more specific than “Yesterday” in content: a young man lamenting the wedding of a woman whom he has loved since knowing her back then. “Yesterday” is more vague – John Lennon, to whom McCartney credited the title, once criticized the lyrics for a lack of content. The lyrics didn’t “resolve into any sense,” Lennon said in an interview not long before his death, “They’re good – but if you read the whole song, it doesn’t say anything; you don’t know what happened. She left and he wishes it were yesterday – that much you get – but it doesn’t really resolve. (He ended with a backhanded compliment: “Well done. Beautiful. And I never wished I’d written it.”) But it is precisely the relative vagueness that makes the song universally liked. In the case of the Vietnamese song, the lyrics are more informative but still unclear enough that it touched a universal chord among old and young Vietnamese alike.
Most importantly, the mood is quite similar in that both narrators are tinged with regret. McCartney’s speaker had “said something wrong” and now “long for yesterday” for a chance to change it. Nhật Ngân’s narrator wishes he had not crossed the river with the young woman so he “wouldn’t feel sad this afternoon.” The regrets are different but point at a similar kind of loss that alters one’s perception of the past.
Following the familiar AABA structure, the song opens with the past. Unstated are the stations in life of the speaker and the woman. But they must have been young at the start, and might have been students at the same school. For unclear reasons – they went home after school, perhaps? – they took the same ferry boat across the river and he got to see and know her better.
Tôi đưa em sang sông
Chiều xưa mưa rơi âm thầm
Để thấm ướt chiếc áo xanh
Và đẫm ướt mái tóc em.
Nếu xưa trời không mưa,
Đường vắng đâu cần tôi đưa,
Chẳng lẽ chung một lối về,
Mà nỡ quay mặt bước đi.
I take you across the river
While rain falls quietly in the evening,
Absorbing your green shirt
And soaking your long hair.
Had it not rained then,
I would not have taken you,
But we were going the same way,
I could not turn away from you.
The first half of the second verse describes his growing affection, which is enhanced by growing fear of “losing” her. Starting with nếu or if, second half shifts from love towards loss and prepares us for the eventual loss of his beloved.
Tôi đưa em sang sông
Bàn tay nâng niu ân cần
Sợ bến đất lấm gót chân,
Sợ bến gió buốt trái tim.
Nếu tôi đừng đưa em
Thì chắc đôi mình không quen
Đừng bước chung một lối mòn,
Có đâu chiều nay tôi buồn.
I take you across the river,
Your hand I take gently, carefully,
Fearing dirt touch your heels,
Fearing wind freeze the heart.
Had I not taken you,
We wouldn’t have known each other,
We wouldn’t have walked the same path,
I wouldn’t feel so sad this afternoon.
The refrain is short but not sweet. It isn’t exactly sorrowful either, at least not yet. But it makes clear of the divergent paths – walking and roads are large symbols in this song – that will lead to the seeming inevitable.
Rồi thời gian lặng lẽ trôi,
Đời tôi là chiến binh
Đi khắp phương trời
Mà đời em là ước mơ,
Đẹp muôn ngàn ý thơ,
Như ngóng trông chờ
Then time passed quietly,
My life is that of a soldier
Traveling all over the country.
But yours is a dream,
Exquisite like thousands of poetic lines,
Drawing the love of young men
The last verse brings us to her wedding and notes “heels,” albeit in the context of firecrackers at her house (which was a common practice of Vietnamese weddings, especially at the bride’s house) rather than dirt and mud at the boat landing. The last phrase, trong gió mưa, literally means “in wind and rain” but also implies instability, hardship, even misery. The song begins with the narrator with “I,” and it ends with him albeit somewhat figuratively.
Hôm nao em sang ngang
Bằng xe hoa thay con thuyền?
Giờ phút cuối đến tiễn em,
Nhìn xác pháo vướng gót chân
Gót chân ngày xa xưa
Sợ lấm trong bùn khi mưa.
Nàng đã thay một lối về,
Quên cả người trong gió mưa.
Today you were married.
Did you travel by boat or a wedding carriage?
Saying farewell to you in the last minute,
Watching popped firecrackers stuck to heels.
Those heels of the old days,
That fear of mud in the rain.
She has changed the path heading home,
And has forgotten the one in wind and rain.
It is quietly heartbreaking, and quite befitting of Vietnamese articulations of romantic losses at the time: that is, the losers suffer in silence. I believe this aspect is another reason for the song’s wide appeal to Vietnamese of both genders and all regions.
Indeed, the lyrics are squarely from a male perspective but the song has drawn equally female and male singers. Which is of course the case with “Yesterday.” Below are some videos of recent amateur videos and recordings from Republic Saigon.
The guitar-friendly nature of the song is apparent from the amateur versions. I think it contributes handsomely to the popularity of this song, just as the acoustic-guitar orientation has done to “Yesterday.” I don’t think it would be the same had Farewell My Love been a piano-based song.
Younger people like Thy Phương above, yes, but older Vietnamese love to sing this song just as much, if not more, as seen in the next two videos.
There were a number of studio recordings in Republican Saigon, and below are five of them from, respectively, Chế Linh, Khánh Ly, Lệ Thu, Phương Dung, and Trường Hải. (I am not completely sure if Minh Hiếu’s version from this link was done before or after 1975.) If pressed to choose only one, I’ll go with the Chế Linh version:
Khánh Ly’s recording begins at 0:45 in the next video. She speaks during the instrumental middle, giving the names of song, authors, and singer and the place of recording – the Studio Mây Hồng (Pink Cloud). Which may be the best part, since this is one of few unsuccessful recordings from her years in Republican Saigon. I find it rather weepy, and that her post-1975 version is better.
Better is Lệ Thu’s recording, although I wish her voice were louder – or, conversely, the instruments softer.
Regrettably, this version from the great Phương Dung has poor recording quality. Her voice is strong, but it isn’t well recorded. I wouldn’t have posted it except for the fact that the lyrics are slightly different from most recordings. I wonder if these are the original lyrics, or if she changed them when performing live or recording.
Finally is Trường Hải’s passable version.
The song has been recorded by a lot of singers after 1975, first in the diaspora then in Vietnam. They include Elvis Phương, Mạnh Quỳnh, Nguyễn Hưng, Tuấn Vũ, and Vũ Khanh, among others, on the men’s side. Among the women are Giao Linh, Hương Lan, Ngọc Lan, Thanh Thúy, and, possibly my favorite postwar recording, Phương Hồng Quế. It isn’t on YouTube but you can listen to it here.
A search on one of the popular online sources shows some sixty non-duplicated covers, mostly with vocals but also as a guitar solo. Indeed, there are a number of such solos on YouTube. Here’s one of the prettiest that I have come across.
On the other end of the spectrum, it is increasingly turned into a fast-track dance tune at Vietnamese clubs and in records. This recent diversification of style is the latest indicator of its lasting popularity among Vietnamese.
Non-Vietnamese typically think of Vietnam in the Sixties as a time of war. But it was also a time of many other things, including the golden age of Vietnamese popular music. Tôi Đưa Em Sang Sông is a perfect example of this golden age.