Knowing that I’d like to start this series with a song related to Saigon, I nonetheless had a hard time deciding from several choices. Travel turns out to be the decisive factor, and being in Houston this weekend prompts me to settle on Saigon, Farewell Forever My Love. Its authors were two refugees who settled in the Houston area: one not long after the Fall of Saigon; the other sometimes in the early 1980s. [Correction: Both came to Houston in 1975; see the note from Jason Gibbs among the comments below.]
Last year I had a post about an anthology of poetry and fiction published by Hoàng Ngọc Ẩn, whose best-known poem Sài Gòn Vĩnh Biệt Tình Ta became the lyrics for this song. (Or, likely, the song made the poem his best-known.) It was set to the music by Song Ngọc, who wrote a number of popular tunes in old Saigon, including several set to the works of poets such as Nguyên Sa and Nguyễn Bính. The most well known recording came from the late Ngọc Lan.
Why were there so many songs about lost Saigon? One reason has to do with the fact that in addition to the government seat of the Republic of Vietnam, it was the cultural center of noncommunist Vietnamese after 1954. Hanoi had occupied the cultural position during the colonial era, and it remained the most revered Vietnamese symbol of high culture even during the First Indochina War. Surely, the cultural primacy of Hanoi was insisted upon by, well, Hanoians and other northerners. But there was a good deal of truth to this claim.
That status was quickly and decisively altered by national division in 1954, as Saigon was declared to have taken over the cultural mantle. The fact that northern emigrés made that claim reflects the earlier bias. But, again, it wasn’t without basis in reality. Forward to 1975, and the change from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City after a long and bitterly contested war was devastating to the cultural identity of countless Vietnamese.
Another reason for the popularity of the “lost Saigon” genre has to do with the relative suddenness of collapse and loss. There was the Fall of Saigon, yes, but there was also a profound shock about the Fall of Saigon. The effect on the mind of refugees was devastating partially because the event unfolded rather rapidly. It enhanced the absoluteness of the experience, making “farewell forever” a reasonable articulation of feeling among the refugees.
Finally was the outcome of the Fall of Saigon, especially the arrest and imprisonment of many former South Vietnamese in important political, military, and cultural positions. The first couple of war after the war did more to the demolition of the old and bourgeois culture of noncommunist Vietnam than any other period in the twentieth century.
There may be better songs related to lost Saigon, but I think this song holds up because it covers enough of the causes and reasons named above. Structurally, the lyrics are shaped around several images and motifs of Republican Saigon: Saigon afternoon, Saigon rain, Saigon at night, etc. Loss and nostalgia go hand in hand, and even the previously unpleasant is reshaped into potent agents for a collective memory.
Chiều Sài Gòn người có đi qua,
Nhớ chiều xưa dáng nhỏ mong chờ,
Những con đường giờ đây cúi mặt,
Mắt nai buồn hồn bỗng bơ vơ.
Who had passed through a Saigon afternoon?
Remember, past afternoons when you waited gently,
Those streets whose faces now looking down,
With sad innocent eyes and displaced souls.
The motif moves from “afternoon” to “rain” in the second verse.
Mưa Sài Gòn người có chờ ta,
Nhớ chiều xưa thành phố nhạt nhòa
Mưa chậm buồn, mưa giăng phố nhỏ
Em lặng nhìn người sắp đi xa.
Who had waited for me under Saigon rain?
Recalling afternoons of blurry urban sights.
It rained slow and sad, spreading over the small street,
In silence you watched loved ones about to leave town.
The refrain is somewhat unusual for repeating itself in melody. The first half of the refrain is shaped around “night.” The speaker roams through memories and, aptly if grievously, ends with the image of the cemetery.
Ôi đêm Sài Gòn, thành phố giới nghiêm
Nhớ người yêu ta bước nhỏ tìm về
Gác nghèo năm xưa khung cửa bỏ ngỏ,
Đèn đêm thương nhớ.
Ôi đêm Sài Gòn, ngàn kiếp khó phai,
Nhớ hàng cây nghiêng nắng chiều chạy dài,
Nghĩa địa riêng em âm thầm gục đầu,
Khóc biệt ngày vui.
Ah, Saigon at night, the city under curfew,
Remembering my love, back to find her,
At the poor little apartment with door open.
How I missing street lights at night.
Ah, Saigon at night: unforgettable.
Remember long rows of sun-lit trees,
Then a cemetery where you silently lower your head,
Weep for lost happy days.
In the second half, memories shift to a declaration of loyalty and love for Saigon amid hurt, pain, and loss. The pain has been implied up to this point; now it is expressed openly.
Ta thương Sài Gòn, giờ đã đổi tên,
Thương người thân yêu, đã lạc đường tìm,
Phố buồn xanh xao, em còn một mình,
Lạc loài chân chim.
Ta thương Sài Gòn, trọn kiếp thủy chung,
Trách làm chi ai, xa mặt chạnh lòng,
Nỗi buồn cơn đau, khiến mòn tuổi mộng,
Ai buồn gì không.
I love Saigon, whose name has been changed,
I love my dear ones, and get lost finding them,
Alone you are among sad, ill-looking streets,
Like birds having lost their path of flight.
I love Saigon, forever faithful,
Blaming no one; distance moves our hearts,
Waves of sorrow and pain wear out our youth.
Who is not moved?
The third verse returns to “afternoon.” But it is no longer an afternoon of nostalgia and, rather, the then current nightmare of imprisonment for tens of thousands of former South Vietnamese government officials and military officers. The reference to “old streets and paths” could mean a number things, including the fact that like the city itself, the names of many of them were changed to names of communist revolutionaries and communist ideas. The Rue Catinat from colonialism, for instance, became the Tự Do (Liberty) Boulevard under the Republic of Vietnam, only to be changed to Đồng Khởi (General Uprising) by the victorious regime.
Chiều Sài Gòn, người vẫn hay mơ
Dẫu giờ đây giữa cảnh ngục tù
Vẫn mơ về đường xưa lối cũ
Vẫn thương về ngày tháng xa xưa.
Who still dream about a Saigon afternoon
Even in imprisonment?
Who still dream about old streets and paths?
Who still love and recall those past days?
It leads to the final verse, which is heart-breaking.
Từ ngục tù người viết bài ca
Khiến người đi mắt lệ nhạt nhòa,
Cung điệu buồn chừng như nức nở,
Ôi Sài Gòn, vĩnh biệt tình ta!
From prison a song you write,
Making those in exile teary-eyed,
Weeping is the sorrowful tone,
Oh, farewell forever to Saigon my love!
Consequently, then, the experience of loss is tied to the experience of postwar imprisonment. I’ll explore this experience further later in this series. For now, it suffices to say that imprisonment was a common Vietnamese experience during the twentieth-century. But in this case it was accentuated and elevated by the suddenness and totality of loss, best captured by the announcement of unconditional surrender in the morning of April 30, 1975. It was not merely the end to a political regime, but to an entire postcolonial culture and way of life.
Besides Ngọc Lan, Thanh Tuyền and Khánh Ly also recorded this song during the late 1970s or early 1980s. More recent is the Quỳnh Lan recording, which tries a little too hard in weepiness but isn’t entirely without merits.
We should keep in mind that as the refugees continued to mourn the Fall of Saigon, they also had to adjust to American life – and fast. There wasn’t really a break between mourning and moving on, as spotted in the photo from Houston below. It is a topic that deserves serious, if not also academic, scrutiny.
Click on this link from the Houston Chronicle for more photos of Vietnamese refugees in Houston during the 1970s and 1980s.