The lyrics of this song are simple: possibly the simplest from this list of ten.  But at times simplicity is equivalent to power, and I think this song is quite powerful.  The most interesting find during my Internet search for recordings is the following video of a performance by several Vietnamese American girls in the Seattle area.  The young singer speaks in Vietnamese at the start:  I love this song because through my grandparents, I understand the feelings of people having to live far from their families, friends, and homeland.

It is hardly a surprise that she draws a loud applause at the start and a louder one at the end. Familial separation was central to the experience of Vietnamese refugees.  Add national loss on top and it means a lot of grief and tears.

A comparison for context… Song #10 on this list is about Saigon through and through, and its lyrics are structured around “afternoon,” “rain,” and “night” before moving to lamentation for national loss.  Afternoons and rain also figure large in this song by Đức Huy.  (He is a quasi-specialist when it comes to rain, and his corpus includes several well-known tunes with “rain” in the titles and/or lyrics.)  Add “river” and “crying” to the lyrics of this song, and it means that this is a very wet and teary tune.

The name of Saigon also appears a couple of times in Cry A River.  Here, however, the lyrics could have applied to just about any town or city or region in the former South Vietnam.  Why? Because the song isn’t really about Saigon.  Rather, it is about separation, particularly the experience of being torn away from one’s family without knowing when or if they would ever be reunited.

The song is structured along the familiar AABA, with the first verse repeating as the last.

Tôi hay nhớ về quê nhà vào buổi chiều.
Nhất là những buổi chiều mưa rơi.
Cũng may Cali trời mưa ít không như Sài Gòn,
Nếu không tôi đã khóc một dòng sông.

I often miss my homeland in the afternoon,
Especially in rainy afternoons.
Good thing that California doesn’t rain as much as Saigon.
Otherwise I’d have cried a river.

The second verse moves from “rainy afternoon” and “homeland” to the larger notion of “fate” that nonetheless provides no comfort at all.

Không chi xót xa cho bằng thân phận người
Xa nhà sống một mình đơn côi.
Cũng may bên này thời gian qua vun vút không như Sài Gòn
Nếu không tôi đã khóc một dòng sông.

No fate is worse than having
To live alone in exile, far from home.
Good thing that time moves faster here than in Saigon.
Otherwise I’d have cried a river.

The second verse notes “home,” which is opened up in the refrain to mean one’s family.

Khóc một dòng sông!
Tôi đã khóc một dòng sông, m
ột dòng sông dài,
Nhớ cha, nhớ mẹ, n
hớ anh, nhớ chị.

Khóc một dòng sông!
Tôi đã khóc một dòng sông, m
ột dòng sông dài.
Những chiều mưa tôi khóc, k
hóc một dòng sông.

Cry a river!
I have cried a river, a long river.
Missing father, missing mother, missing brother, missing sister.

Cry a river!
I have cried a river, a
long river.
There are afternoons when I cry, crying a river.

I think that verbal simplicity works well enough, just as some of the effective war songs were also simple in lyrics.  Having framed this song in the riverine image, Đức Huy draws a comparison between Saigon and California.  (It was relatively common to find such comparisons in refugee music during the 1970s and 1980s.)  But the comparison has to do with family rather than nation.

Indeed, a case could be made that Đức Huy’s music places the more universal experience of human existence – love and loss, home and separation, etc. – above the narrower nationalistic concerns that could be found in many South Vietnamese and diasporic refugee music.  The emphasis of the universal over the political, I think, is among the reasons that some of his songs have long been popular at Vietnamese weddings and parties, especially Yêu Em Dài Lâu (Love You Always) and Đường Xa Ướt Mưa (Long and Rainy Road), which obviously employs the image of rain but within a romantic and far happier context.

Not the rain in Cry A River.  Đức Huy could write a very sad song were he to put his mind to it.  True, there is no mentioning of postwar poverty or imprisonment, as the cases of many other refugee songs.  So one should acknowledge limitation to this tune in particular and to his corpus in general.

On the other hand, the limitation is partially made up by the directness of emotion, especially when Đức Huy strikes straight at the heart of separation in “missing father, missing mother, missing brother, missing sister.”  Refugees don’t think in a lot of words when they weep.  Instead, their thoughts are compressed into a small amount of vocabulary, which works best when repeated over and again.  Which is the approximate effect of Khóc Một Dòng Sông, and a reason for its place on this list.

Many diasporic singers have recorded this song.  Judging from audio and video uploads on the Internet, the late Ngọc Lan’s recording above may be the most popular.

Ironically, the two best recordings for me aren’t on YouTube as of this writing.  In fact, so far I haven’t been able to locate the original by Đức Huy, which was recorded in the early 1980s, on the Internet. There is a later recording of his, but it doesn’t quite match the sparse sadness of the original.  (Hopefully there’s still a CD somewhere in the house and I’ll find it.)  Also missing from YouTube is the recording of his ex-wife Thảo My.  It’s probably my favorite of all recorded versions, and you can listen to it by clicking here.

December 2, 2016: Thanks to my student assistant, both the original and the Thảo My recordings are now on YouTube.  Here is the original:

And here’s the Thảo My:

In the end, it comes down to the thought that the refugees might never see their homeland or even their families again.  As Nguyễn Văn Tuấn recalls in his blog not long ago, that thought was ever-present well after he settled into the Australian society.  Here is a passage:

Thời đó, bất cứ người tị nạn nào cũng nghĩ rằng sẽ không có ngày quay về Việt Nam, nên ai cũng mang trong lòng tâm trạng nhớ nhà kinh khủng. Mấy năm sau có vài lần đi công tác bên Singapore và Âu châu (tạt ngang qua Thái Lan), tôi cứ nhìn về quê nhà đau đáu nhưng không được về. Có một đêm nằm trong hotel sang trọng ở Bangkok mà … khóc một mình. Trong cái bối cảnh đó, có người sáng tác nhạc với những ca từ rất ray rức… còn Đức Huy với bài “Khóc một dòng sông”  (Tôi hay nhớ về quê nhà vào buổi chiều / nhất là những buổi chiều mưa rơi / Cũng may Cali trời mưa ít không như Sài Gòn / Nếu không tôi đã khóc một dòng sông …) mà mỗi lần Ngọc Lan ca là nhiều người khóc một cách tự nhiên. 

At the time, all refugees thought that there won’t be a day to go back to Vietnam, and they all missed their home incredibly.  A few years later, I traveled for work to Singapore and Europe, with a stop in Thailand, I thought of home and the pain of not being able to go back.  One night, lying in a fancy hotel in Bangkok, I wept alone.  In such setting, musicians wrote some songs with painful lyrics… [including] Đức Huy with “Cry A River”…  Many people burst into tears when listening to Ngọc Lan’s recording.

Why don’t we just leave it at that?