This song is most interesting because the original lyrics were written in Paris by the writer Minh Đức Hoài Trinh: in 1962 or thirteen years before the Fall of Saigon.

Minh Đức Hoài Trinh in Europe during the 1960s ~ pc

Born in Huế 85 years ago, she was educated in Vietnam and at the Sorbonne.  She worked as a reporter for French and South Vietnamese media, and taught for a time at the Buddhist college Vạn Hạnh in Saigon.

A short biographical video about her is on Facebook, and a written version could be read here.  Both are in Vietnamese, as is a website devoted to her works.

Minh Đức Hoài Trinh was in another Southeast Asian country for a conference when Saigon fell to the communists.  She returned to Paris and began the first postwar diasporic periodical, and helped founding the diasporic branch of PEN International for Vietnamese.  She moved to Oklahoma in 1980 and, later, to California.

She published several volumes of poetry and fiction before 1975 – and more after.  I haven’t read for any of her books; in fact, I’ve come across a couple of them but, shamefully, didn’t even browse them.  (I did read some articles that she published in South Vietnamese periodicals.)  Therefore I depended on the Internet to locate the poem, which appears at the end of this blog post.  In the poem, the narrator is in France, speaks of missing her mother, and evokes images and memories about the older woman.

The Facebook video begins with a recording of Khánh Ly performing Ai Trở Về Xứ Việt, which remains by far the most well-known recording – and best.  The song is credited as “music by Phan Văn Hưng, poem by Minh Đức Hoài Trinh.”  It is not clear to me whether MĐHT wrote the lyrics for the song, or revised the old poem into a new one, or something else.

According to an interview he gave eight years ago, Hưng was studying France and actively involved with the Vietnamese Student Association in Paris for several years when Saigon fell.  Two years later, he wrote the song and called it Ai Về Xứ Việt (without Trở) and credited it to “Nhóm sáng tác Tổng Hội Sinh Viên” – the “Creative Team of the Association of Vietnamese University Students.”  It was later credited to Võ Tá Hân (Hưng’s pen name?) and eventually to Phan Văn Hưng.

In any event, the lyrics are quite different from the original poem.  The central figure is not a mother in the 1960s, but prisoners in reeducation camps during the 1970s and 1980s.  The song is about Vietnam, yes, but particularly incarcerated Vietnam.  The narrator is not a daughter missing her mother.  Instead, he is a former prisoner now out of Vietnam, and he is thinking about his friends still in incarceration back home.

The structure of the song is verse-verse-refrain-bridge-verse, plus a coda.  Khánh Ly’s original recording, the synthesizer-induced piano sounds are just about perfect for opening the song. They are detached as if reflecting the still dazed state of mind of the narrator.  The first verse is nearly spoken than sung, as if the narrator were dictating a message to be typed up or written down.  In one stroke, the lyrics define postwar Vietnam as a prison.

Ai trở về xứ Việt
Nhắn giùm ta, người ấy ở trong tù.
Nghe đâu đây vang giọng hờn rên xiết
Dài lắm không đằng đẵng mấy mùa thu

Who are returning to the Viet land?
Take my message to him in prison.
Listen to the constant cries nearby,
Long cries going on for several autumnal seasons.

The acoustic guitar and percussion join in for the second verse.

Ai đi về xứ Việt
Thăm giùm ta, người ấy ở trong tù.
Cho ta gởi một mảnh trời xanh biếc
Thay giùm ai, màu trời ngục âm u.

Who are returning to the Viet land?
Visit him in prison for me.
Take for me a piece of deep blue sky
To change the gloomy sky of prisons.

In one of the best calls related to arrangements that I’ve seen in recorded refugee music, the refrain is sung twice in a row. By framing the lines as questions, the refrain accentuates the uncertainty about the fate of the political prisoners. Its images of fresh food and songbirds are tied to the meaning of freedom that will be named later.  Connected by hurried drumming, the repetition picks up from the build-up and brings the song to its climax.

Các bạn ta ơi, bao giờ được thả?
Đến bao giờ ăn được bát cơm tươi?
Được lắng nghe tiếng chim cười trong gió lá?
Đến bao giờ, đến bao giờ?

My friends, when will they be released?
When will they eat a good bowl of rice?
When will they listen to chirpy birds in the open?
When will they, when will they?

The refrain is followed by a bridge, in which the speaker addresses directly his incarcerated friends.  The pain of uncertainty is mitigated, if barely, by the promise of memory.  The evocation of memory implies that the friend may die in prison and they will never see each other again.

Người bạn tù ơi, ta không quên đâu.
Nhớ hôm xưa, nhìn đôi tay cùng xích.
Hàng song thưa, chia cách vạn tình Ngâu.
Ai tra tấn, nghe lòng đau kim chích!

My incarcerated friend, I do not forget you.
I remember when we watch our arms jointly shackled.
The iron gate separating our lasting affection.
It pains me so much knowing that you are still tortured.

The next verse returns to indirect addressing and names tự do – liberty or freedom – three times in a row.

Ai trở về xứ Việt
Ta gởi về theo một ít tự do,
Tự do, tự do, và nhiều lắm
Nhiều nhớ thương tha thiết
Đến cửa ngục tù, chia bớt chút buồn lo.

Who are returning to the Viet land?
May I send along a little bit of liberty:
Liberty, liberty, and a lot more,
A lot of love and missing
To the gate of prison, sharing worries and sorrow.

The song might have already reached its climax at the refrain. But I find this verse almost as significant because it offers a hint on Vietnamese perceptions of liberty:  that is, often in the context of incarceration.  Modern Vietnamese history, it could be said, is a history of prisons.  This history traveled from colonial imprisonment under French rule to North Vietnamese incarceration and South Vietnamese imprisonment during the period of division, then to postwar incarceration as in this case.  Here, liberty is understood as the opposite of actual imprisonment.

After the instrumental break, Khánh Ly repeats most of the lyrics and ends with the following coda.  Characteristic of early refugee music, it shifts from an overwhelming amount of sadness to a slice of hope.

Ta sẽ về đón ở cửa âm u,
Đời sẽ đẹp mùa xuân hồng biết mấy
Dẫu ngoài kia mây có trĩu mùa thu.

I will return to welcome him at the gloomy gate,
Life will be beautiful as if in spring,
Even though it is very cloudy outside like late autumn.

The experience of incarceration was searing, and its effects are still felt to this day.  Former political prisoners have published a lot of memoirs about it, and the Vietnam Center archives at Texas Tech University includes a massive collection about their situation, the political support by a Vietnamese organization in the U.S. for their release, and their eventual migration to the U.S.  For several reasons, I have no doubt that a lot of their history, including the history of music related to incarceration, will come out in the future.

For the general public, a nice little start is this essay by Quyen Truong, daughter of a former political prisoner, plus several artworks that she did as an art major during her undergraduate years at Brown University in the 2000s.

“Comrades in arms” by Quyen Truong, The painter interviewed her father for a project during her undergraduate years at Brown. Here is her caption to this work: “One of the most humiliating and dehumanizing experiences for my father was being ordered around and beaten by a teenage officer. The Vietnamese tradition of respect for one’s elders is completely subverted, even as the re-education camp claims to educate the prisoners into better citizens for the new regime. Despite the painful beatings, meant to degrade the men and crush their spirits, many re-education camp prisoners supported each other through the punishments, finding hope in each person’s survival.” ~ pc

Incarceration is frequently referenced in the music of refugees; some songs, including Who Are Returning to the Viet Land?, are exclusively about the experience. It was composed in 1977, or well before the mini-wave of recorded “prison music” in the early 1980s: a historically significant bit.  Lastly, it’s all the more remarkable that the inspiration came from a poem written almost twenty years earlier and in a different context.  When it comes to articulating profound experiences, the creative process sometimes finds unexpected sources, doesn’t it?

Although no other recording is comparable to Khánh Ly’s version above, the appeal of the song has prompted many other diasporic singers have recorded this song, including Băng Châu (who might be the very first to record this song), Ngọc Lan, and Lâm Thúy Vân.  My favorite after Khánh Ly is a recording by Thu Nguyệt four years ago. In the live performance below, it is complete with background representation of reeducation camps.

Her voice is a touch too sweet, and the arrangements are honeyed up by strings accompaniment.  They don’t quite convey the terrible feeling found in the relative sparseness of Khánh Ly’s recording.  Nonetheless, we should remember that this performance occurred in 2012, or thirty-five years since the composition of this song and over twenty years since mass incarceration in reeducation camps.  The experience has belonged to the realm of memory by the time of this performance, and perhaps the sweetness is justified on that basis.

In case you look for sparseness, here’s a different live take from a few years ago, this time by Phan Văn Hưng himself.

Finally is an older recording, possibly the first one on video, that features Băng Châu, who came to prominence in the 1970s but no longer performed since probably the late 1980s.

Original lyrics

Ai trở về xứ Việt
Mang dùm ta thư này
Nơi quê hướng có mẹ già đơn chiếc
Thư viết rằng ta nhớ mẹ
Ta nhớ mẹ nơi đây

Thương mẹ màu tóc trắng
Mỗi khi nhìn áng mây
Đôi mắt mờ xa vắng
Khi sương chiều đang say

Khi cành cây rớt lá
Tơi tả trong bóng nắng
Khi mùa đông buốt giá
Thương mấy đốt xương gầy


Xa xôi lắm, có ai về xứ Việt
Nhắn hộ rằng ta hận dưới trời Tây
Đâu những giờ yến tiệc
Mẹ mở nồi cơm nóng khói thơm bay

Ta vẫn thường luyến tiếc
Thuở nào nằm gối lên tay
Nghe văng vẳng câu hò ơi tha thiết

“Hò ơi! Con ngủ cho say”
Mặc mưa gió không ngừng rên siết
Trên mặt con màu nắng sớm vẫn hây hây


Có ai về xứ Việt
Nhắn hộ ta đôi lời
Nơi phương Tây xa ấy
Ta hận thương biết mấy

Đâu những giờ yến tiệc
Bên nồi cơm vung đầy
Thơm bay làn khói trắng
Nhưng mẹ giờ xa vắng

Ta vẫn thường luyến tiếc
Nhớ khi nằm gối tay
Nghe văng vẳng câu hát
Tiếng mẹ hiền đâu đây

Bên ngoài mưa gió rét
Không ngừng cơn rên siết
Nhưng lòng ta sao vẫn
Như nắng sớm mây chiều


Nhưng còn đâu nữa
Nắng bên ngoài lòng vẫn chớm heo may
Những đêm như đêm nay
Ta muốn lòng ta say thật say

Men rượu nồng trong màu khói thuốc
Quanh mình rộn rã nhạc cuồng quay
Pha lê tan tác vỡ,
Tàn thuốc tả tơi bay
Ta sẽ cười lên trong nức nở
Thả tâm hồn mơ đến một bàn tay

Ai trở về xứ Việt
Xin dừng chân nơi này
Cho ta nhắn một lời khi xa cách
Xin nhắn rằng: “Ta nhớ mẹ, Ta nhớ mẹ hôm nay.”