This song by the late Việt Dzũng remains one of the most moving and most popular in the diaspora. To understand its appeal, non-Vietnamese (and young Vietnamese in both Vietnam and the diaspora) should know something about gift-sending from refugees to their families back home during the 1970s and 1980s.
After winning the war in 1975, the communist regime imposed a series of political, cultural, and economic policies so to catch up with the next stage of socialism that had been delayed by warfare. Rather quickly, the policies turned disastrous to most southern Vietnamese who had followed a different path since colonialism.
The policies were not the sole reason for the disaster, as there were other developments such as the occupation of Cambodia, the war with former ally China, and embargo from the U.S. and nations allied to the U.S. But they were the biggest reason that drove the country into a very deep economic crisis. Among other things, they led to the exodus of a very large number of boat people, mostly from the south but also some from the north.
The economic crisis was not entirely like Venezuela today, but it wasn’t far off either. Soviet-style central planning and nationalization led to a huge drop in production, including production of basic foodstuffs like rice and meat. Consumer goods were scarce, as Vietnam’s trading with the communist bloc in Eastern Europe brought few items to the country.
The situation was especially galling for the people in southern Vietnam, who had become used to a growing market of consumer goods during the 1960s and 1970s. Italian vespas, Japanese electronics and motorcycles, and American medicine were among popular items in early 1970s Saigon. Throw in movies from Hollywood and Hong Kong, pop music from the U.S. and Western Europe, and translations of French and German and American novels and Taiwanese romance or martial arts fiction, and you get an idea about the tastes and appetites of Vietnamese for consumer goods before 1975.
In this context, the Fall of Saigon was not merely a political demise. It was the end of a distinctive way of life. As often the case in centralized economy, smuggling and the black market flourished all over the unified country, but especially in Saigon. Smuggled goods came from different places, such as Eastern European ships and underground trading with Chinese, Thai, and Cambodian merchants. They cost a lot, however, and many eventual consumers, probably most, were communist officials who made profit off bribery and other illegal activities.
Another source of consumer goods for the black market was packages of “gifts” sent by family members from abroad: mostly North America but also Western Europe and Australia. I put gifts in quotation marks because most items would have been considered necessities in other circumstances. In the dire economy of postwar Vietnam, however, they functioned as something of a lifeboat for many families. The receivers might keep some items and sell the rest in the black market, which was widespread at the time. By the late 1980s, the communist government changed its economic course while retaining a grip on politics. It became more convenient to send money, especially American currency, and gift-sending gradually disappeared as a common practice among the refugees.
I should add that northern Vietnamese who went to work in the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern European countries also sent home a variety of consumer goods. The situation was different, of course, but the practice was hardly limited to refugees.
A Few Gifts for the Homeland was written and recorded when the crisis was in full during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Several singers, including Việt Dzũng, recorded it then and years later. But none has remotely surpassed the recording by Khánh Ly. Many Vietnamese refugees listened to it and wept. So did many Vietnamese in Vietnam, who listened clandestinely to broadcasts by the BBC and VOA – and likewise wept. Gift-sending functioned as an economic nexus between the diaspora and Vietnam. Listening to the same song was an emotional nexus, and the song served as connector of the twain.
The song begins at 2:30 in the Vimeo video below. But the first two and half minutes are worth watching even if you don’t know Vietnamese, for it shows scenes of an impoverished economy (including the black market) created by policies that its own people, southerners and northerners, did not want. A YouTube version without the documentary-style introduction is at the end of this post.
Việt Dzũng structures the song according to AABAAB, He further organizes the lyrics as followed, with each person receiving two lines: older brother and mother in the first verse; older sister and younger sibling (no specified gender) in the second verse; and father and the Vietnamese homeland in the third verse. After a moving acoustic-guitar instrumental break, the pattern repeats but with new lyrics. Paired with each person are specific items for specific purposes, literally and figuratively.
Em gửi về cho anh dăm bao thuốc lá,
Anh đốt cuộc đời cháy mòn trên ngón tay.
Gửi về cho mẹ dăm chiếc kim may
Mẹ may hộ con tim gan quá đọa đày.
I send (older) brother a few pack of cigarettes,
So you can burn your life on fingers.
Sending mother a few needles,
So you can sew up my anguish in my heart.
In the second verse, images of foodstuffs and sewing figure as in the first one. I can personally vouch for the great need for fabric at the time, as my own family received some sent from relatives in Minnesota.
Gửi về cho chị dăm ba xấp vải,
Chị may áo cưới hay chị may áo tang.
Gửi về cho em kẹo bánh thênh thang,
Em ăn cho ngọt vì đời nhiều cay đắng.
I send older sister some fabric,
So you can make a wedding dress or a funeral one.
Sending young sister a lot of candies and cakes,
So you can eat them for life is so much bitter.
Then comes the first climax: father facing death while in prison – note, again, another reference to clothes – followed by an affirmation for love of the homeland plus a tiny ray of hope. Typically, hope doesn’t appear until the very end of a refugee song. Việt Dzũng, however, decided to insert it here, maybe because he wanted to end the song later with the image of sleep than hope.
Con gửi về cho cha một manh áo trắng
Cha mặc một lần khi ra pháp trường phơi thây.
Gửi về Việt Nam nước mắt đong đầy
Mơ ước một ngày quê hương sẽ thanh bình.
I send father a piece of white cloth
So you wear it when they lead you to the execution.
Sending to Vietnam a lot of tears
Dreaming that it will be peaceful one day.
Had the lyrics ended here, it would be a very good song. But it does not and, instead, ends up a great song by extending further. First of all, the guitar solo is one of the best solos in refugee music, and certainly the best among the ten songs on this list. It may be a stretch to say that the guitar solo is the climax of the song, but the stretch isn’t unreasonable. In any event, the solo produces a stirring effect for a minute and provides an effective contrast to the lulling tone of the next verse.
Em gửi về cho anh một cây bút máy
Anh vẽ cuộc đời như ước vọng mong manh.
Gửi về cho mẹ dăm gói chè xanh
Mẹ pha hộ con nước mắt đã khô cằn.
I send older brother a pen
So you can draw up your life along your thin hope.
Sending mother a few bags of green tea,
So you can make tea with my dried-up tears.
Second, the second half of the lyrics both reinforces and expands the scope of meaning in the first half. Note, for example, the desire the narrator has for her older brother. In the first verse, he would have “burned his life away” while smoking. In the following verse, he would use a pen to “sketch out his life” according to his “thin hope.” In comparison to the first verse of the song, there is more of a pro-active attitude – if that is the right word – in the fourth verse.
Likewise, the fifth verse urges escape, which was an active way to change one’s life.
Gửi về cho chị hộp diêm nhóm lửa
Chị đốt cuộc đời trong hoang lạnh mù sương.
Gửi về cho em chiếc nhẫn yêu thương
Em bán cho đời tìm đường vượt biên.
I send older sister a few boxes of matches,
So you can burn up your life amidst the mist and cold.
Sending young sister a loving ring,
So you can sell it and escape out of the country.
In the second climax, the feeling about father and nation is barely less difficult than than the first climax. It is only made bearable by falling into sleep at night. Listen to the modulation of Khánh Ly’s voice on the last word of the first line – ngủ or sleep. The sound is heart-breaking.
Con gửi về cho cha vài viên thuốc ngủ
Cha ru cuộc đời trong tử tù chung thân.
Gởi về Việt Nam khúc hát ân cần,
Mơ ước yên lành trong giấc ngủ da vàng.
I send father a few sleeping pills,
So you can sleep when in prison for life.
I send to Vietnam my caring music,
Dreaming of peace as my people sleep tight.
Paradoxically, the father’s status moves from execution in the first half to a life sentence in prison. I find this shift to be a flaw of the song. Perhaps one can argue that so arbitrary was the communist legal and punitive system that one’s status can change abruptly overnight. Or, to keep on the “more active” interpretation, a life sentence is better than death because at least it means that one is still alive and can hang on to the slim hope of freedom one day.
In any event, few are debits and many are merits in this song. The last line of the song provides one such merit: Việt Dzũng does well in ending the song with “sleep” because this image matches the form. The lyrics are written as if lulling one into sleep, and the arrangements surely produces this effect, starting with the very opening instrumental line. The music is repetitive and varies very little. The lines in each verse sounds almost the same. Even the climaxing third verse is merely a modulation from the first and second verses.
The song is very well constructed, and deceptively simple. Paradoxically, the simplicity articulates powerfully the horrible experience of separation, poverty, oppression, death, and other dangers faced by Vietnamese after the war was over. Therefore, it is hardly surprise that radio and TV programs in Little Saigon communities often play this song around the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.
The simplicity and the guitar-friendly nature of the tune has also translated into a lot of singing in private and public. Below are only two private recordings made public on YouTube.
Finally, the Khánh Ly recording without the video introduction.