Updated: Sep 24, 2022
April has always been an emotional month for Vietnamese living abroad. April 30th, 1975 was the day that Saigon fell, ending the Vietnam War and triggering one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history.
The Vietnamese who fled Vietnam call it Black April. There are activities in most communities on April 30th to commemorate this sad day in our history. Some of my family and friends visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Westminster. Some of them just listen to music from the pre-1975 era to reminisce about all that we have lost.
This year I read an interesting post from a young Vietnamese American about the evolution of this music from these refugees who have risked their lives to take a different path on the road of life. In doing so, they have lost so much of their childhood and history but have also gained so much else in this new multicultural land. I have taken the liberty of re-posting Joseph Nguyen's piece because I imagine that some of my nieces and nephews and other 2nd and 3rd-generation Vietnamese-Americans may find it relatable, and the rest of us may get a new perspective on how a lost culture can still evolve.
Music of the Vietnamese Diaspora
It’s 1 am. You can’t sleep at night because your dad is with ten other friends, drinking and singing with no regard for you or your neighbors! Vietnamese music again!? Like, seriously. How many times can repeat “Sài Gòn đẹp lắm! Sài Gòn ơi! Sài Gòn ơiiiii!”?? You come home from college, wafting through the pungent smell of nước mắm as your mom is cooking phở, the sweet odor of anise seeds filling the air. In the background are two familiar faces on TV: a short, old man with rounded glasses speaking in a gentle, refined Northern accent. Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn, the grandpa you probably see more than your own ông nội and a tall, slender woman, with the look and dignified air of a diva. Nguyễn Cao Kỳ Duyên. Paris by Night music floods the house, and you complain yet again to your mom, “Má, why do you always listen to this sad, slow music? Can’t you listen to something fun?” Your mom looks a bit affronted, saying, “Con, if only you understood the meaning of the songs that we listen to! Not songs about sex and partying like you kids listen to nowadays. These are the songs that have meaning!” And you roll your eyes, kiss your mom goodbye, and drive back to college.
MUSIC IN THE VIETNAMESE OVERSEAS COMMUNITY Maybe on this occasion of Black April, the day that began one of largest refugee crises in modern history, we should reflect on the ways music - love, sorrow, nostalgia - have been expressed through our parents’ experiences and struggles. This music, often reflected through genres such as “trữ tình (bolero)” and “vọng cổ (literally “longing for the past”), was developed in South Vietnam, preserved for decades by the overseas community, and eventually became repopularized in Vietnam and around the world. This is not just “Vietnamese” music, this is the music of Vietnamese refugees, of exiles expressing their innermost feelings through their music.
SOUTH VIETNAM In South Vietnam, the first roots of music were produced by the likes of Trịnh Công Sơn, Văn Cao, and Phạm Duy. These often reflected on love and separation, as many Vietnamese saw their loved ones separated from them due to war and forced to part from their families due to violence. Lâm Phương’s “Thành Phố Buồn” (City of Sadness)
highlights the pain experienced by the Vietnamese people: “Because of our distance, our love has faded Because we could never be together, you had to marry another man. In silence, I mourned our lives. In sorrow, your tears filled the separation. I return and pick up the pieces of fragmented memories In the city of sadness.”
For the Vietnamese people, the impending loss of their country is not just the loss of a nation, but the loss of love, the loss of relationships, and the loss of humanity. In “Đại Bác Ru Đêm,” (Cannons Echo at Night)
sung by South Vietnamese singer Khánh Ly (now living in the U.S.) illustrates the experience of being a Vietnamese in a battlefield of war, “Ten thousand bombs pour down on the villages Ten thousand bombs pour down the fields Vietnamese houses blaze at the hamlet's end Ten thousand vehicles, amidst claymore grenades Ten thousand vehicles, escaping into the city And in every region The bones and bodies of our mothers and loved ones.”
PAIN AND LOSS Over the decades after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, millions of Vietnamese refugees escaped by boat to build new Vietnamese communities in Australia, the U.S., France, Canada, and many other countries. And with them, they brought the pain of the war and turned it into a new genre: music reflecting the pain of the loss of their homeland, the pain of fleeing from the country in which they were born, and the pain of assimilating into a new culture. Easily the most famous song about the Fall of Saigon in the diaspora community, “Sài Gòn Vĩnh Biệt” (Goodbye Saigon),
resung continuously by Vietnamese-American entertainment companies such as Asia Entertainment and Paris by Night. In the song, the Vietnamese community reflects their abrupt goodbye from their old city, no longer called Sai Gon, and the promise of coming home one day, as one comes home to a lover: “O Saigon, I promise that I will return My lover, I will keep the vow forever Time might be but a flash of passion The street has a myriad of stars But I shall never forget.” As Vietnamese-Americans slowly trickled into other countries and reflected on the sufferings and pain they went through in order to escape Vietnam, the pain of the war and loss of homeland became a new genre - mixed in with songs lamenting the loss of life and tribulations as a boat person and having to assimilate into a new and foreign culture. Như Quỳnh, a famous Vietnamese singer for Paris by Night, sings a song, “Đêm Chôn Dầu Vượt Biển” (The Night I Bury Oil as I Cross the Sea) reflected on the experiences of the boat people:
“Tonight in the darkness You (my lover) left home by boat Hoping to cross the ocean I did not expect sadness to creep into the night Leaving me with pain and loneliness Oh! Oh! Goodbye, my homeland.”
THE NEW GENERATION These feelings of pain were not limited to the older generation. New Vietnamese-Americans who came to the U.S. as children were forced to confront their new realities of bullying at schools, inner-city poverty, and discrimination, using rap and hip hop as new forms of expression. Khanh Nhỏ, known as one of the first to ever rap in the Vietnamese language, raps in “Đời Anh Thanh Niên” (The Life of a Young Boy) about his journey of coming to and growing up in America:
“There was once a young boy growing up in the Central Highlands His family was suffering And so they decided to cross the sea By boat Only him and his father Around them just emptiness Only him and his father Two people together” Khanh Nhỏ would eventually become one of the most well-known Vietnamese-American rappers whose musical style inspired many up-and-coming rappers in Vietnam. Easily the most well-known song among Vietnamese-American youth growing up in the 1990s was “Vietnamese Gang,” by ThaiVietG and Khanh Nhỏ:
“we be the realest gooks that you ever know, we be the thuggish ass Vietnamese fools up in P O bro, so slow your role, don't wanna step, cause if you try to, i'm a have to ride through, and put your ass in check foo, it's like that my crew, we be the real cats, come to bomb on Vietnam tatted on my back, family love got my mind giving a fuck, shedding blood for the homies on the block bumpin slugs, cause it's the gang that i bang with, rollin' with five real motherfucking g's and ya'll still can't hang bitch, showin no love in enemies gettin served, when we walk up out the room all you heard, what bitch?” At face value, this is simply a song about the pride in Vietnamese gang life, but at the core of the lyrics is a remarkable interweaving of both American and Vietnamese culture integrated into a new kind of Vietnamese family, easily the most important unit in Vietnamese culture and society. In a new country where Vietnamese-Americans faced constant discrimination, being called “gooks” and having to confront the existing gangs in their area, Vietnamese-American gangs as expressed here were a way to find Vietnamese pride and reinvent Vietnamese family values into their new identity as an American gang. The call to “shed blood for the homies,” “preserve fraternity,” and be proud to be “a strong and numerous Vietnamese people,” are all reimaginings of cultural pride and family values inserted into a Vietnamese-American identity.
VIETNAMESE IN THE DIASPORA 47 YEARS AFTER Vietnamese people in the diaspora number around 4.5 million today, many of which now are 2nd and 3rd generation - born and raised outside of Vietnam and making a name for themselves in their own unique fashion. And for many of them, their refugee past was simply a memory - fragmented from the little stories their parents have told them, entrusted to them to preserve and reshape in their own lives. Thao Nguyen, who helped formed the indie band, “Thao and the Get Down Stay Down,” performs the song “Temple” as a tribute to her parents’ past as Vietnamese refugees:
“I lost my city in the light of day Thick smoke Helicopter blades Heaven on earth I've never moved so fast You'll never know the fear your mama has I know your father can't call anymore He never meant to be a man of war But we found freedom what will you do now Bury the burden baby make us proud.” Thao Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese-American woman, narrates the story of her parents’ escape to America and acknowledges the responsibility she has as a child living in the freedom that her parents did not have. And so she attempts to make the most of it, as she “buries the burden” to make her parents proud of the life she created in America. And while many Vietnamese-Americans have used their artistic ability to reflect on their parent's past, many others have made their Vietnamese identity central to the new social and political events raging in a racially diverse and globalized world. Mixed Miyagi, who is half-black and half-Vietnamese and raised in Miami, raps in the song “Ngày Nào Cũng Vậy” (Everyday is Like This) about the racism that black people face in America, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020:
“I’m a Vietnamese hapa so let me tell a story My life is miserable like anyone, hope you understand my troubles Now I’m drifting like a boat Moreover, I don’t know how to control it Dreaming that one day the world will have peace Where do I look? Because hoping for happiness is pointless Seeing Black people slaughtered, truly sadder than winter.” Starting out the MV with the South Vietnamese flag in the backdrop, Mixed Miyagi uses his biracial identity to bring the issue of racism and violence against black people to a side that would normally not be able to access the personal experiences of being Black in America. For someone who is “not truly Vietnamese yet neither truly black,” he embraces his unique identity and mixes his rap in both English and Vietnamese to express it.
47 years after the first Vietnamese-American communities settled into America as refugees, there has been an explosive boom of different expressions of art, literature, and music that capture pain, that capture sadness, that capture hope for a new world, and a new identity. In a community with diverse singers from multiple generations that include former South Vietnamese singers like Khánh Ly, Vietnamese who came as youth like Như Quỳnh and Khanh Nhỏ, and 2nd generation Vietnamese born and raised in the country their parents fled to, such as keshi, Mixed Miyagi, thuy, Thao Nguyen, and many more, we can truly see and appreciate how much our community has evolved and grown in so many different ways. This is the music of the diaspora - a genre built and developed independent of the culture it came from that continues to reverberate in the societies they originated from as well in the culture and homeland of their ancestors.
So when you hear your mom listening to the next Paris by Night song or decide to go to Head in the Clouds to see your favorite Vietnamese-American singer perform live, take this time of Black April to reflect on how the music of the diaspora has been formed, listen to more Vietnamese music that you may have overlooked, and take pride in the fact that you are part of a community that has embedded its stories and journeys deep into the heart of Vietnamese music.