Learning Vietnamese Culture Through Soundbites

The return to Vietnamese culture and literature for inspiration in contemporary music videos in Vietnam is still a growing trend.

So far this year, Hoàng Thùy Linh, Hòa Minzy and Chi Pu have released their latest songs, all of which adopted a historical setting in Vietnam. Chi Pu’s Cung Đàn Vỡ Đôi (Broken Melodies) features the golden age of cải lương, a dying traditional performance art in the South, while Hòa Minzy’s Không Thể Cùng Nhau Suốt Kiếp (A Lifetime Apart) is a snapshot of Empress Nam Phương’s tragic life. On the other hand, Hoàng Thùy Linh’s Kẻ Cắp Gặp Bà Già (Diamond Cuts Diamond) brings to life Hàng Trống’s paintings, a genre of paintings made from woodblocks originated in Hàng Trống, Hà Nội.

As always, high risk will lead to high returns. And this could be the calculated risk Vietnamese artists have to take to thrive on the international stage.

Hàng Trống’s paintings in Hoàng Thùy Linh’s video, Kẻ Cắp Gặp Bà Già (Diamond Cuts Diamond).

While the idea is not new, these videos continue to breathe fresh air into the Vietnamese music industry, which has undergone many eras heavily influenced by the US, China and Korea. Musical arrangement and vocal appeal aside, what stands out is the amount of preparation and investment that goes into each video, with attention to every minute detail, including storyline, costume and scenery.

“I think this is a very interesting trend. At least it shows that the young generation is aware of the need to connect to their heritage. Each race in Vietnam is a culturally rich mountain. You should learn how to conquer it,” music composer Nguyễn Cường said.

Hoa Minzy’s latest hit took viewers back to Vietnam under the reign of Bảo Đại and followed Empress Nam Phương as she embarked on the royal life. In addition to the carefully selected props and scenic background, it also offers a brief look at the evolution of Vietnamese women’s clothing throughout history, from elaborate golden gowns with phoenix patterns, vintage Western dresses to earlier variation of áo dài. These have sparked various discussions and explanations in the comment section, piquing interests from viewers, the majority of whom are probably still in their 20s.

A YouTube viewer explains the historical context for the video.

Amid the crowded entertainment playfield, Hoàng Thùy Linh has made a name for herself since “Bánh trôi nước” (Vietnames rice cakes) was released in 2016. Not only has she featured Vietnamese folklore and characters from classic novels in her videos, but she also blends sounds from ethnic musical instruments into her songs. These modern reconstructions of traditions and history makes learning fun and accessible to Vietnamese youth. Notably, with English subtitles, these videos branch out to an international audience, who are captivated by the richness of Vietnamese culture. The comment section, again, is a gem, where one catches a Vietnamese explaining the meaning behind the song to someone across the world.

A YouTube viewer explains Bánh Trôi Nước’s meaning.

How long are these trends going to last? Will Vietnamese media consumers ever get tired of listening to slow ballad songs with Chí Phèo in the background? How else can the artists explore the source material while remaining relevant and contemporary to the audience?

Trương Ngọc Minh, President of of Hanoi Music Association, appeared optimistic: “Young artists in recent years barely scratched the surface of Vietnam’s precious cultural capital. Turning sedimentary into diamonds requires talent. They have to extract the essence of Vietnamese culture and combine it with best of the global communities to create their own voice.”

Nguyễn Cường thinks this is a brave but adventurous move, as it requires a lot of deep understanding to accurately depict history. There is a fine line between tasteful interpretation and misappropriation that leads to reputation damage and controversies. As always, high risk will lead to high returns. And this could be the calculated risk Vietnamese artists have to take to thrive on the international stage.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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