A postcard from Hanoi – Songlines

Songline commissioned a piece looking at traditional music in Hanoi and the instrument makers.

Songlines – Postcard from Hanoi

Dawn around Hoan Kiem Lake and the sun filters through the smog lighting up Ngoc Son Temple, at the northern end of Hanoi’s heart, in a warm orange. In the quiet, Hanoians restfully practise Tai Chi in front of the glimmering lake. Tied to a tree, on the same piece of string as a barber’s mirror, is an old radio squeezing out a tune. Through the crackles, long gone male and female voices take turns to declare their love in a northern quan h folk song. It is an interpretation of the oldest musical tradition in Vietnam that dates back to spring festivals in the 13th century.

As the barber cuts the young man’s hair in silence, they listen to the ancient lore before the onslaught of modernity revves up around them. By 6am, hundreds of mopeds speed around the lake, and won’t stop until 11pm when a government curfew comes into effect. The noise from the horns and engines gradually drowns out the atmospheric melody plucked out on a one-string Dan Bau. The magic lost for another day, I hail a moped taxi, or rather the rider hails me (‘moto, moto’ they shout incessantly), and I jump on the back for a frankly terrifying ride through the city, which in 2010 will celebrate 1,000 years since its foundation.

Bouncing through the narrow streets with seemingly unfinished brick buildings towering either side, it is hard to imagine Hanoi a millennium ago. Since being founded in Ly Thai To, the Vietnam governed from Hanoi, has been in constant conflict with the Chinese, Mongols, French and the US. The violence has left its mark on the physical Hanoi, but as I find out, its cultural heritage is stronger than ever.

The moped weaves through increasingly narrow alleys, before jerking to a fumy halt outside a three-storey house. I have come to Thanh Cam musical workshop to meet Do Viet Dung and his father Do Van Thuoc. Instruments, that this workshop has become world famous for, hang from the walls: the dan ty ba, a four-string pear shaped lute played with a plectrum, and a moon-shaped lute called dan nguyet; both part of the traditional Vietnamese eight-piece orchestra. However, it is the 16-stringed zither called Dan Tranh and, in particular, the one-stringed haunting dan bau which characterises Vietnamese music, the latter upholding a claim to be endemic to the country, and instantly recognisable with its almost Theremin-like sound. It is also Thanh Cam’s speciality. “There are 54 minorities in Vietnam,” Do Viet Dung says as he greets me. “And each have a special instruments. Many instruments have roots in China, Korea, Japan, Iraq and Iran, it’s cross cultural. But there’s a unique interpretation in Vietnam.”

As we wander the labyrinthian floors of the workshop, workers crouch over half-made dan baus, gently hammering mother of pearl inlay or sanding the soft wood from the wootung tree. Most are being built for professional musicians in the Hanoi Conservatory of Music. “The popularity of traditional Vietnamese music has been up and down, but since the 1990s, when Vietnam opened up the country, the government has paid more attention to traditional music, and the number of students of classical Vietnamese is higher than ever.”

Ca trù style is enjoying a particular renaissance. “Ca trù is one of the most difficult types of folk music to play because of its intensity,” Dung says. “It used to be played in brothels, so the government used to try and ban it for its associations with prostitutes, but in the 1990s they realised there were only a few people left to play it in the world, so they supported it.”

The renewed interest has also seen artists such as the Khac Chi Ensemble and Huong Thanh touring festivals with their interpretations of ancient songs. Other artists, such as Kim Sinh, have even longer standing respect popping up on CD compilations of music from the country. I bid good bye to the plink plunk of instruments being tested and hop back on a moped.

As Hanoi hurls face first into its second millennium, I remember what Do Viet Dung told me: “1,000 years of Chinese trying to control Vietnam, could not make Vietnam become China. The Vietnamese are very difficult people to change.”