Before I came to Vietnam, I tried to think of what I knew about Vietnamese traditional music, and I realised that I knew absolutely nothing. I could mostly guess that Vietnamese traditional music has a certain level of Chinese influences due to its history, but I didn’t want to assume. That’s just rude (although later I proved myself right.) Therefore, I went on Spotify and found some tracks and gave it a listen. I thought that Vietnamese traditional music sounded like a mix of Chinese and Indian music. Later I learned that Vietnam did have Hindu influences after I travelled through central Vietnam, but I’ll leave that for another post. I was intrigued and listened to the music for a while.
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Before arriving Hanoi
Exploring music around the world has been one of my agendas while travelling, so I went on Tripadvisor to see if there’s a place in Hanoi that regularly hosts traditional Vietnamese music performances. I found Thang Long Ca Tru Guild and was ready to visit the venue as soon as we arrive Hanoi. According to its Tripadvisor reviews, you can also try out the traditional Vietnamese instruments they use on stage. If you are as dorky as me when it comes to music, you’re probably already excited like I was.
However, little did I know, while seeing ethnic music performances have become rare in many countries unless you go to a specific venue today, in Hanoi, Vietnamese traditional music is alive at almost every corner we walked by. Our four days in Hanoi was so filled with music that my plan of visiting Thang Long Ca Tru Guild failed.
A musical weekend in Hanoi
We spent Friday through Monday in Hanoi, and the city was lively, especially on the weekend, which made it a perfect time to see a different side of the bustling city. Over the weekends, Hanoi blocks all the roads between Hoam Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter, which created excellent spots for street music performances and for locals to hang out.
Everyone could stroll comfortably within the area without worrying about the crazy traffic. People were skating, playing badminton, listen to music, or sitting in the middle of the road playing games.
We asked one of the staff at our hotel about music performances in Hanoi. He enthusiastically recommended the jazz show near the Hanoi Opera House. Although I always love a good jazz performance, it wasn’t what I was looking for. I asked him about Vietnamese traditional music, and he told us they play around the corner although he apparently had less passion for it. At first, I thought he was talking about the Ca Tru show I found on Tripadvisor. Later we figured out that the performance was literally on the street corner not too far away from our Hotel.
The corner of Ma May Street and Luong Ngoc Quyen
At the intersection of Ma May Street and Luong Ngoc Quyen in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, we saw different traditional music ensembles performing two nights in a row. At first, I thought we were just lucky to bump into a Vietnamese traditional music performance. Soon I realised that the shows happen every weekend, and it’s a part of the weekend evening entertainment for the locals. Locals who live in the neighbourhood would bring their children to see the shows. The organisation that organises the performances even provided free fans in front of the stage for the audiences to take. Since there are also many tourists hanging around in the Old Quarter in the evening, it’s a great way to promote Vietnamese traditional music.
Vietnamese traditional music & folk music
The two music performances we saw over the weekend in the Old Quarter were different in styles. The first one had a bigger ensemble. Besides the instrumentalists, it also included a singing narrator plus a few actors. I tried to appreciate the music, but unfortunately, 10 minutes was the maximum limit I could bear. I liked the ensemble playing, but I was just not a fan of this style of singing. Jim was relieved when I was ready to go. He obviously felt the same way, haha. I’ll let you be your own judge.
The other one was a three people band. The combo included a Vietnamese drum set, Trống (right), Sáo (bamboo flute, left,) đàn nguyệt (middle), and singing. Dàn nguyệt literally means “moon lute” due to its round shape, and it only has two strings. The lead singer sang one song after another non-stop. I suppose it was some popular tunes among the Vietnamese because all the locals seem to know when to clap. Also, almost all musicians who performed Vietnamese traditional music master at least two traditional instruments. I personally enjoyed this performance very much.
This man played both Sáo and đàn nguyệt very well. It was one of the best bamboo flute performances I’ve ever heard. Below is the ensemble performance.
Temple of Literature
The entrance fee was around 30,000VND as of 2017.
When we went to the Temple of Literature, we ran into an excellent Vietnamese traditional instrumental performance. The show happened in the last building towards the back of the complex. This time we got to hear traditional percussion instruments. The ensemble whipped out some traditional and familiar Asian folk tunes.
Tam thập lục, which literally means 36, is a Vietnamese hammered dulcimer that has 36 metal strings. It’s very similar to Yangqin, which is a Chinese hammered dulcimer. The type of instrument was originally from Persia (today’s Iran.) The far left is the T’rung, a traditional bamboo xylophone that’s used in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Traditional water puppet show
The last but not the least, I was happy that I didn’t miss the traditional water puppet show in Hanoi. The entrance fee to Thang Long Water Puppet Theater was only 100,000VND. There are several shows daily. The last one on the weekends is at 20h.
Water puppetry was originally from the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. Its history goes all the way back to the 11th century. Similar to the other Vietnamese traditional music performances, the Water Puppet Show also began with an instrumental introduction. The musicians were superb, The two singers joined the band as the narrators and provided sound effects. The one hour show has several sections. Each section tells a different story.
We were amazed by the mechanics behind the puppets and how smooth and how much theatric effects there was. We were even more surprised when we realised they control the puppets by standing in the water behind the screen.
The music was one of the best parts of the show! Even though we couldn’t understand the language, the music, sound effects, the puppetry made it easy to have a delightful experience. (And the puppets look pretty creepy if you look closely.)
The show is very popular among tourists that the audiences were mostly tourists, but the seats are tiny with not much leg room. I guess when Vietnamese built this theatre, they didn’t think big tall foreigners would want to see the show, too. 😛
Where did we stay?
We used Booking.com for all of our accommodations throughout our trip in Vietnam this round, and Hanoi Space Hotel was our first stay. Besides the hotel forgot to pick us up at the airport with the previously arranged service, the staff were super helpful and friendly.
The location is very convenient, which is right in the heart of Old Quarter. My favourite part was their breakfast. We got many choices and could order as much as we want. It was delicious, too! Jim and I are both coffee addicts. Some unlimited black coffee in the morning was the best. We would definitely like to stay there again when we return to Hanoi.
What do you think about Vietnamese traditional music? Which one was your favourite?
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Also published on Medium.