At the weekend, some streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter are full of the sights and sounds of folk performances, attracting large crowds of visitors. These street shows contribute to promoting Vietnam’s traditional culture.
“General Hoang Muoi, the protector of Nghe An province, is sent to Thien Ban district to serve as a mandarin…”
These are some of the lyrics from a chau van or song used to invoke spirit during shamanic rituals. The melody has become familiar to residents and tourists of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. They stand in the corner of a narrow street which is free from vehicles at night over the weekend and enjoy Vietnamese folk performances by both professional artists and amateurs.
Chau van, a musical genre with a small audience, usually older people, becomes impressive when it is performed in the street. Folk artist Nguyen Thi Dieu Hong told VOV that there are also young spectators at her shows: “I think the trance dance is sacred and loved not only by the elderly but also by the young, including those born in the 1990s.
On a small outdoor stage, artists, either sitting or standing, are playing dan bau, monochord, or dan nhi, a two chord fiddle, to accompany the songs themselves. Xam is a type of folk music from northern Vietnam and was previously performed by blind artists who wandered from town to town and earned their living by singing in common areas. Enjoying songs like Xam Anh Khoa, Xam in the tram, and Xam Thap An, the audience is reminded of life in Hanoi in the early 20th century. Cao Thi Thu Ha is a spectator: “These lively and authentic sounds are produced by traditional Vietnamese instruments. Listening live, I have completely different feelings”.
The performances of traditional music in Hanoi’s Old Quarter were originally the idea of folk music lovers and were for non-profit purposes. They have received an enthusiastic response over time. In 2015, the band Old Music of the Eastern Capital collaborated with the management board of Hanoi’s Old Quarter to organize a program called “The story of the old quarter’s music” to promote the capital city’s best oldies. Renowned artists were invited such as top players of the Vietnamese two chord guitar, People’s Artist Xuan Hoach and Emeritus Artist Dang Cong Hung, and cheo singer Thanh Hoai. Performers sit on a sedge mat, play instruments and sing without a microphone. This kind of stage enables artists to express the best of folk music. Dang Xuan Khue, a lover of music and Hanoi, said: “Enjoying the People’s Artists’ performances, we feel the souls of songs and their lyrics”.
If music expresses human feeling through sounds, folk music expresses the soul, culture and intellect of a nation. These melodies are more passionate when performed in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a city with more than a thousand years of history. A tour of Hanoi is not complete, if you miss a folk music street performance.