Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

‘Amateur’ Hour: the Musical Tradition of Vietnam

‘Amateur’ Hour: the Musical Tradition of Vietnam

By Maggie Gammons

Traditional Amateur MusiciansI’ve always loved the way folk music brings people together. It is an art form passed down through generations, amongst friends, and across cultures. Folk music is more than music alone—it includes costumes, language, dance, and stories. Best of all, folk music is for everyone, whether playing, singing, dancing, or just clapping along.

As a living artifact, folk music offers a unique window with which to view a culture. Vietnam’s traditional music is a beautiful example, and it embodies a colorful cross-section of the nation itself. Amatuer Singer 211It has been shaped by the same mixture of cultures that make up its population: a combination of Kinh (Vietnamese), Hoa (Chinese), Khmer (Cambodian), and Cham (Austronesian) peoples. These cultures merged to form the Vietnamese culture and its modern written language. In the 1800s, foreign influence came from the West, as the French occupied the country under colonial rule. With the French came new architecture, religion, and, of course, music.

All of these influences (and countless others) have shaped the traditional music that exists in Vietnam today. Since I arrived here a week ago, I have had the privilege of hearing two different types of music—Hó and Don Ca Tai Tu, or Southern ‘Amateur’ Music—which I would like to share about here.


Hó (pronounced “ha”) is a form of vocal music used to express love. It’s typically sung as a dialog between a man and a woman, alternating verses. The songs are short and simple, and are sung by elongating the last vowel in each line. Each province in the south has a different type of Hó which celebrates its natural beauty and unique culture. Here is a video of Can Tho’s Hó song, performed by a woman in a tea house in Ho Chi Minh City:

Tea Ceremony

Tea Ceremony Set-up 932

Đờn ca Tài tử (Southern ‘Amateur’ Music)

I feel the need to put the word ‘amateur’ in quotation marks, because the skill displayed in this type of music is anything but novice.

Amatuer Musican playing instrument 203Đờn ca Tài tử is an instrumental tradition which typically features a singer and four instruments: Dan Co (two-stringed fiddle), Dan Kim (two-stringed lute), Dan Bau (one-string zither), Dan Guitar Phim Lom (concave-fret guitar). Like Hó, ‘Amateur’ Music was intended to reflect the lifestyle of the musicians and fit in with their daily activities. 2-stringed zither 206This type of music can be performed in either formal or informal settings, and either after work or during work. It is enjoyed by many today, and in 2014, UNESCO recognized Don Ca Tai Tu as an intangible cultural heritage of Vietnam.

Curved Guitar Frets

Curved frets on Dan Guitar Phim Lom

To begin each song, the musicians take a moment to tune and warm up together. When the song begins, the players follow the beat kept on a foot percussion instrument. Once the melody has been stated, the musicians begin to improvise and embellish the song, adding their own emotions and ideas. If there is a singer, he or she will use expressive movements and facial expressions to tell a story. Here is a video of the Amateur Music we saw in Can Tho:

Alisha Instrument 214These are just two examples of the lively traditional music of Vietnam. There is so much to love and learn about, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. I can’t wait to spend the rest of my time here with my ears wide open, listening to Vietnam’s culture through the songs of its past.


2 responses

  1. Beautiful writing on 2 major cultural Vietnamese heritages! 1) Spelling correction is urgently, needed: hò is left-to-right accent mark – lowering the neutral sound of ho as opposed to your incorrect spelling of hó (pronounced “ha”), which raises it. Hó does not exist in Vietnamese vocabularies. 2) The features “southern hò” is under 500 years old (coincided with the massive people migration and Mekong Delta settlements) and greatly differed from the hò trung bộ/central hò and hò bắc bộ/northern hò. In fact, within each region there are even uniquely different versions of hò. 3) Đờn ca Tài tử is even more recent (late 1800’s, early 1900’s), rooted from the Huế’s Royal Music – gradually, simplified to 4 instruments (1-string was replaced by the guitar) to suit the life style of small stages, family gatherings… Most significantly, đờn ca tài tử was expanded, improved, modified, formalized into cải lương or the modern Vietnamese folk opera.

    January 7, 2018 at 4:23 am

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