Music is an important cultural component for any society, and Vietnam is no exception. The history of Vietnamese music is a long and refined one, with influences from both East and West depending on the geopolitical nuances of the time. From Chinese traditional music to American-style pop, musical diversity is one of the country’s most interesting cultural elements.
With over 54 ethnic minorities, Vietnam has long been home to a diverse music scene. Classical Vietnamese music, which traditionally comes from the north, can be traced back to the Mongol invasions when the Vietnamese captured a Chinese opera troupe. Central Vietnam, once the stronghold of the Cham Empire, is known for its melancholy melodies. The south of the country, which has only been Vietnamese for a few centuries, does not have a distinct musical heritage, but rather an eclectic one.
Vietnam has 50 national music instruments, but percussion is the star. Some of these have lasted millennia such as the đàn đáy, đàn tranh, đàn nhị and đàn bầu. Sets of pipes and wind instruments are also popular pieces that have transcended time. Like in many other societies, while the Vietnamese upper-crust was listening to “classical” music in their imperial courts, the general population was creating and performing a variety of folk music which even today is of great cultural importance. It’s not uncommon to hear your neighbors singing and playing folk songs on guitar through the night.
Though much of Vietnam’s music has been decidedly Eastern in nature, French occupation of the country, which began in the 19th century, forced new cultural norms upon its urban populations. But while French culture heavily influenced architecture, food and politics, it wasn’t until the American occupation that western influences seeped into music. Taking off in the late 1960s, a number of young Vietnamese artists began to emulate popular American music. If not for the difference in language, one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the imitation and the original. As in the US, this era is referred to as the “Golden Age” of music. However, with the fall of Saigon and the unification of Vietnam, many Western influences were torn down, and music was no exception. Many of the famous pop musicians fled for the US and Europe and have only recently been allowed to perform in their homeland.
Today, the emulation continues in full force. As goods and ideas flooded into Vietnam with the reforms of the mid-nineties, so did the music of Korea, Japan, and the West. These are the primary influences of Vietnamese pop music today as artists strive to become the Vietnamese Rihanna or Jay-Z.
While it may seem that the Vietnamese are constantly re-defining their musical preferences, traditional folk music is still extremely popular, especially among the older generations. The average Vietnamese doesn’t listen to the old imperial music anymore, and Vietnamese Idol is now one of the country’s most popular TV programs, promoting imported styles and the growth of local stars. However, the old style of music is still preserved and is a popular tourist attraction in all corners of the country.