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Quan Họ Singing in Ritual-festivals
in Bắc Ninh Region (Vietnam)
Lê Ngọc Chân
Every year when Tết returns and the northern wind casts a gentle chill over the Red
River Delta in the northern lowland, villages surrounding the capital city of Hà Nội once
again enter the season of festivals and rituals. These activities had either been subdued
or dormant following the August Revolution in 1945 until 1987, when the government
officially implemented the open-door policy. Riding the wave of revivalism, ritual festivals
have noticeably sprung up in northern delta villages, providing fertile ground for pre-
revolutionary forms of musical practices to thrive again.
During these months of festivals, performances of hát chầu văn (medium-trance music),
ca quan họ (quan họ singing), chèo (traditional popular theater), tuồng (traditional
symbolic theater), and múa rối nước (water puppetry) take place throughout the region,
not primarily as professional activities sponsored by the government, but as popular
non-professional events supported by the local village’s administration or individuals. Hát
chầu văn, for instance, is usually commissioned by individuals or particular temples’
keepers for a variety of reasons, which often combine personal appeals for health and
fortune with memorial services to the residing goddesses, princes, or princesses. Chèo is
appearing again as a troubadour tradition performed by small groups that go from
village to village. Tuồng and múa rối nước usually take place only at villages where local
talents are available and their performances have traditionally been part of the annual
festivals. While the four aforementioned musical genres exist in many regions in the
northern delta, ca quan họ belongs to the province of Bắc Ninh exclusively.
The Festival Season in the Bắc Ninh Region
Bắc Ninh is said to be one of the oldest regions of the Việt (Vietnamese) civilization.
During the Đông Sơn era (c. 2500-2000 BCE), the Lạc Việt tribes 1 (of the Mường ethnic
group) inhabited the Bắc Ninh area, which was then known as Bô Vũ Ninh (Vũ Ninh
district). The Vũ Ninh district was one of the fifteen districts of the Văn Lang state ruled
by the legendary (Vietnamese) Hùng Kings (Đào Duy Anh 1994:20-30). By 300 BCE, the
Lạc Việt tribes had merged with several powerful Tây Âu tribes of the Tày ethnic group
to the north to form the Âu Lạc state (Tây Âu and Lạc Việt combined), ruled by King An
Dương Vương, a Tây Âu (Tày) descendant of Sichuan rulers (China), who migrated
southward around 316 BCE when the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang Ti control invaded
and took over their territory (ibid.). Since then, the Bắc Ninh area has been the home for
this group of mixed Tày-Mường people, who have continued to prosper in the area until
today (Lê Hồng Dương 1982:146). An inscription at the Ngọc Sơn Temple (Hà Nội)
describes the region of Bắc Ninh as the channel to the water and the mountain; that’s
the aura of marvelous regions (DuPicq 1935:261). Its aura is represented both in the hill
and river sites, and in the wealth of legends and myths, which bear a strong Taoist
overtone. The whole area is permeated by a complex system of rivers, which run across
the region from east to west and north to south.
The regional name Bắc Ninh has indicated different land entities through time.
Historically, Bắc Ninh included the Bắc Giang mountainous region and the Bắc Ninh delta.
It is also the contact area between the Viêt people and the highland minorities, such as
Tày, Nùng, Yao, Sán Dìu, etc. (Lê Hồng Dương 1982:145-46). The term Bắc Ninh had
been used to cover both Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang until 10/10/1895, when the French
government divided Bắc Ninh into two separate provinces: Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang
(ibid.:36).2 After Vietnam fully reclaimed independence from France in 1954, the term
Hà Bắc was used between 1963 and 1997 to include both provinces (ibid.:135). Now the
region is split into Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang again for economic and administrative
reasons; the cultural and historical tie between the two provinces remain nevertheless.
Most quan họ singing activities, which occur these days, are found in what is now the
Bắc Ninh Province (Trần Linh Quý 1972).
As in other northern lowland regions, cultural aspects of Bắc Ninh are usually linked with
the seasonal calendar of the area’s economy. Until recently, Bắc Ninh’s economy has
fundamentally evolved around agricultural activity, supplemented by a variety of
handicraft industries and small businesses. This agricultural mode of production still
influences major communal cultural events, such as rituals and festivals. While a small
number of festivals take place during the seventh and eighth months of the lunar
calendar, called hội thu (Autumn Festivals),3 most rituals and festivals take place during
the first three months of the lunar calendar, called hội xuân (Spring Festivals)
celebrating Tết (the Vietnamese New Year) and the end of vụ cấy chiêm (the first rice-
planting season). In the past, these three months of village festivals were time for Tết
celebration, leisure, gambling, gathering, and strolling from festival to festival, as
described in the following well-known couplet of popular chant (ca dao):
Tháng Giêng ăn Tết ở nhà
Tháng Hai cờ bạc, tháng Ba hội hè.
We celebrate Tết at home throughout the first month
The second month, we gamble, and the third, we participate in the village festivals.
The Spring festivals, in fact, start as early as the fourth day of first lunar month,4 and
last through the third month.
Functions of Festivals
The Vietnamese refer to these ritual festivals as hội hè đình đám (Toan Ánh 1969, and
Toan Ánh 1974), which, as a composite term, contains four linguistic components that
demonstrate a Chinese-Vietnamese combination:
hội – from Chinese origin, meaning « club, » « affiliated social group, » or « to meet »
hè – from vernacular Vietnamese (chữ Nôm), meaning « together »
đình – from Chinese origin, meaning « communal-ritual house »
đám – from vernacular Vietnamese, meaning « crowd, » or « family or public ritual event. »
As an idiom, hội hè đình đám refers to the village’s gathering events either at the
communal-ritual house (đình) or Buddhist temple (chùa), where villagers carry out
traditional rites and ceremonies as well as celebrate their economic success by sharing
feasts, games, and music performances.
Until 1945, these gatherings had many cultural, social, and economic functions as
described by Toan Ánh (ibid.):
1) taking advantage of the long leisure periods between harvests to provide pleasure,
entertainment, and opportunities, particularly for single men and women, boys and girls,
to meet, to become intimate, to flirt with each other, and to express their most intimate
sentiment under the social sanction of invented ritual customs, games, and poetic-
2) paying gratitude or showing respect toward the guardian spirits of the village, and
reinforcing the importance of lễ nghi (ritual norms);
3) enhancing village solidarity by promoting understanding between village authorities or
notables and villagers; this strengthening of village solidarity was further necessitated by
the stratification of land owning that resulted in latent contradictions among the small
and middle landowners who made up the majority of the village population;5
4) sharing foods, particularly meat which was considered a rarity among poor villagers,
whose daily meals consisted primarily of vegetables and very rarely of seafood; in order
to give this custom spiritual weight, villagers reminded each other that » một miếng giữa
làng bằng một sàng xó bếp » (a small bite from the village feast is as significant as a big
basket [of food] in the kitchen), for this share had been part of the offering to the spirits;
5) giving the residents of the host village an opportunity to demonstrate their hospitality,
and to « show off » their economic affluence and cultural riches; and
6) promoting and consolidating bonds among sister villages (see below) that share
certain particularities concerning their history, geography, economy, or culture.
Some functions have remained while others have disappeared, or at least ceased to be
as meaningful as they used to be. To a large extent, the fifty years of socialist
restructuring as well as the recent opening to a market economy have played a vital role
in bringing about those changes of function. As a whole, the festival period has been
shortened considerably for a number of reasons. The government has repeatedly
cautioned people not to be carried away with pleasure and forget all about work while
also calling for them to be economical. The market economy has stimulated among
young and middle-aged individuals a stronger interest in improving their family income
after a long period of wars and economic collectivization. Thus putting aside months to
prepare and celebrate spring festivals has become less appealing to them, especially in
villages, such as Thị Cầuor Lim, where the economy is no longer confined to farming, but
involves lots of buying and selling. Schooling, considered a precious privilege of a few
village children before 1945, has become mandatory for all. Not having the same leisure
period as some of their peasant parents do, children, teenagers, and college students
today are required to be in school as soon as the first week of Tết is over, as most city
students are. Furthermore, many Bắc Ninh residents are now working in factories and
offices, which may require their employees to go back to work as early as the fourth day
of first lunar month.
Festivals in Bắc Ninh nowadays include two rather distinct activities: lễ (the village ritual)
and hội (the village fair). The ritual events usually occur at the opening and closing of
the festival, whereas the fair goes on from the beginning to the end of the festival. The
central authorities always feel uneasy about the ritual part, as they continue to view
traditional festivals, weddings, and funerals, as fertile ground for hủ tục (backward
customs) to reemerge and proliferate (Văn Kiên 1998:46). Even as reluctant as the
government may be, it allows villagers to carry out their ceremony under certain
restrictions. For example, a festival committee, which is composed of cultural officials,
who are also hardcore members of the communist party, must strictly supervise the
whole event. Official codes concerning festival organization and participation are on
display practically at every festival to remind villagers and visitors that these ritual
festivals are organized for the entertainment of the people and should not be taken
advantage of to promote superstition or to be wasteful.
However, the ritual part continues to be the traditional way for villagers to demonstrate
their respectful sentiment towards the village’s guardian spirits, which remains strong
among elders. For example, keepers, who are in charge of maintaining ritual services at
the communal-ritual houses and temples, think it is disrespectful to enquire about the
names of the guardian spirits.
As lay people, we shouldn’t ask about their names. Just acknowledge that these spirits
are here to protect us and it is our duty to worship them. Moreover, asking for their
names is the business of those cultural officials, we don’t need to do that (personal
communication, Keeper of Lim, 02/1999).
Young people, however, thinking of the communal-ritual house as a « serious » place for
elders to perform their duty to the spirits, tend to browse in the fairground or gather
around the Buddhist temple area. The « dating » or courtship function of old-time festivals
has become less necessary as young people can easily make acquaintance and get to
know each other better within their school or working environment.
Villagers of the host village consider it to be an honor and good fortune to have visitors
who share with them at least a simple meal in their house. A guest invited by the festival
committee often eats at the festival site, in the multipurpose room next to the ritual-
communal house. The food usually includes bánh chưng(hard-pressed sticky rice cake
filled with green bean and pork), pickled leeks and mustard green, boiled chicken
sprinkled with lime leaves, and some soup made with bean thread, cauliflower, fungus,
mushroom. Fish sauce and rice are basic food items for every meal. Other daily food in
the countryside, such as rau muống (the closest American vegetable, yet distinctly
different from rau muống, is spinach), tofu, and small pickled eggplants called cà pháo
(« firecracker eggplant ») are rarely served during these special occasions. Toasts are
proposed periodically during the meal. Both men and women drink rice liquor, which can
be made easily at home using local or Chinese fermentation powder. Soft drinks such as
Cokes and Seven-ups, as well as bottled water, are common these days. Other drinks
include local beer and occasionally grape wines or liquors made in other regions. The
meal is wrapped up with fruits such as bananas and oranges, and fully completed with a
cup of strong tea.
For the majority of general public, village ritual-festivals create a time-space for people
to hang out, have some fun, spend a little money on toys and crafts as they enjoy a
variety of entertainment events, and above all to feature activities that are uniquely
their own. For example, the 1999 Đọ Festival featured a rice-cooking contest, which
lasted for more than three hours and was extremely well attended. Approximately ten
pairs of female participants wearing áo tứ thân (traditional costume for rural women)
walked around the courtyard as they cooked the rice. One person was carrying the đòn
gánh (bamboo pole) with a rice pot on one end while the other person was keeping the
fire going underneath the pot using hay as fuel to burn. Coordination, endurance, and
steadiness played an important role in this game. A man was improvising on the barrel
drum to keep the excitement going while the people in the audience enthusiastically
voiced their support for their favorites as well as personal commentaries about the other
contestants. Quan họ singing took place between 7:30 and 12:30 past midnight on the
night before the main day. Vendors lined up outside the communal-ritual house selling
all sorts of items from foods, such as dried fish and grilled corn, to necklaces, bracelets,
earrings, and toys.
Festivals are also occasions for traveling craftsmen to sell their products. Two craftsmen
from Hà Tây (west and southwest of Hà Nội) come to Bắc Ninh every year during the
festival season to sell their colorful figures made of bột nếp(smashed sticky rice). The
figures are either sacred animals or historical heroes and heroines, which are about
three inches long by two inches wide. It takes approximately six months to learn the
craft, which is called tò he by locals. A dragon costs about 4000 Vietnamese đồng
(US$.33), and a phoenix about 3000 Vietnamese đồng (about $.25).
It is also believed that ritual-festivals have always been the occasions for sister villages
to further strengthen their traditional bond as they carry out the annual procession to
worship their common or related guardian spirit(s), or perform their annual oath-taking
ceremony. Villages formed their mutual bonds at various times in history and often
worship the same guardian spirit(s). Ném Đông and Ném Đoài villages were ruled in the
tenth century by the same warlord, Nguyễn Thủ Tiệp, and their people have since
considered each other as members of the same family (Lê Thị Chung 1998:309-11).
Similarly, the villagers of Hòa Đình (central district), Đông Yên (Yên Phong district), and
Niềm Xá (central district) established their bond when the king remunerated the court
general Lê Phụng Hiểu with land acres for his effort in defeating the Cham to the south
in 1044 (ibid.). Bò and Nưa villagers, who worship the five brothers who helped save the
country from frequent raids of brigands, have been honoring their mutual bond for more
than two thousand years (Lê Anh 1998:295-6). Traditionally, residents from bonded
villages, as a rule, did not marry each other; for they considered themselves to be
sisters and brothers from the same village « family. » This strict practice of non-marriage
is only observed nowadays among very few villages, such as Bò and Nưa (Bắc Ninh
central district), or Diềm(Yên Phong district) and Bịu (Tiên Sơn district).
In the past, bonded villages often helped one another to overcome economic hardship,
or sent delegates to the village that was « conducting a local affair, » such as a wedding,
funeral, ritual, and celebration. The bond between Lũng Giang (an upstream village) and
Bịu Giữa (a downstream village) helped control the water flow to prevent drought and
facilitate water-logging for Bịu Giữa (Tô Lan 1993:292-314). Once, when Tam Tảo village
was about to have a food shortage as a result of crop failure, the people of Xuân Dục
village, which is Tam Tảo’s sister village, discreetly dumped tons of potatoes and yams in
the Tam Tảo fields in the night (ibid.).
Under the socialist administration, most village bonds in Bắc Ninh today are considered
to be symbolic and historical. However, village affiliation continues to be observed on
ritual festival days, when quan họ singers of the historically bonded villages have never
failed to get together to exchange a good number of songs. For example, the quan họ
singing in the 1999 Sẻ Festival was carried out between the Bò women and the Bái Uyên
women, while the Sẻ singers were acting primarily as hostesses. In another festival,
singers and instrumentalists from Niềm and Yên villages joined the singers of their
sister-village, Nhồi, to celebrate their annual ritual-festival day.
Situated about 30 kilometers northwest of Hà Nội, Bắc Ninh is accessible by trains, buses,
as well as two-wheeled vehicles. Out-of-town visitors often arrive on their motor vehicles,
or in small buses or vans if they come as a large group. Local people usually walk to
festivals in groups of five or more. Turning away from the noisy National Highway 1, the
main artery that runs from the southern tip of Mekong Delta to the northern border
between Vietnam and China in Lạng Sơn and through the quan họ villages of Bắc Ninh
for about 20km (See Map), festival goers follow paved paths or dirt trails towards the
centers of villages where most festivals take place. The Lim village is an exception: its
communal-ritual house is located next to Highway 1.
All festivals take place in the village space of đình-đền-chùa, which is a complex of
communal-ritual house, (residing) temple of guardian spirits, and Buddhist temple. It is
common nowadays to find a concrete administrative house either next to the communal-
ritual house or in the middle of the đình-đền-chùa complex.
The Communal-Ritual House: đình
The communal-ritual house (đình) has had its ups and downs throughout the history of
North Vietnam, but particularly since the complete establishment of the feudal Vietnam
by the Lý dynasty in the eleventh century, it has remained significant as the public
symbol of a village.6 The communal house was also an indication of a village’s economic
It was built by villagers once the settlement was approved and given a name by the king,
who then « appointed a guardian spirit or spirits to watch over the village and bring it
peace and prosperity […] and in effect, it is a symbolic bond between the village and the
emperor » (Hickey 1964:6). In the course of history, these guardian spirits not only
included mythical or legendary figures, but also many historical heroes and heroines who
were associated with the villages. The king himself could promote these guardian spirits
to a higher rank based on the recommendation of the village’s officials. Currently, all
villages worship male guardian spirits. In the past, some villages worshipped female
spirits, who were eventually asked to step down so that male spirits could take over, as
in the Sặt village in the Tiên Sơndistrict and the Diềm village in the Yên Phong district
(Ngô Hữu Thi 1997:66). As a rule, this transfer of spiritual authority was prophesied via
a medium or through a dream.
The Temple of Spirits: đền
If the communal-ritual house is a place for the guardian spirit(s) to preside over village
events, the temple of spirits functions as their residence when there are no rituals. In
addition, villagers put up one or more temples of spirits to worship spirits other than the
main ones. A temple of spirits is considerably smaller than a communal-ritual house,
although the general layouts of the two structures are quite similar. The opening
procession normally begins at the temple of spirits and proceeds towards the communal-
ritual house. At the end of the festival-ritual period, the spirits’ figures are carried back
to the temple.
In Diềm village, the relationship between đình and đềnis a little more complicated.
Currently, the temple houses Vua Bà(« lady king »), considered to be the Supreme Being
as well as the creator of quan họ singing in the Diềm village. The đình keeper said Vua
Bà had been permanently removed from the đình at the order of the King to leave the
shrine for the two legendary brothers Trương Hống and Trương Hát, who have since
become the official guardian spirits of the village (personal communication, the đình
Keeper in Diềm village, 03/20/1999). As a result, the Vua Bà has no place to « work »
whereas the Trương Brothers have no place to « sleep. » The Temple of Vua Bà becomes
increasingly significant as the annual ritual involving quan họ singing continues to take
place in front of Vua Bà’s altar (see below).
The Buddhist Temple: chùa
Festival processions in several villages include visits to the main Buddhist temples, called
chùa, where the spirits pay tribute to Buddha and listen to Buddhist sutras. Visitors,
women and young people in particular, always offer incense and donations at the
Buddhist temple during the festival. Each village has only one communal-ritual house,
but several Buddhist temples.
In contrast to đình, which is visible and easily accessible by villagers from different
village sections, chùais secluded and often on higher ground, if not overshadowed by
đình, as in the Đọ complex of đình-đền-chùa. Women usually gather in Buddhist temples
while men frequent the communal-ritual house. Yet, major Buddhist temples continue to
serve as landmarks for locals as a result of the long-standing Buddhist tradition in the
Many Buddhist temples have altars in the back or side chamber for the worship of the
four goddesses: heaven, earth, mountain-forest, and water. Temples in the northern
delta also have altars for the worship of tứ pháp(« four dharmas ») represented by four
goddesses. These altars are concrete vestiges of an early form of religious practice
embedded in agricultural societies, in which « clouds, rain, thunder, lightning » were
thought of as powerful female spirits (Hà Văn Tấn 1993). The Dâu complex in Thuận
Thành (Bắc Ninh), which was built in the second or third century and comprised perhaps
the first major Buddhist establishment in Vietnam, includes four temples, called Dâu,
Đậu, Tướng, Dàntemples, representing those four forces of nature.
The architectural layout of Dâutemple (or The Temple of Cloud, Figure 2.7), which is the
main site of the Dâu complex, strongly suggests the image of linga and yoni, with a tall
tower at the center squarely surrounded by closed corridors and lined chambers. Owing
to its visible advantage, the tower has been a landmark for Buddhist pilgrims from all
over the region:
Dù ai buôn đâu, bán đâu
Hễ trông thấy tháp chùa Dâu thì về
(Thanh Hương and Phương Anh 1973:15)
Wherever you are, selling and buying
Just follow the sight of the Dâu tower to return.
Both đình and chùaplay host to all village events, although major events and activities as
a rule take place in the communal-ritual house or open courtyard, as if they had to be
witnessed, endorsed, and blessed by the guardian spirits. Until 1945, villagers performed
a number of ritual customs, which were even considered ‘backward’ and ‘decadent’ by
the Court, to please the guardian spirits in return for village harmony and prosperity.
Many of these customs encouraged emotional and sexual freedom during the festival
period. The public defiance in the name of village customs against social restrictions
demonstrated on the one hand a certain degree of village autonomy from the national
court, while framing a context for emotional outbreak within the ritual sanction created
by village authorities on the other. The customs ranged from courtship singing, such as
ca quan họ and hát ví, to erotic games and ritual-performances, such as đánh đu
(« swinging »), bắt chạch trong chum(« catching eels in a basin »), tắt đèn(« lights off »), rước
sinh thực khí(« carrying procreative symbols »), and chen(« hustling »). Except for quan họ
singing and swinging games, other games, deemed to be immoral, have disappeared
since 1945, if not earlier.
One of the most popular games among youngsters is đánh đu (« swinging, » Fig. 2.8). A
set of swings made of thick and tall bamboo is erected in most major festivals,
particularly those that include the quan họ singing. Hồ Xuân Hương (late 18th century-
early 19th century), a prominent poet known for the sexual puns and literary vulgarity
which are present in all her works, displays her literary skills by playing with words and
double meanings to graphically suggest sexual intercourse in her poetic depiction of the
Bốn cột khen ai khéo khéo trồng,
Người thời lên dánh kẻ ngồi trông.
Trai co gối hạc, khom khom cật,
Gái uốn lưng ong, ngửa ngửa lòng.
Bốn mảnh quần hồng bay phấp phới,
Hai hàng chân ngọc ruỗi song song.
Chơi Xuân đã biết Xuân chăng tá,
Cọc nhổ đi rồi, lỗ bỏ không!
What a clever erection of the four bamboo poles
Some get on to swing while others sit and watch
Boys bend their knees and lower their body
Girls twist their back like a bee, and belly up
Freely flap the four sleeves
As clear as pearl, the two legs straighten next to one another
Who really knows how to play in Spring Festivals?
Poles are dug up leaving empty holes!7
Hồ Xuân Hương’s satirical and pornographic poem using the elite poetic form of the time
(the Đường luật or poetic rules of the Chinese Tang dynasty) is an indication of a
complex society in which women were second-class citizens, respectable men such as
officials and clerics could be perverts as well, and perhaps most important of all, her
poems turned up as vestiges of a society in which lingalism had been transformed into
widespread literary practice (Phạm Thế Ngũ 1961). Sexual puns also abound in the most
common oral tradition of Vietnamese literature called ca dao (popular chant). I will
discuss the form and one particular genre of ca dao later in the dissertation when I
examine the text of quan họ songs.
Along with a number of traditional, popular games that continue to be part of a village
festival, such as « human » chess, cock fighting, and wrestling among others, new games
have been introduced, including badminton, ping-pong (table tennis), and illegal
The quan họ Singing Tradition
For the Bắc Ninh people, festivals not only allow them to highlight their own village’s
specialties, such as ceramics, folk painting, wrestling, kite parades, or bird contest,
among a great many other things, but also their common prized heritage, the quan họ
Ca quan họ, also called quan họ Bắc Ninhsinging, is an antiphonal singing tradition in
which men and women take turns singing in a challenge-and-response fashion drawing
on a known repertoire of melodies. Usually a pair of women starts, presenting in unison
a complete song called câu ra (challenge phrase ») lasting three to eight minutes. A pair
of men of the opposing team responds with another song called câu đối (« matching
phrase »), which must match the melody of the women’s song in order to be considered
correct. Next it will be the men’s turn to challenge the women with a song that can be
completely different from the previous pair of songs.
There is in principle a matching song for every challenge song, although traditional
singers sometimes presented a kind of single song, called bài độc or « killer song, » to
corner the opposing team. According to the quan họscholar Trần Linh Quý, those songs
were usually pre-composed in secret by some skilled singers, and sometimes also
involved a poet, for a particular contest (personal communication, 07/01/99 and Đặng
Văn Lung et al 1976:371-399). Arguments and disputes concerning the quan họ validity
of the knockout song often arose, demanding explanation from the singers who
presented the song (ibid.).8
According to the tradition, only young people used to sing quan họ songs, as the major
body of song texts centers on the subject of love and sentimental desire among young
adults. Nowadays, many elderly singers participate in the singing as well in response to
the quan họ movement initiated by the provincial government. Trần Linh Quý recalls
elderly singers’ embarrassment during his fieldwork in the early seventies when he
asked them to sing quan họ songs, supposed previously to be sung only by young adults
to act out love sentiments in songs and singing (personal communication, 07/01/99). By
now, elderly singers are quite enthusiastic about singing for guests, as one elderly singer
said with tongue-in-cheek that she would not mind singing all night as long as there was
some « pickled vegetable and salt to cover her stomach. »
Quan họ singing can be carried out both as formal and informal events, called
indistinguishably canh quan họ (« quan họ period ») by the locals. Each formal quan họ
singing event follows a conventional procedure that includes a ritual singing in front of a
guardian spirit’s altar before proceeding to the extensive courtship singing. This opening
of strong ritualistic character usually features two songs in the la rằng repertoire, and it
must be attended by the two masters of ritual and sometimes also by village officials.
The second part, courtship singing proper, consists of three phases clearly demarcated
by tune-types, called giọng by quan họ singers.9 The various giọng-s include (1)
standard tune-type (giọng lề lối), (2) variety tune-type (giọng vặt), and (3) farewell
tune-type (giọng giã bạn). The standard tunes are mandatory, difficult, and can be
« boring » to sing, according to today’s quan họ singers. The second phase is the longest,
comprised primarily of love songs in variety tune-types, which make up the largest part
of the quan họ repertoire and include a wide range of styles.10 The final segment is
clearly distinguished by songs that project a lingering sentiment and a musicality
resembling what Vietnamese musicologists call the « South » mode (see below).
Such a complete and demanding session of quan họ singing no longer seems to exist, at
least as a self-initiated event among the singers and villagers themselves, although it
can always be arranged at the request of government officials or special guests. The last
complete singing session was done in 1972, when the scholars Trần Linh Quý and Hồng
Thao requested well-known elderly singers in the region to record on reel-to-reel tapes a
singing session that lasted for three days.11 The lack of resources and changing
socioeconomic environments do not allow such a singing event to take place during the
Instead, visitors will observe a watered down version of the singing event, which
proceeds loosely among local singers, both host and guest. The singing functions
primarily as a form of « cultural entertainment » that should provide a sense of tradition
and festivity to the village festival as a whole. For example, hosts of the Đọ Festival
attempted to reconstruct the ritual aspect of quan họ singing by having all female
singers kneel and collectively sing one song in front of the altar in the communal-ritual
house; differing even further from the tradition, they sang a variety song instead of a
standard tune, such as the la rằng. The singing then proceeded with singers passing the
microphones from one pair to another not worrying about beginning with standard songs
or matching tunes. The singing ended with songs in the farewell category, a feature that
has never been changed giving the singing session a sense of completion.
Informal singing is more of a norm now, and usually takes place in private homes
without recognition or participation of village officials. Singing in the fields or on the road,
contexts for informal quan họ sessions in the past, no longer occurs as far as I know.
Quan họ singing in festivals
Quan họ singing in festivals traditionally began either at the communal-ritual house or at
the Buddhist temple as early as the night before the main festival day. Nowadays, only a
few major festivals continue that tradition, while most villages carry out the singing on
the main day. Visitors who channel their eye and tune their ear to quan họ singing at the
festivals these days cannot help but notice several salient features shared by many quan
họ singing activities throughout the region. Some aspects of traditional quan họ singing
as it took place before 1945 have disappeared, either partly or wholly.
Use of Sound System
Above all, microphones and loud speakers are used constantly, which often strikes
visitors’ ears with severe sound distortion and catches their eye with the amusing sight
of men and women in traditional costumes holding the microphones very close to their
mouths the way « professional » singers do. Sound amplification with some degree of
distortion is not only particular to quan họ singing, but also noticeable throughout the
northern part of Vietnam, even in Hanoi, as a vital means for the official agencies to
communicate with people.12
Familiar in the region are scenes of loudspeakers (personal address speaker type as
shown in Fig. 2.9) attached to the top of an electric post or half-hidden somewhere on a
tree. During the festival season, these loudspeakers appear on boats as well. In some
way, sound amplification as a modern commodity, reinforced by the popularity of radios,
televisions, and karaoke, has a certain attraction for this increasingly urbanized
community. It seems the presence of electronic sound, that is the media, matters more
than the format and its content. It is not surprising that quan họ singing at the village
level is caught up in this field of technology mania as people who are attracted to it
make use of the available technology the way they like it according to their best
Considering how extensive the quan họ repertoire appears to be, it is noticeable that
songs heard in festivals are rather limited in number and repetitive in titles. Many
singers contend that at festivals they prefer to sing songs that are familiar or easy to
listen to. Common titles sung in festivals can be divided into two categories, and reflect
a certain familiarity with recordings and productions of the quan họ Troupe (see Chapter
The first category includes such songs as « I Am a Girl from Bắc Ninh, » which has been
considered as the quan họ « flag song » or signature song for some time by the younger
generations, and « Leaning by the Boat-Side, » perhaps the most favored quan họ song
across different generations, in spite of generational and village variations which exist in
singing practice. These two songs speak both to the locals’ perception of regional identity
and to their musical affinity to the basic features of quan họ melody (see below, Chapter
The second category includes the majority of songs often performed by the quan họ
Troupe. Songs in this group, such as « Entering the Buddhist Temple » and « Visitors Are
Coming, » display a musical contour that bears a strong connection to the official
linguistic tonality of North Vietnam, on the one hand, while suggesting some resonance
of the Cantonese mode as well as what the Vietnamese music scholars have been calling
the « South » mode.14
Almost totally absent is the singing of songs in standard tune-types, which used to be
mandatory at every quan họ session. The most important tune-type in the mandatory
category is called la rằng. Elderly singers speak dearly of this tune, which « makes one
feel warmer and warmer the more one listens to it » (personal communication, Cụ Thất,
Sẻ Festival, 2/21/1999). Many younger singers would disagree, saying with abandon
that « only old singers sing that kind of song, we don’t [sing it] because it sounds boring,
‘aye ah aye ah’ forever without getting anywhere » (personal communication, Nguyễn
Văn Tải, Sẻ Festival, 2/21/1999). Singers, young and old, of a village with strong quan
họ roots such as Diềm, however, maintain respect for the tune because they have been
carrying the tradition over many generations, allegedly unchanged. Singing of standard
songs in the communal-ritual house as part of the traditional ceremony, which used to
be a norm of quan họ singing in festivals among villages with a strong quan họ tradition,
Following the textual content of quan họ songs within the festival reveals a striking
contrast between the open, public setting and the intimate characteristic of the songs.
Virtually all songs heard in festivals express personal subjects such as unfulfilled love,
expectation, longing, and intimacy. Most researchers and even a good number of quan
họ singers have steadfastly and rightly denounced any personal attachment between
male and female singers, and insisted that mutual attraction is purely « musical » (Nguyễn
Văn Phú et al 1962 and Đặng Văn Lung et al 1976). However, unfortunate stories of
broken marriages and violent eruption of jealousy are not unreal either. Quan họ singers
do not always try to hide the fact that they long for living together as husband and wife.
Songs such as « Love But Resentfully Without Marriage, » « Wish We Lived Together, » and
« If We Loved Each Other, We Ought To Marry Each Other » express a sentiment of
longing commonly known to many quan họ singers.
Verbal and Poetic Introduction
One of the quan họ characteristics that have endured through time is the proper verbal
and poetic introduction to each and every tune. Quan họ singers are not only
appreciated for their singing ability, but also for their skill in leaving an impression of
their gracefulness and literary adeptness on the audience. Usually one of the singers will
say something to praise the opposing pair and express how fortunate her/his pair has
been to be allowed to sing with them, before she/he goes on to recite the verses of the
song. The poetic introduction also provides listeners with the basic content of the song
text, which otherwise can be difficult to follow in singing. Not only that, the rhetoric used
in the introduction is so polished that it gives the impression of a theatrical act. As a
result, singers often try to imitate the speech tonality and pronunciation of official media
announcers, even though quan họ researchers have asserted that speeches in the quan
họ region vary from one village to another (Nguyễn Văn Phú et al 1962:17).16
Regardless of how significantly their speech varies, quan họ singers always sing in their
speaking voice, which sets them apart from the professional quan họ singers of the quan
họ Troupe, as well as from those who have received formal training in schools for
traditional performing arts in the region. It is amusing to hear professional singers sing
with a greater degree of nasality, partly as a result of uncritically applying the « bel
canto » technique to the peculiar Vietnamese pronunciation, which mostly consists of
closed syllables. Village singers tend to project a more throaty voice quality and with a
greater volume, as if they were to sing without sound amplification. Those who have had
experiences with using microphones know how to make the sound system work to their
advantage by using a high level of reverb effect as they sing with a soft voice and
unsustained vocal quality.
The quan họ scholar Trần Linh Quý initiated in the early 1970s a set of criteria for
evaluating quan họ singing, which he summarized in four terms: vang, rền, nền, nảy
(personal communication, 06/27/1999). These terms can be literally translated as
ringing, resonant, moderate or restrained, and bouncing. Younger singers, who appeared
to be oblivious as to how this set of criteria came about, have spoken of it widely as a
matter of course. Most of them have heard it, either directly or indirectly, from the
professional singers or musicians who in turn have learned it from the scholars. This
explains why it can be very difficult for a great number of singers, both professional and
nonprofessional, to articulate or demonstrate what these criteria actually mean in singing.
Elderly quan họ singers have their own way of talking about the qualities of quan họ
singing. In the words of Cụ Sáu Huyền, who tried to explain to the musicologist Hồng
Thao what he thought to be good quan họ singing,
[…] first, the voices of the two singers must be clear, even, bonded to one another, as if
there was only one person singing; second, the singers must know how to produce the
‘bouncing grains’ during the long sustained sounds to create the tinkering seeds and
grains inside [their throats]; third, they must know how to embellish their singing with
hát luyến (« slurred singing »); [and] fourth, to [end] a phrase with hát rớt [which is a
special type of phrase ending, in which a multiple-shake is executed on the last pitch of
the phrase, and ends on the upper pitch instead of the main pitch] » (Tô Ngọc Thanh and
Hồng Thao 1986:124).
During the 1971 quan họ Conference, Cụ Phạm Văn Thà, a well-known quan họ singer of
the old generation, tried to explain these features in his own terms,
[…] quan họ singers do not sing with their mouth wide open in order to save their
breath. [They] must use their tongue to control the airflow, and shiver their tongue
inside the throat to produce a vocal sound that is at the same time ringing, bouncing,
and resonant (1972:271).
Bouncing, or « bouncing-grains » as it is called by Trần Linh Quý (personal communication,
06/27/1999), is considered rather special to quan họ singing. Other vocal traditions such
as chèo and ca trù also have their own « bouncing-grains » technique, which is different
from that of quan họ. Curiously, this feature is talked about more than it is vocally
carried out in singing. Elderly singers, who have been singing since they were in their
teens and twenties, « scatter their grains » naturally as they sing and do not have a
precise term for it. The most vivid description of the bouncing characteristic may very
well come from Nguyễn Thị Nguyên, a 75-year old female singer, who claimed that
« good singing must have the tinkling inside the throat (emphasis added) » and « not
everyone has it, not even the professional quan họ singers » she has taught (personal
communication, 06/99). The musicologist Hồng Thao observed that many people cannot
learn the technique of « bouncing-grains. » Even for those who can, Hồng Thao insists that
certain conditions must be satisfied in order to make it happen. Those conditions are:
a) Singing in real [speaking] voice;
b) Singing in the middle register of the singer’s pitch range;
c) Singing at a moderate pace to make the grains longer in duration. At a fast pace, the
grains are too short to be effective » (1997:89-91).
Considering how special the « bouncing-grains » characteristic is, it is disappointing to
realize that such a delicate feature is often lost in festivals as a result of noise and
distorted amplification, in addition to the lack of singers who can perform it.17
Some elderly singers, and rarely a young singer, emphasize the importance of having an
« abundance of breath » and « completion of phrase » (personal communication, Nguyễn Thị
Nhi and Nguyễn Thị Hài, 07/27/1999). These two ideas imply a basic skill of breath
conservation in singing in order to be able to linger over the end of a long phrase with
« bouncing grains » (ibid.). In fact, many quan họ singers nowadays tend to string
together vocal lines of shorter breath instead of long lines as they used to be common in
quan họ singing.
Quan họ singers are easily identified in festivals, as they all wear a particular set of
traditional costumes, one for women (Fig. 2.10) and one for men (Fig. 2.11). Except for
a very few elderly women or men who perform in ceremonies, hardly anyone wears this
sort of traditional outfit today. It somehow appears that this set of traditional costumes
has become the performance outfit for quan họ singing events. In the early 1970s,
members of the newly formed quan họ Troupe, who were then in their twenties, felt
extremely awkward and embarrassed to put on those costumes in public (personal
communication, Trần Linh Quý, 06/1999). The costumes that quan họ singers wear
today have been modified to become more colorful in order to accommodate stage
Instrumental accompaniment is slowly creeping in and welcomed by quan họ singers in
some villages. The đàn bầu(« gourd instrument, » a monochord zither producing overtones
as pitches) is the most common instrument, followed by the sáo trúc (bamboo flute).
Other traditional instruments may include the two-stringed bowed lute, 36-stringed
hammered dulcimer, and 3-stringed plucked lute. Occasionally the acoustic guitar and
even the electronic keyboard are used.
The use of instruments in quan họ singing officially began when the quan họ Troupe was
formed in 1969, and since has caused debate among scholars, and local quan họ singers
as well (Hồng Thao 1998). Some village singers are enthusiastic about singing with
accompaniment because of the support it provides. The official media always present
folk singing with accompaniment. Professional and semi-professional troupes always
perform quan họ songs accompanied either by a set of modified traditional instruments
that also includes a drum set (Fig. 2.14), or sequenced arrangements on electronic
keyboard. However, not all songs are accompanied by instruments. For example, the
tune la rằng has never appeared in accompanied form, either on professional stage or in
village activity. Some singers prefer to maintain the tradition of quan họ singing without
accompaniment, even on stage.
Quan họ Stages
A quan họ « stage » in festivals is simply designated by a few straw mats on the ground;
therefore it is also called chiếu quan họ (« quan họ mats »). The male singers sit on one
side and the female on the other side. The listeners either sit or stand around the mats.
At the center, there usually is a round aluminum tray for donations and rewards. These
days, some festivals, such as the well-known Lim and Diềm Festivals, present quan họ
performances and musicals on elevated stages in addition to the quan họ mats.
For musicals (theatrical productions in the Troupe’s fashion involving more or less limited
acting), village officials usually contract either a member of the professional quan họ
Troupe or the Center for quan họ Culture to coach and direct. To some extent, this
professionally modeled activity has opened up a performance venue that gives quan họ
singing the focused attention similar to that of pop singing on the one hand, while it
undermines the quan họ tradition as a non-professional popular cultural practice, on the
other hand. In spite of active participation by the local people, the quan họ scholar Hồng
Thao continued to view such activity as being culturally impoverished,
As much as professional musicians have consciously absorbed and made use of folksong,
and the people have incorporated folksong in their musical events, the folksong activity,
with its true meaning of a folk culture, has increasingly become limited (1997:353).
Quan họ Singing as a Cultural Practice and Local Pride: The Lim
and Diềm Festivals
Trying to make cultural sense of the quan họ tradition as it is practiced today is not an
easy task. Quan họ singing has undergone several changes with regard both to its
context and content as its practitioners continue to search for ways to put the puzzle
together, while realizing that missing pieces may never be found. Yet, the Bắc Ninh
locals believe that quan họ singing has always been the window through which outside
people can see who they really are, as the director of the quan họ troupe maintains,
It is possible to say that for hundreds of years until today, Bắc Ninh is known to the
people from all over the country above all because of quan họ singing (Thúy Cải
This sense of local distinctiveness and regional pride has become especially significant
since 1997, when Bắc Ninh was separated from Bắc Giang, the administrative center of
the former Hà Bắc province (Bắc Giang and Bắc Ninh included). Cao Khải, a retired army
general, bluntly expressed his view within the context of đặc sản (« special products » or
local specialties, a widespread notion of regional products applied to all things in Vietnam,
from food to ideas) that « quan họ singing is all that the Bắc Ninh people have to show to
the world, » and « furthermore, it is so deeply rooted in the region that practically every
Bắc Ninh native was born with a flair for quan họ singing in his/her blood » (personal
communication, 07/09/1999). His opinion can be validated in the sense that everyone,
children and elderly people included, can sing a certain version (old or new,
unadulterated or modified) of a quan họ song, and that outside perception is also shaped
by such an expectationỒanyone from Bắc Ninh sings quan họ songs.
Their assertion of local distinctiveness does not rest at the regional level, but rings true
all the way down to the village level. The ethnologist Bùi XuânĐínhargues that being a
self-reliant social unit until the emergence of communism by the mid 1900s, the
traditional village in the northern delta had developed a conservative and resistant
attitude towards non-local factors (1998:103). Besides, villages in the past had to
constantly deal with their own internal conflict among various factions, as well as
develop their distinct customs. Therefore it was rare that one village was willing to share
administration with another (ibid.:103-4).
The three most popular quan họ festivals today are the Lim Festival (pronounced « leem »
in the non-glottal middle tone), which takes place on the 13th day of the first lunar
month, DiềmFestival (pronounced « ziem » in the non-glottal low tone) on the 6th day of
the second lunar month, and Thổ Hà Festival on the 22nd day of the first lunar month.
Both Lim and Diềm have always been known as villages of strong quan họ roots within
the region, while Thổ Hà has become more popular as a quan họ site some time since
the sixties, as a result of its hospitality and therefore its ability to attract top singers in
the region to come for quan họ singing.
The Diềm and Lim Festivals are arguably the two most important quan họ festivals in the
region.18 These two sites are distinguished by their geographical and historical conditions
on the one hand, while their people starkly distinguish themselves from those living in
the downtown Bắc Ninh area by their peculiar speech dialects and the significance of
their quan họ history and activity.19
The Diềm Festival
Recognized by locals and non-locals as the place where quan họ singing is said to have
originated, Diềmvillage has always attracted visitors and quan họ scholars as well. In
1994, to highlight its quan họ significance, the Diềmpeople changed their annual festival
from the 6th day of the 8th lunar month to the 6th day of the 2nd lunar month, which was
the day when Vua Bà was sent down to earth from heaven to help establish the village
and taught village people the quan họ singing. Many Diềmresidents continue to recite a
poem, written in the vernacular nôm script, which praises Vua Bà and glorifies quan họ
singing (Nguyễn Văn Phú et at 1962:36-37 and Đặng Văn Lung et al 1978:169).
The change of annual festival date was primarily triggered by the central authority’s
formal recognition of the Vua Bà temple as an historical heritage. Vua Bà is significant to
Diềmvillagers not only as the creator of their quan họ singing, but also as their Supreme
Being. She taught the Diềmpeople how to cultivate the land, form plantations, grow
crops, plant rice, raise silkworms for textiles, plant sugar cane for honey, and perform
ritual practices. In the past, when the drought occurred every year, people gathered to
sing quan họ songs for days in front of her altar to pray for rain. Significantly, during the
rain ritual, only la rằng, the fundamental tune of quan họ repertoire, was sung (see
The 1999 festival was marked by the presence of officials from the Center for quan họ
Culture, a television crew from Hà Nội, and several official guests from the provincial
government. The evening event appeared to proceed in a manner that served the
purpose of making a documentary film, directed by a Hà Nội official/scholar. Several
interruptions occurred as the director had a plan for how to shape the event on the
television screen. The Diềmpeople did not seem to mind as long as things got done and
their village got a chance to become better known through the media as the village of
quan họ origin. As a result of such a highly fragmented proceeding, singers appeared to
enjoy chatting with the audience when another pair sang (Fig. 2.15).
In the past, the evening before the main day of festival was primarily significant as a
singing ritual in which the bonded quan họ groups (and not the village officials as it was
this year), got together and sang the mandatory tunes to praise and to show gratitude
to Vua Bà before proceeding on to several private homes for the rest of the singing
event. Nguyễn Văn Trung, the leader of the Diềm quan họ troupe, recalled the old days,
when « only quan họ groups between the two villages were bonded as opposed to
nowadays, even the villages’ administrative organizations have joined the bonding
relationship » (personal communication, 06/13/1999).
The Lim Festival
The Diềmfestival is not the only popular event that has all along attracted government
officials. The Lim festival has also received considerable attention from the government,
although with less direct involvement: the once-popular Lim quan họ singing contest
organized by Lim village has gradually and unofficially been replaced by the regional
quan họ singing contest now administered by the Center for quan họ Culture (see
Chapter Four). As if it were a continuation of the Lim tradition, the government-
sponsored tournament takes place every year right before the Lim festival which always
lasts from the 12th day through the 14th day of the first lunar month. The 13th day is the
main festival day.
Compared to the Diềmfestival, the Lim festival was a lot more diverse, spread out, less
tradition bound, better known to outsiders, and therefore always attracting many more
visitors. Both accessibility and economic position have made Lim known to a great many
visitors as the festival place for quan họ singing. The traditional Lim market area (called
thị trấn Lim) occupied a strip on what is now Highway 1. This area continues to be
populous and is now full of small stores, services shops, and restaurants, especially near
the village đình. Trains from Hà Nội to Bắc Ninh stop at the Lim station before going into
downtown Bắc Ninh. The festival site is only a ten or fifteen-minute walk from the train
station. Lim’s economic affluence has allowed its local people to host many singing
sessions during the festival and year round.
Not any different from any other year, the traffic around Lim during the 1999 festival
was unbearable. A mile long traffic jam and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds crammed on
Highway 1, with the procession right in the middle of it. Quan họ singing had started
early in the morning on a boat and continued for a few hours. By 11:00A.M., the site
began to clear out and a new quan họ singing site (Fig. 2.18) replaced the singing on
boat. Amidst such a chaotic scene, blasted with honking and whistling, the intimate quan
họ corner put up its own sound walls with the help of microphones and loudspeakers. It
is not clear whether the loud and intimate singing was contesting the street noise or was
simply adding to the soundscape of the festival.
As with major quan họ festivals, singers from other villages were invited to the host
village the evening before the festival day to sing in the communal temple. From about
an hour past midnight the guest singers would sleep at the host village until the next
morning, when they would come out to sing again in the temple yard or on a boat.
The Lim Festival occupies a large area from the communal temple on Highway 1 up to
Buddhist temple, called chùa bà mụ ả(Temple of the Lady), on the Lim Hill. A wide range
of activities went on within that festival space of a little less than one square mile.
Procession, wrestling, a human chess contest, cock fighting, merry-go-round, games,
and a lottery among others, were all part of the festival. This year, the Coke
advertisement sign got bigger and there was more than one transvestite stage (Fig. 2.20
and Fig. 2.21).20 Near the top of the hill is the open center stage, where several local
performances have been presented along with those of professional troupes, such as the
official quan họ Troupe of Bắc Ninh and the recently formed quan họ Tiên Sơn Troupe
privately owned and managed by a local of the Tiên Sơn district.
The quan họ Tournament
In the past, quan họ singing in festivals sometimes occurred in the form of a tournament.
The traditional tournament outdoor involved a new prize, a quan họ team representing
and sponsored by the host village currently holding the prize,21 a panel of judges, and a
number of challenging teams to compete for the prize and even more for the pride. A
prize often included some tea, special fabric, firecrackers, and occasionally money
(Nguyễn Văn Phú et al 1962:27-9). To win, a group had to come up with one or more
unusual songs to which the opposing group could not respond, either poetically or
musically (Trần Linh Quý 1972).
Things have changed since the tournament was revived in 1992. Nowadays, the
organization, rules, procedures, and methods and criteria of evaluation show several
departures from earlier practices. The sponsoring village has been replaced by the
Center for quan họ Culture representing the central authority. The formal procedure
based on the performance of the three phases of a quan họ singing session has been
entirely eliminated. Now the Center for quan họ Culture selects a list of songs, which
increases from year to year, and sends out to villages for preparation. In the preliminary
round at the tournament, singers draw titles from the pool of selected songs (the titles
have been written on folded pieces of paper by the tournament officials and placed in a
tray). As a result, the required repertoire has noticeably been scaled down, and only
within the last year was the most important standard song, la rằng, reinstated in the
tournament. The prizes now consist exclusively of money: the 1999 tournament awarded
600,000 VND (Vietnamese đồng, roughly US$45, which is about the amount a worker of
a local sewing factory makes in 2 or 3 months) for the first prize, and 400,000 VND for
the second prize.
One of the most critical severances from tradition involves the judging panel. Instead of
having village elders who have been known throughout the region for their singing serve
as judges, the judges now are composed primarily of government agents who have more
or less been trained as professional musicians or singers, even though their music
training may be unrelated to quan họ singing. Virtually all the judges have, or have had
at some point in their career, a close tie either with the professional quan họ Troupe, the
Center, or the Bắc Ninh Department of Culture and Information.22
Every year since 1997, the Center for quan họ Culture has organized three special indoor
contest-festivals in addition to the outdoor tournament: a quan họ sân khấu (« quan họ
on stage ») contest for young and middle-aged singers (17-50s) which takes place at the
same time as the outdoor tournament, a festival for elderly singers (61 years old or
older) in September or October, and a festival-contest for children (6-15 years old) in
May or June. The outdoor tournament has become, as Vũ Tự Lẫm, a knowledgeable ex-
member of the professional quan họ Troupe and adjudicating member for many years,
said with tongue-in-cheek, a lệ (mandatory custom) as [the way] the Lim Festival [was]
in the past (personal communication, 02/1998).
The quan họ activities as they are carried out today reflect to a great extent the efforts
of the Vietnamese socialist government to preserve and make use of what it perceives to
be part of the people’s national cultural heritage. Dialectically and ironically, the global
Marxism introduced to Vietnam has since heightened the Vietnamese leadership’s
awareness of a Vietnamese distinctiveness, which privileges all the more a political
assertion over cultural manifestation. In the next two chapters I will discuss the
perception of Vietnamese identity and the institutional mechanism employed to
implement and reinforce such a perception with regard to the quan họ tradition.
Lê Ngọc Chân
1. The Lạc Việt tribes constituted one of what the ancient Chinese historians called the
Bách Việt (« Hundred-Viêt ») groups inhabiting the Hoa Nam (« South of China ») territories,
which are now North Vietnam, Yunnan, Fukien, Guangdong, and Guangsi. Except for
North Vietnam, all the other regions are now part of China (Đào Duy Anh 1994:21).
Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mạng (personal communication, Tô Ngọc Thanh, Hà Nôi,
3. Traditionally, the two ritual festival periods were marked by an overall sentiment of
gratitude toward supernatural powers that protected the community (Toan 1969 and
Toan 1974). They also functioned as a communal temporal space for behavior which was
otherwise restricted by national laws and decrees as well as social conventions (ibid.).
The ritual aspect of these festivals was discouraged by the government following the
1945 revolution. The 1987 economic reform has triggered a revival of traditional (pre-
revolutionary) customs of the village, including ritual and ceremonial practices.
4. The hội đình and hội chùa either took place one after another to prolong the pleasure,
or hội đình during the Autumn season (the 8th month) and hội chùa during New Year
(Nguyễn Văn Phú et al 1962:14-15).
5. Nguyễn Từ Chi has learned from his fieldwork that « on the surface they [landowners]
seemed to be friendly, but all the while they were watching each other’s moves until that
moment when all the little contradictions burst out into larger conflict, resulting in legal
cases, which often lasted for years » (1993:59-60).
6. The worship of guardian spirits, however, had been introduced to Vietnam from China
during the Chinese occupation of North Vietnam between 111BCE and 939CE by the
Chinese rulers to protect their citadels in the occupied territory. The practice was
adopted by the Vietnamese Kings after they had chased the Chinese rulers away.
Eventually the villagers also adopted the worship for their own villages. In 1572, King Lê
Thánh Tông assigned the mandarin Nguyễn Bính to systematize the guardian spirits
reported to the Court by the villagers in an attempt to conform with Confucian beliefs
(Trần Quốc Vượng 1998:93-4).
7. My translation. The poet also played with sounds, such as cật and lòng, which both
sound very close to the slang words for the man’s penis and the women’s vagina. This
poem is but one of Hồ Xuân Hương’s many poems that aimed at one of society’s taboos:
sexual expression. In other poems, she took advantage of literary sanction to laugh at
hypocritical individuals, or to express a talented woman’s aspiration to become a man.
8.The notion of « killer song » rarely exists among more remote villages, such as Diềm or
Châm Khê villages. Singers from the Thị Cầuvillage, which was becoming less of a
traditional village of rice fields and more of a little merchant district by the beginning of
the twentieth century, created many songs in this category.
9. The concept of giọngwill be discussed in detail in Chapter Four.
10. The prominent quan họ scholar Hồng Thao suggests that these variety songs display
many musical and textual features acculturated from other northern lowland genres
(1993). The variety songs are categorized according to two chronological styles (based
on the elderly quan họ singers’ articulation): old and new (Nguyễn Văn Phú et al 1962).
11. Nobody has claimed to have the tapes now. Similar requests have been carried out
now and then for audiovisual documentary productions within the past 5 years, although
none is as extensive as the 1972 project.
12. Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, I was introduced for the first time to the kind of
collective broadcast employed by the communist government to propagate, exhort,
criticize, « entertain, » and occasionally inform its local citizens. This was done both by
erecting several loudspeakers posts and mounting loudspeakers to moving vans or
13. A full examination into the nature of this phenomenon of sound amplification and
distortion is definitely beyond the scope of my present study, although I believe it is an
area of merited attention, if not indispensable. To keep the issue alive in the background
of my mind, I would like to point out aspects which converge with some of Sutton’s
perceptive observations and explanations on the Indonesian’s flair for sound technology
(1996). One plausible assertion is the intentionality on the part of users, which is
encouraged by the crowd-attracting aura and sense of self-empowerment generated by
sound amplification and effects without users’ exertion. I will refrain myself from making
deep cultural associations here acknowledging that Sutton has achieved such a feat with
a sleight-of-hand regarding the Indonesian situation. I find it suggestive that the
ambiance and soundscape created via the technological tools of microphones and sound
amplification during years of war and collectivization may have instigated among the
rural people a certain sense of social security. The Indonesian aesthetic of ramé
(« busyness ») can also serve as a point of departure for further investigation, not only to
explore similarities between the two cultures in the same region, but also to understand
their dissimilarities due to Vietnam’s geographical and cultural proximity to China.
14. I will discuss further in depth the musical interchange between quan họ and other
genres in later chapters devoted to musical analysis of the songs.
15. When it did take place, as in the 1999 Diềm Festival, a great deal of interference
occurred as a Hà Nội television crew had previously arranged to « direct » and record the
16. During my fieldwork in 1999, I was surprised to find that the linguistic pronunciation
and tonality of people living in rural villages, where quan họ singing has taken place for
a long time, are distinct from the typical Hà Nội speech, which is considered as
‘standard’ nowadays in the northern delta. In fact, their more limited tonality sometimes
suggests that of people from central Vietnam. For example, they pronounce dấu hỏi (low
melodic tone) and dấu ngã (high glottal tone) more or less with the same tonal inflection
(see also Chapter Five).
17. According to Thúy Cải, a quan họ singer of distinction and director of the quan họ
Troupe, the bouncing feature is very difficult to teach, and she is perhaps among the
rare number of singers, if not the only one, from her troupe who can do it naturally
(03/1999). My observation away from festivals reveals different bouncing techniques
and productions depending on individuals and villages.
18. According to Trần Linh Quý (1974), quan họ singing was a major event in the
festivals of Lim, Đặng, Yên, Đống Cao, Thị Cầu, Diềm, Chấp, Nhồi, Ó, Bịu, and Sẻ, by the
turn of the twentieth century.
19. The downtown people consider the speech of the Limand Diềm people to be « heavy,
bland, » and to bear a strong resemblance to the speech of northern Central Vietnam.
20. In strong contrast to the prevalent northern dialect heard in the festival, all the
hosts for these gay shows spoke with the southern dialect (I suspect there is a desire to
create a « modern » image to attract the rural crowd).
21. This quan họ team could be locals or guests, which was up to the festival committee
to decide. As a rule, if the female team held the prize, then the challenging teams were
male; and vice versa.
22. During both the 1998 and 1999 tournaments, the director of the Bắc Ninh
Department of Culture and Information occasionally offered his ideas and evaluation of
singers to the appointed judges. In the 1999 tournament, the leader of the Diềm
contestants even challenged the judges decision at one point, which, of course, was
overruled by the judges themselves.
This article is an electronic version of Chapter 2 of of Dr. Le Ngoc Chan’s Ph.D. thesis entitled Quan Ho Singing in North Vietnam: A Yearning for Resolution (University of California at Berkeley,2002). This electronic version © 2003 by Le Ngoc Chan.
About the author
Lê Ngọc Chân
M.M. (Indiana University), Ph.D. (University of California at Berkeley)
A graduate from Indiana University, Dr. Le has taught piano at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music Michigan State University, and Wesleyan University, where he also taught the Vietnamese dan bau monochord zither. His original works have been performed by L’Atelier des musiques contemporaines (Paris), Gina Buntz Dance Company (New York), Michigan State University Symphony Orchestra, and Minneapolis Civic Orchestra among others. He has performed in Europe and North America as apianist before devoting his full effort to research on Vietnamese music in 1992. His research has been supported and funded by numerous agencies and foundations including the Social Science Research Council, Fulbright Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, and Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. He has given lectures/demonstrations at The Michigan Academy of Letters and Sciences, U.C. Berkeley, Trinity College, San Francisco Museum of Asian Art, and several other museums and
institutions around the country. As a music teacher, Dr. Le is exploring the possibility of incorporating various musical systems of the world in a comprehensive curriculum for musicianship. He is also on the faculty of Los Medanos College, Pittsburg.