“Music carries the mark of time”: Vietnamese Bolero music is a bridge between generations in a country still healing from its past


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“Music carries the mark of time”: Vietnamese Bolero music is a bridge between generations in a country still healing from its past

Ho Chi Minh City-based writer Vo Linh Dan delves into the history and contemporary significance of Vietnamese Bolero music, speaking to cafe owners, record collectors, enthusiasts, and even family members about what the nostalgic style means to them.

Every Sunday morning, I wake up to slow, repetitive rhumba music with boring, simple chord progressions and overly cheesy lyrics that my parents absolutely love. Staring at the ceiling, I can hear my mom singing loudly along downstairs, exaggerating every word. Occasionally, she pauses, allowing my dad to add in some obscure facts about the specific version and recording session of the song that’s playing. For me, it’s incredibly annoying, but for them, it’s a chance to start their days with enjoyment, delight, and pride in one of their favorite musical genres.

This is Bolero, a style that refers to a type of music that was popular in Southern Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. That’s the simple explanation, but in actuality, it’s very difficult to define what Bolero actually is. Even the genre’s biggest fans don’t have a definitive answer. “It’s hard. I don’t know enough to tell you how Bolero is viewed, or should be viewed,” says Phú, a 19-year-old Bolero enthusiast. “There seems to be a blurred line between Bolero as a music genre and Bolero as a general category of music written before 1975.” My father, the owner of a large Bolero collection, couldn’t give a straightforward definition either. “The name Bolero comes from a style of music in 19th century Cuba, but Vietnamese Bolero is completely different,” he says. “In Vietnam, the term is a generalization of music from Southern Vietnam that is written in a slow tempo and has simple yet beautiful, memorable lyrics.”

Bolero on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City

“Beneath the cheesiness, these songs carry little snippets of history that give profound wisdom about life.”

While Phu and my father are similarly ambiguous in their descriptions, they both agree that the resounding theme of Bolero music is differing degrees of love and affection, from yearning for the homeland to familial bonds, blossoming romances to meaningful friendships, and even the plights of wartime life. The emotionality is amplified by the performance styles of Bolero legends, such as Phương Dung, Thanh Thúy, Hoàng Oanh, Thanh Tuyền, Duy Khánh, Trần Thiện Thanh, Hùng Cường, Chế Linh, and Giao Linh to name a few. “The distinguishing factor between pre-1975 and modern recordings is the expression in the singers’ voices,” my father adds. “They were closer to the topics they were singing about. When they were singing, their love, families, anxieties, and the war itself… were fresh on their minds.”

For a short period of time after the Vietnam War, Bolero music was strictly regulated: its lyrical contents were deemed too sensitive post-conflict. Many songs describe the hardships that were faced in graphic detail, which was too much for a society trying to move forward and recover. Years later, despite the tightened supervision, some music lovers opened Bolero cafés. These small tea and coffee shops were decorated with “pre-75 Saigon” posters and memorabilia, would broadcast collections of Bolero music through their speakers, or even invite bands to play live at night.

Many Bolero cafés are still open in Vietnam today. One owner recalls how hard it was to express her love for the music. “In order to perform or even play any [Bolero] songs out loud, you had to write a form to request permission from the Ministry of Culture,” she says. Even then, she would have to stay vigilant. “Sometimes the band would play a particularly provocative song and I’d find myself on extremely high alert. It was as if anyone who looked at my shop might have a problem with me or try to make trouble.” Songs about Southern Vietnam soldiers—such as ‘For a Man Who Had Fallen’ (Cho một người nằm xuống), ‘I Won’t Be Home For Spring’ (Xuân Này Con Không Về)—were particularly controversial, as they were the opposing force against the current Vietnamese government. ‘Solider Love’ (Tình Lính), with its infamous lyric “I’m a ladykiller kind of solider” (“Anh là người lính đa tình”), was particularly contentious.

Since 1st of February 2021, the regulation on Bolero has been completely lifted. As a result of this new found freedom, selected songs are broadcast widely, and performances by popular contemporary Bolero artists such as Đàm Vĩnh Hưng, Lệ Quyên, Quang Lê, Phương Mỹ Chi are even streamed on national television. Đàm Vĩnh Hưng’s cover of the 1966 track ‘Love Castle’ (Lâu Đài Tình Ái) has become particularly popular, so much so that many people mistakenly think the artist wrote it himself.

Bolero music is not just visible in mainstream media, however. It can be heard in small cafés, on neighborhood loudspeakers, faintly echoing from the houses of collectors, or blasting through cheap music players attached to the vehicles of traveling vendors. It’s also played live by everyone from professionally trained musicians in music lounges to groups of friends singing and playing guitar on the street.

“Music carries the mark of time. It records the history that you don’t learn in books. It’s the history of everyday life, of unspoken tenderness, and of visceral emotions.”

Bolero songs are also a staple of Vietnamese weddings. After formal ceremonies, guests often enjoy a meal accompanied by the sound old aunties and uncles wailing to the tunes of “Sixty Years of Life (Sáu Mươi Năm Cuộc Đời), “Flower Boat” (Thuyền Hoa), and “Bring Love To Homeland” (Rước Tình Về Với Quê Hương). This amateurish, spontaneous, but very intimate atmosphere is unique to Vietnamese social gatherings, especially in the countryside.

Beyond being a mere tool for social connection and celebration, today Bolero acts as a bridge between different generations in Vietnam. Its relatively recent legality is also seen as a first step towards erasing the psychological border between the North and the South that still persists in people’s minds, despite the war ending almost 50 years ago.

“Beneath the cheesiness, these songs carry little snippets of history that give profound wisdom about life,” says Quan, a 21-year-old student. He reflects on the lyrics of Anh Bang’s “Story of a Night” (Chuyện Một Đêm)—“Who killed my son, during the night we dreamt of Peace…?”—and how he unconsciously sings it while doing his household chores. “History is something you cannot escape, no matter how hard people try to change or even forget it. Music carries the mark of time. It records the history that you don’t learn in books, because it’s the history of everyday life, of unspoken tenderness, and of visceral emotions.”

Not every listener repeats Bolero lyrics with the same weight in their hearts and the ghost of war in their minds, yet the fact that these words are sung at all is significant. Every time someone utters a Bolero lyric, a bygone element of Vietnamese culture quietly lives on, and the stories of an older generation of Vietnamese people, which were thought to have been lost with that culture, reverberate through the mouths of curious and sympathetic youths across the country.

When I interviewed my dad on Bolero, I realized why he loves these songs so much. This music brings him back to his childhood, before poverty struck and enjoying music became a luxury, before he was pushed into adulthood, and the cacophony of life replaced the sweet melodies of his childhood. Now that he finally has the time to slow down and retrace his steps, I am grateful Bolero music still remains to give him the solace he deserves.

This interview was published as part of COLORS’ editorial coverage running alongside shows produced in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in partnership with the Goethe Institut. Discover some of the Southeast Asian artists we’ve produced shows with here, or read more articles on our editorial platform.

Text: Vo Linh Dan (they/them)
Photography and video: Megan Courtis, Long Nguyễn, and Tú Uyên


What our community says

Great article about this form of nostalgia for a place and time which simply cannot exist anymore. To the author, please look up my grandfather, Pham Dinh Chuong, who was a seminal artist from this time frame- his song, Ly Ruu Mung, is well known by many of our parents’ generation and older. Surprised to not see his name here!

Vince Pham - San Diego

Being a first generation Vietnamese American, I grew up listening to bolero music from my parents. Given the hardships they went to through to the states and how bolero served as a way of still feeling connected to home, I appreciate your channel taking the time to highlight this beautiful culture.

Ni - San Diego, CA

Great article. Thank you for sharing. I heard bolero music in a Vietnamese restaurant. I googled it and have been listening to different ones for severs years now but never knew the history of it. I’m Mexican and Irish and know about Cuban Bolero and yes way different styles. I really enjoy the style and the vibes Vietnamese bolero gives.

Annette J. - San Diego, CA

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