Ryan Harvey

All Our People Sing Together: The Music of Vietnam During the American War

In History, Music & Art on October 22, 2008 at 5:28 pm

from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008

Vietnam, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, declared liberation on September 2nd, 1945 from both the French and Japanese colonizers. The British, in classic imperial fashion, sent troops in to crush the movement and reinstall the French as the colonial rulers of what they called Indochina. The French assumed power in the South but the Viet Minh, under Ho Chi Minh, held power in the north and continued the fight for independence. The Vietnamese call this the French War. The French call it the First Indochina War.

In 1954, as the Viet Minh taught the French the same lesson the Americans would learn 2 decades later, a settlement was reached cutting Vietnam in half; The Viet Minh would control the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and Emperor Bao Dai would control the Republic of Vietnam in the south. They would fight again 5 years later, as Ngo Din Diem, a U.S.-backed Prime Minister/Monarch who had spent time in the U.S. hanging out with Joseph McCarthy, deposed Bao Dai and seized power, banning elections and locking up opposition.

The Americans began arriving in South Vietnam in 1961 as “advisers”. These soldiers multiplied rapidly and by 1965 there were hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers on the ground. American forces stayed in the South, but they unleashed a heavy bombing campaign in the North towards the end of the war. The Americans call this the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese call it the American War.

In the North, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) massed and attacked South Vietnamese and American forces, and walked the Truong Son Road (what Americans named the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”) through Laos and Cambodia to help supply the Guerrillas in the South. The Guerrillas, organized under the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong, dominated the countryside and jungles, joining forces with the PAVN when possible.

By the time these forces had taught the Americans the same lessons they taught the French twenty year earlier, 58,000 Americans, 1 million Vietnamese soldiers and guerrillas, and over 2 million Vietnamese civilians would be dead, and millions injured. The war would also spread to Laos and Cambodia, where U.S. forces destroyed a vast majority of the rain forests and farmland of the region. The last Americans fled Saigon in 1975 as the communists marched in.

It was under these conditions that our story takes place, on both sides of the 17th parallel and, sometimes, on both sides of the lines.


In the Guerrilla areas of the South, musicians operated openly within hideouts and safe-areas protected by the NLF to encourage the guerrillas and bring happiness and hope to a determined people. This music, along with it’s counter-part in the North, was officially called “Nhac Truyen Thong Cach Mang” (“Classical Revolutionary Music”) or “Nhac Do” (“Red Music”) for short. Though there were differences in style between those in the North and South, the music of the liberation armies shared common themes and styles.

Red Musicians traveled with the National Liberation Front and the People’s Army to battle. They often performed in choral groups, not always as solo musicians or bands, and practiced a more collective form of music. Often a composer would write songs and arrangements for choral groups to perform and/or record.

One striking Guerrilla song was “The Unconquerable Van Troi”, written by Nguyen Tho about a Vietcong hero, Nguyen Can Troi:

We are millions, ready to follow your example.

Your death was like your life,

Heroic and glorious!

Oh, Nguyen Van Troi, beloved hero,

Your example shines above the whole nation!

Van Troi, a Vietcong urban-guerrilla, was 17-years old in 1963 when he was captured by South Vietnamese forces after trying to assassinate both U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. His execution was delayed shortly when FALN rebels in Venezuela kidnapped and threatened to kill U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Smolen, but Smolen was released and Van Troi was killed. His legacy lived on however, in the hearts, minds and songs of the Vietcong guerrillas.

The Vietcong operated secretly in South Vietnam, using an elaborate system of underground tunnels and jungle hideouts to launch small but relentless attacks against both the South Vietnamese military and the United States. The tunnel systems weren’t just hideouts, they were living spaces, with medical facilities, food storage, sleeping space and meeting rooms for military planning.

The most infamous tunnels were at Cu Chi, but there were hundreds of miles of tunnels in the South, often connecting a community together, serving as roads between towns, and even going right under U.S. bases.

Musicians as well as other performance groups operated in these tunnels to encourage the resistance and raise morale. Dang Thi Linh was a dancer in one of these traveling performance groups. Having lost both her parents to American attacks, she sought to help raise morale among the guerrillas. Peasants would travel through the tunnels to catch performances, staying silent to conserve air and stay hidden. Above ground when it was safe they would sing along.

Pham Sang was a popular composer who wrote songs and plays for these traveling theater groups. Though he and his audience wanted to explore love and other personal stories in song, his superiors pushed him to write war songs like “Cu Chi, The Heroic Land”:

We are Cu Chi people who go forward to kill the enemy

We go through danger, bullets and fire to fight for our native land.

Our country is a fortress standing against the Americans,

Cu Chi is a heroic land

Let’s grow manioc plant all over the bomb craters and make them green

We kill the Americans with their own shells and bombs

We kill the enemy and increase our production

Those were our glorious victories.

Bowing to pressure from his superior Buy Lap, who suggested that “even love songs should be political”, he combined topics to satisfy both crowds:

I love you

I miss you and wait for you,

Liberation Fighter

Let’s fight the enemy together

Some officers were nervous about the numbers in the tunnels, and some felt that this music should only be for the soldiers, not anybody who wanted to hear it. In response to this, Pham Sang took crowds up top at night. Here they would find a B-52 bomb crater and convert it into an amphitheater and lay planks of wood down as a stage While the audience would sit in caves dugout of the sides of the crater. This was risky, but the need for entertainment and hope was such that the risk was worth it. If planes came overhead, the crowd would hear them in time and the tunnels would once again be occupied.

After the Tet Offensive of 1968, when the Vietcong and NLF launched a massive attack to try to seize Saigon and other major cities, many of the tunnels were exposed and became too dangerous to travel.

Outside of the tunnels, musicians and composers accompanied the soldiers through the thick of battle. And they didn’t just sing about the liberation war, many were there first hand to give support and some gave their lives. Tuong Vi, Tran Chat, Minh Nguyet and Kim Cuc, all singers, were present in Tri Thien (Central Highlands) with the PAVN and VC, and sometimes sang through telephone lines to guerrillas guarding command posts. Many composers, including Ngoc Minh and Chu Nghi died on the battlefields of South Vietnam.


In the safer areas of the North, though still threatened by U.S. bombing raids, Red Music was performed openly to urge citizens to resist the Americans and their puppet government in South, and to cherish the land of Vietnam.

Songs like Giai phong Mien Nam (Liberate the South) urged strong physical resistance:

Liberate the South,

We are heading to kill American Imperialism,

the invaders Blood and bones fell down,

the feud is high The country has been divided for many years

Cuulong and Truongson urge us to go to kill enemies

Stand up people, to rescue our country Our fate is coming,

Dawn is going and we will build our future

In “My Native Land, Quang Binh”, Hoang Van combines the call for resistance with a love for the land of Vietnam:

Oh militia girl who stands guard on the coast,

Oh army man whose vigil guards our skies,

Our native land will flourish more each day,

And the seeds of revolution sprout all green!

Quang Binh, my native land,

I will defend your earth and sky.

I will protect all that we love,

My native land.

Pham Tuen, born in Hanoi, was one of the more popular composers of Nhac Do. His songs rallied Vietnamese to join the liberation war and described the horrors inflicted on Vietnam by the French, American and South Vietnamese troops. He still performs too, continuing the tradition of topical song as well as writing many children’s songs.

According to Vietnam News, a provincial leader recently asked Tuen to write a particular song for a local famous singer to sing, but Tuen refused, telling him “I compose songs for the community so everyone can sing them.” It is this commitment to community that earned him the popular nickname “The Composer of the People”.

When North Vietnam first sent its troops to the South to fight the United States and unify the movements of the South, Tuen was writing songs in support, to rally soldiers to the cause of liberation. Other songs, like “The Boatwoman’s Song”, described and glorified the role regular folks played in the war for liberation:

Ohay! I pull my oars,

So my soldiers brothers may cross the river!

Here it’s very cold, and your way is very long.

For all of us, you endure such pain,

And such privation! Ohay! Ohay!

My boat breaks through the waves!

With the soldiers of the Liberation Army,

I am crossing the river,

So that they may get to the front!

The enemy has set our country ablaze,

With the raging fires of war;

But you are guarding the villages,

And building a future for us all,

So that everywhere our songs will rise.

Faster, Ohay! My sisters, faster!

And tomorrow we will welcome them home in triumph!

One of his most popular and darker songs was “Ha Noi – Dien Bien Phu”, which described 12 days and nights of air raids in Ha Noi in December 1972, in which American bombers destroyed much of the city where he was born, including parts of his house and piano. A PAVN veteran named Truong Van Dung, interviewed in 2004, said this song “encouraged soldiers across the nation, including those at the front” and “gave us strength to overcome our difficulties to sacrifice ourselves for national independence.”

Tuen met with Pete Seeger in 1973 after hearing him sing Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad of Ho Chi Minh” on a North Vietnamese newsreel. After meeting Seeger and being introduced to one of the foundations of American anti-war song-writing, Tuen composed “Gay Dan Len Hoi Nguoi Ban My” (Keep on Strumming, My American Friends). The song faded in popularity after the withdraw of U.S. troops but surfaced again more recently in a new context, calling Americans to address the effects of Agent Orange.

Speaking of American friends, it should be noted that not all liberation fighters were Vietnamese, and not all the songs glorifying them were Vietnamese. An underground folk song of the 60’s told the tale of one GI who joined the resistance. “Ballad of the Unknown Soldier” was written by Rod Shearman after reading a newspaper article in England about a GI found dead in Vietcong territory wearing sandals and “black pajamas”.

The song was sung by Rod Shearman, Peggy Seeger, Barbara Dane and Jack Warshaw, an American draft resister living in England, among others:

Come and Listen to a story I will tell

Of a young GI you will remember well.

He died in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta land,

He had sandals on his feet and a rifle in his hand.


I wonder what was his name?

I wonder from which town he came?

I wonder if his children understood the reason why

Of the way he had to fight and the way he had to die.

They say that December ’65

Was the last time he was ever seen alive.

It was U.S. Army lies that caused him to decide

To leave his old top sergeant and fight on the other side.

Was he lonesome for his homeland far away?

Fighting with his new companions night and day?

In the base and jungle camps they tell about a man

Sharing hardships with his comrades fighting on the other side.

It was in the month of April ’68,

In the Delta land he met a soldier’s fate.

He fought to his last breath and he died a hero’s death,

And he wore the black pajamas of the People’s NLF.

Well it’s now that poor soldier’s dead and gone.

His comrades and his friends are fighting on.

And when the people win, of their heroes they will sing,

And his name will be remembered with the name of Ho Chi Minh.

This story was not alone. Other articles emerged, both during and after the war, of the “White Cong” or “Yankee Cong”. One of the more infamous stories describes an American duo called “Salt and Pepper”, a black GI and a white GI who led Vietcong soldiers in an attack in Quang Ngai City in 1974, after the American Withdraw was nearly complete. Another, from the Can Tho Army Airfield in the Mekong Delta area, tells of a black NCO who canceled medevacs in support of the Vietcong. Another told the tale of a GI named Porkchop who fought alongside the Vietnamese.

Both the North Vietnamese and the NLF published leaflets directed towards black GIs urging them to join their ranks. Some, like the interrogators in prisons in the North, allegedly studied African American literature. Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, offered in a 1970 letter to send Black Panthers to assist the NLF in battle. Soldiers have also reported that, especially following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Vietcong guerrillas would shoot only at white GIs.

The only U.S. soldier ever charged for alleged participation in the “Yankee Cong” was Bobby Garwood, a Marine captured in 1965 by communist forces, who was said to have collaborated with the Vietcong.


As the war dragged on, Red songs took a sometimes sad but optimistic tone. Composer Xuan Hong wrote “Spring Comes to the Liberated Areas”, imagining the future which so many guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers were fighting for:

The spring comes again to the forest.

The wild bird song is heard in the trees.

Springtime has come to our base camp,

And the wind shakes the rustling leaves

Spring of our victory!

The birds sing of joy!

Tomorrow the flowers present themselves

Smiling, to rejoice with the younger soldier

Who has one more year in his life,

One more year for brave exploits

Expected and awaited by our people.

Spring comes to the resistance base,

And the smoke smudges our roof,

And on this hut the only thing I have to give you

Is a song

Oh, the springtime in our forest camp

Makes me homesick for my village and friends.

My will hardens, we must drive out our enemy,

So that all our people can experience the spring.

And someday when the spring comes,

Flowers will bloom in all our houses

I will meet my brother soldiers,

And we will speak of old times,

Of the days when we fought with such courage.

The flowers will unfurl,

To welcome the spring with gladness

The old folks and the young,

All together we sing our songs.

In our country there are four seasons,

And all of them are spring!

Resolved to build our future,

All our people sing together.

At the announcement of the fall of Saigon, Tuen wrote a song that is still played today at Football matches and public meetings, “Nhu Co Bac Ho Trong Ngay Vui Dai Thang (“As if Uncle Ho Were Still With Us On the Day of Great Victory”). Luong Ngoc Thuan, also a PAVN veteran, describes this song: “It is as if the song helped show the sacred feelings of everybody in the country.”


The political song tradition that emerged from South Vietnam in the war years is called Nhac Phan Chien, or protest music. These songs were often banned but remained popular among students and educated folks.

Stemming from the broader tradition of “Nhac Vang”, Yellow Music, which defined most of the popular music of the South at the time, Nhac Phan Chien touched on issues relating to the government of Ngo Din Diem, the American invasion and the war with the North. The music was often close to the peace movement, which grew out of Buddhist reaction to Diem’s repressive laws and his emphasis on putting Catholics in position of authority over Buddhists (though religion was not the major source of tension). Large demonstrations by Buddhists in the South were a major factor in the toppling of Ngo Dinh Diem’s government in 1963.

The most popular song-writer to emerge from this movement was Trinh Cong Son, a mid-20s composer, painter and song-writer that Joan Baez called “The Bob Dylan of Vietnam”. This title matched his popularity, as he grew to be one of the most popular artists in South Vietnam and is generally considered one of the founders of modern Vietnamese music.

Khanh Ly, who became the first Vietnamese woman to headline her own shows, helped popularize Son’s songs in the earlier years and the two often performed together on university campuses. Their shows often lasted over 4 hours.

Though public performances, distribution, and radio and television broadcasts of his music were banned by the South Vietnamese government, Trinh Cong Son’s music maintained popularity, and he became more popular than of any South Vietnamese military or political figure. Students attended his concerts at universities and black market tapes of his songs flourished. These tapes found their way to soldiers on both sides of the war, even though his songs were criticized by the North Vietnamese government for being “defeatist” and not pro-armed struggle.

His grim and sad anti-war songs, like “Bai Ca Danh Cho Nhung Xac Nguoi”, or “Songs for the Corpes”, painted a dark picture of life:

The bodies of the dead lie floating in the river

They lie in the field,

On the rooftops of the city

And in the winding streets

The bodies of the dead lie lost

Under the eaves of the pagodas

In the churches of the city

At the doorsteps of the deserted houses

Oh Spring – the bodies of the dead bring a scent to the rice paddies

Oh Vietnam – the bodies of the dead add breath to tomorrow’s soil

The way there, though full of obstacles

Because around here – here were humans

The bodies of the dead lied all around here

In this cold rain

Near the bodies of the old and weak

Lie the bodies of the young and innocent

Which body is the body of my brother

In this cave

In those burnt out areas

Next to the maize and sweet potato field

Cold and dark songs like this illustrated the horrors of the war and touched the hearts of Vietnamese folks on both sides of the border. His darkest song was “Tinh Ca Nguoi Mat Tri” (“Love Song of a Madman”):

I had a lover who died at the Battle of Pleime

I had a lover in the Tactical Zone D

died at the Battle of Dongxoai

died out there in Hanoi

died in haste along the border

I had a lover who died at the Battle of Chu Bruang

I had a lover whose body was floating in the river

died in the paddy field

died in the thick jungle

died cold and lonely, his body charred

I want to love you, love Vietnam

On a windy day, I would go calling quietly

Calling your name, the name of Vietnam

Feeling closer in the voice of the yellow skin

I want to love you, love Vietnam

The day I have just grown, my ears are used to bullets and mines

My hands between my lips

As of today I have forgotten the languages of humans…

I had a lover who died at the Battle of Ashau

I had a lover who died curled in the fetal position

died in a ravine

died near the bridge pylon

died in an anguish with not a rag on his body

I had a lover who died at the battle of Baza

I had a lover who died last night

died all of a sudden

died without any warning / any appointment

No hatred, died peacefully as if in a dream

Along with these songs song are over 600 others, opposing the war, crying out for unification, cherishing the cultural legacies of Vietnam, singing of love and longing for a peaceful existence.

He also wrote angry protest songs like “Gia Tai Cua Me” (“Mother’s legacy”):

A thousand years of Chinese reign

A hundred years of French oppression.

Twenty years of brother fighting brother each day,

A mother’s fate – bones left to dry,

And graves that fill a mountain high.

Teach your children to speak their minds.

Don’t let them forget their kind–

Never forget their kind, from old Viet land.

Mother wait for your children to come home,

Childern who now so far away roam.

Children of one father, be reconciled.

To reconcile the misery and depression of living through war, he wrote songs like “Cho Nhin Que Huong Sang Choi” (“Wait to see the brilliant father land”) about the hopes and dreams of the regular people of South Vietnam:

Waiting for the bugle to sound to bring home all the boys

Waiting for hearts to no longer hold any hatred and grudges

Waiting for nights without curfews and mornings with comfort

Waiting for the aromatic rice to grow under the hands of our own people

Waiting for the hearts that love the country and are determined to build the peace

Waiting for the hearts that are happy throughout the villages

Waiting for the land to resound of songs of freedom

Waiting for trees to change leaves; waiting for flowers to blossom

Waiting for us to go around streets that are not strange

Waiting for a bright country and the mothers’ eyes are no longer blurred with tears

In “Toi Se Di Tham” (“I Will Visit”), Son describes himself in the future, in a unified and peaceful Vietnam:

When my country is in peace, I’ll go endlessly

From Saigon to Central, Hanoi to the South

I shall go amid the collective joy

And hope to forget my country’s story


Saigon fell in 1975, and the communist forces started re-organizing society and culture by force, creating what they considered a socialist society.

Although is seems there would be a mutual understanding among topical song-writers, there was tension and even bitterness between the musicians of the North and the South after unification.

By the late 70s “Yellow Music” was been targeted by the regime. The music was criticized by authorities who claimed it was non-political and sad, encouraging listeners to be apathetic. It was in this period that Son, who also supported Buddhists calls for the communists to respect religious rights and practices, was persecuted by the new government and sentenced to 4 years in a “retraining camp” (meaning ‘re-education’ and farm labor).

During the communist assault on Yellow Music, and the imprisonment of Son and many other composers and artists, Pham Tuen (the Red composer we discussed earlier) described this music as creating “within the listener a feeling of beauty, a carefree feeling not bound by any political ties; in substance it hypnotizes listeners and draws them from the orb of the national and class struggles.”

It is all the more ironic then, that when Radio Saigon was seized by communist forces during the final push, his music was played for days.


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