The millennium-old northern folk music genre of Ca tru is making a comeback after decades of neglect, with more and more young girls training to become dao nuong, or professional singers.
The music is said to have originated in Hanoi during the Ly Dynasty era around 1,000 years ago, mainly to entertain the royal court just like many other Vietnamese arts.
With the unwritten rule that only young, beautiful girls could become dao nuong, things took a nasty turn in the 20th century when mandarins and high-profile officials began to prey on them.
A stigma soon set in and “good” young girls were no longer taking up Ca tru.
The feudal system may have ended in Vietnam in 1945 but the shame persisted until recently.
It took UNESCO’s conferring of the status of an intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding in 2009 for the stigma to be shed and a revival to begin.
It takes years for a young girl to master control over rhythms and tones and become a Ca tru vocalist. It is usually performed as an ensemble with at least two more performers on a ceremonial drum and a dan day, the three-stringed lute.
The most illustrious dao nuong of the 20th century and renowned to this day despite her death 10 years ago was Quach Thi Ho.
Ho is cherished not only for talent but also her great love for and her sacrifice for Ca tru.
During the difficult period in the 20th century, Ho remained steadfast and continued to sing despite being scorned by neighbors.
One of her closest friends is Prof Dr Tran Van Khe, who recorded some of her music in 1976 to take Vietnamese folk music to the outside world.
Two years later, UNESCO and the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation awarded Ho an honorary credential for her contribution to preserving traditional music.
In 1988 the recordings won the top prize at an international traditional music festival in North Korea attended by 29 nations. The same year the Vietnamese government conferred on her the title of People’s Artist, the only Ca tru artist to be thus honored.
Despite fearing the possible extinction of the art form, Ho was hesitant to teach it due to the social prejudices.
Once when writer Luu Trong Van asked her why she refused to teach it, she replied: “Who is willing to learn it? And learn for what?
“A high-profile cultural official told me bluntly that my Ca tru mainly served feudalists and colonialists.
“Let a tree dying out die out,” she quoted him as telling her.
“You just wait to see its flowers blossom,” she replied.
The ancient folk music has been well preserved by at least a family of Nguyen of Hanoi’s Thai Ha, a place with a rich Ca tru tradition.
The family, known commonly as Nguyen Thai Ha, produced many famous singers and three-stringed lute players who performed in royal courts - such as Nguyen Duc Y, Nguyen Van Xuan, and Nguyen Thi Tuyet.
In 1987 Nguyen Van Mui, a fifth generation performer, set up a ca tru ensemble with five of his sons and daughters.
One of his daughters, dao nuong Nguyen Thuy Hoa, 38, was also Ho’s best student. The old master once said that Hoa was the only student who could comprehend and replicate most of what she taught her.
At the age of six Hoa began to train with Ho and at 17 she became a full-fledged dao nuong.
Hoa and her sisters have mastered some 20 different signature songs while the others in the family play the drum and three-stringed lute.
Since 1995 the Nguyen Thai Ha family has been going on tours of countries like France, the UK, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, the US, and China.
Its members have also started training younger generations.