Ancient Vietnam in Hue

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Madame Thanh Tam (l) and Madame Thanh Hoai (r) with me in my new ao dai dress

Madame Hoai hugged me following the performance by the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin and said in Vietnamese — “America and Vietnam, we are friends.”

With the Ken Burns – Lynn Novick documentary “The Vietnam War” bringing a new perspective to our countries’ shared history, I am reflecting daily about my own personal journey over the past 12 years in this incredible country. My husband and I are honored to have been appointed in 2015 by Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture as Vietnam’s first American artistic advisors. This is a result of many years of work in the country with our ensemble as well as recognizing our assistance in founding the three-year old Hanoi New Music Ensemble. Our Vietnam experiences are detailed in my book — the story is personal and lengthy, very different from the important narrative of an historical documentary.

I will piece together our story in upcoming blogs, so please stay tuned if this interests you. However, we are currently here for six weeks this fall for performances, planning meetings, coaching, and lots of great food and conversation. We are also collaborating with some of the country’s leading musicians, so I wish to work backwards and begin with our trip to the imperial city of Hue in late September to observe performances by the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin.

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Vu Nhat Tan (l) and Dam Quang Minh (r)

Vu Nhat Tan is the artistic director of the Hanoi New Music Ensemble; Dam Quang Minh is the artistic director of the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin. In the United States, it is rare for Baroque music and contemporary music groups to interact. In Vietnam, traditional music is new to most Vietnamese, so a mix of the two becomes a stimulating cultural presentation. Tan has written a new work, Kim [Metal], that combines both of the ensembles in a contemporary setting. To prepare for the premiere, we traveled with Hanoi’s Ancient Ensemble to hear them in two performances in Hue, where they collaborated with the Hue Ancient Ensemble. This was also a moving reunion of dear friends on stage.

Meeting two of Vietnam’s leading artists is something I will never forget. Madame Hoai of Hanoi and Madame Tam of Hue are two of the country’s most well-known traditional Vietnamese singers. Madame Tam is in her 70s and sang in her youth for Emperor Bao Dai, Vo Nguyen Giap, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ho Chi Minh. She is a living link to the country’s 20th century history.

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In my traditional Vietnamese ao dai dress

And, Madame Hoai and Minh insisted on treating me to a traditional Vietnamese dress, the ao dai, one of the great fashion statements of all time. It is custom tailored from only one short session of measurements. Just before the performance began, Madame Hoai ran up to me to be certain that I knew to wash my new dress only with shampoo — this is a woman who pays attention to every detail!

My husband Jeff will be conducting the new work joining the ensembles in Hanoi, so he was especially interested to learn more about the three singers and instrumentalists who will perform with the Hanoi New Music Ensemble. The first of two performances took place at Hue University. As we were ushered into the auditorium, I thought I saw a familiar face. “Have we met before?” I asked the young woman.

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Huong Lan, featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN

She looked at me and said “I don’t think we have met before.” I insisted that she looked familiar. Finally, she said “Do you watch Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN?” It was Huong Lan, who was featured prominently on Bourdain’s fantastic episode on Hue. Lan writes a food blog and worked in the travel industry. She was tapped by Bourdain to take him around Hue and appear on the show. Jeff and I have watched the segment at least five times, so Lan was in fact very familiar to us. She was gracious and, as fellow bloggers, we are planning to keep in touch. Her blog about the imperial city of Hue is

Members of the Ancient Ensembles taking their bows

The performance was packed, with Jeff and I seated in chairs reserved for “The American guests.” The costumes you see in the photo above are from the time of the Emperor, a more traditional form of the ao dai and a long coat over trousers for the men. The makeup is extensive, and the circular rings are placed on the back of the head in the Hanoi style. It is striking, and the movement of the silk while the women sing brings a dance element into their performance. Some of the songs are for ensemble, others for solo voice. Despite not understanding Vietnamese, we could easily tell which song was about a scorned woman who turns into a cat, or a lighter ballad that talks about family life. It is varied and the instrumentation changes with each selection.

Following the performance, all of the performers and guests were treated to a special Hue cuisine meal. Poet Nguyen Duy shared his home brewed cognac that was masquerading in a whiskey bottle and everyone was extremely happy. Bring musicians together over food and drink, and everyone is sure to become good friends.

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Enjoying a post-performance meal together.

The following night found us at a performance and extraordinary dinner at a private restaurant inside the historic Citadel. We were pleased to share a meal and conversation with Thao Griffiths who is Policy Advisor to the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, responsible for the organization of many of the APEC meetings taking place in Vietnam. She was an Eisenhower Fellow at American University, travels regularly to the U.S., and works closely with our Embassy — we have many friends in common. Nguyen Duy, one of Vietnam’s most well-known poets, was also at our table. I have had the pleasure of hearing him read his poetry at performances with the most wonderful delivery possible, including a wonderful rendition at Hue University the evening before.

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Poet Nguyen Duy (left) and Thao Griffiths (right)

Following another delicious imperial meal, we were treated to an imperial performance. We enjoyed the music as it would have been presented centuries ago without amplification in an intimate setting,

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Performance featuring singer Madame Tam with instrumentalists of the Ancient Ensemble of Hue and the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin

The following day, Minh took all of us around Hue, visiting historic houses, temples, pagodas and special neighborhoods, followed by yet another Hue meal. Jeff focuses his blog, Sound Travels, on food, travel and music. I suggest you read more about this wonderful trip on his blog at But what I can tell you about is the amazing camaraderie between musicians found everywhere in the world. Whether working in Mexico, Vietnam or Europe, lack of common language is never a hindrance to having a great time together. Over food and beer, we find a way to communicate and become friends. Facebook and email assure that we are never out of touch. The inspiration found in music binds us together and assures lifelong friendships.



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