“Where can I find older artists in Vietnam?” I ask the Cultural Director for UNESCO in Hanoi. Two hours later I am in the Old Quarter in search of the Ca Tru Club. Here I hope to find their founder, Ms. Lei Thi Bach Van performing. At sixty, she is considered by many a “hero” for single handedly saving an ancient art form. I am here spending six weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia on a research mission to study the impact of the arts on the lives of older artists and their cultures.
I step hesitantly off the curb to cross the street into the sea of chaos that is modern day Hanoi: 8 million people and 5 million motorbikes. You have to keep walking and not dare stop until you are safe on the other side. I walk past the outdoor markets, the hustle of food vendors, the sizzling smell of meat on a grill, clothing vendors hawking knock off name brands, noisy streets filled with young people drinking beer. Nobody is over thirty.
A right turn, and I am at the Ca Tru Temple. I leave the traffic, noise and all of modern day Hanoi behind. I step into the past of a serenely quiet courtyard filled with caged birds and ancient instruments. Shortly, I am seated in the front row with ten other tourists. Exactly at 8:00pm, the performance begins and a stunningly beautiful woman dressed in long black velveteen appears and begins singing to the sounds of the instruments. It is Ms. Lei Thi Bach Van. Time stops.
“When I heard that kind of voice and song I fell in love. . . this kind of art is very beautiful because it comes from the poem” she tells me the next morning. Ca Tru is an ancient genre of chamber music of Vietnam formed in the late 15th century. It combines music and poetry and was performed at the royal court. Yet under the Communist insurgency, Ca Tru was made illegal in the mid 1940’s. People caught performing it risked jail or being “blacklisted.”
Bach Van has been singing since she was 5 years old. As a young adult in the early 1980’s, she discovered Ca Tru and has dedicated her life to preserving it ever since. Initially she encountered great resistance. It had been outlawed for many years and the older adults who knew the music were very resistant to teach her.
“When I go the provinces and meet those kind of people, they try to deny. They say that they don’t know. It is hard because the society doesn’t respect that kind of art. I have to find a way to talk to the families many many times, back and forth, back and forth, getting relationship with the families and have the families adopt me as a daughter.”
To bring Ca Tru to a younger generation, Bach Van established the Hanoi Ca Tru Club in 1991, with over 200 members, becoming the first one in Vietnam.
“I want to share with the young people. It’s really hard to find the audience and hard to find the right singers who are talented enough to observe, to learn and study this kind of art. The young people who are involved in this kind of art have to be the people who love the country, love the music. The nation needs to support them.”
Thanks entirely to her efforts, UNESCO has recognized the music as an “intangible cultural heritage.” And for her great contributions she was awarded the title of “Meritorious Artist” and is considered by many “a hero.”
A week later I am invited to interview her at her home. Climbing rickety stairs above a vegetable shop, I see another side: that of an artist who has struggled all her life, selling fruit, being black listed, contributing her own money to support the Club and performances.
“This kind of music is hard to earn money because you have to find the right audience. The young people pay more attention to songs that are easier to learn and other kinds of music will help them earn more money. The Vietnamese people still do not know very much about this. That’s why my dream has not come true yet.”
Pursuing a dream is a luxury for most older adults in Vietnam and Cambodia. In all my travels I rarely saw any people over 60. Later I learned that most live in rural areas, continue to work in the fields and stay with their families, receiving little or no pension. The older artists that I met — painters, musicians and dancers — live in cities where they can continue to practice their lifetime endeavors. Like Ms. Bach Van, their dreams are to save the art forms that they grew up with from disappearing. They draw from the rich melange of cultures that are the ironic byproduct of domination by many other countries. These people have survived wars, genocide and enormous poverty for much of the past century. It has decimated cultural ruins and made the practice of certain “traditional” arts illegal and dangerous. Throughout it all their art has been a bulwark of meaning, joy and endurance. Now, as older artists their art helps them survive economically and expand their social contacts. Most important, it provides a reason for them to get up in the morning and encounter the challenges of daily life with renewed purpose and strength.