As a result of our visit to Celtic Connections, a music festival organised in Glasgow, earlier this year, Welsh folk artist, Georgia Ruth, and band mates Iwan Hughes, Dafydd Hughes and Aled Hughes were invited by the British Council to perform in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, in June 2014. This was a unique opportunity for a Vietnamese audience to experience a talented harpist and composer from Wales, as well as for the artists to experience a new country and culture.
Now back in Liverpool, UK, Georgia shares with us her exhilarating experience in the two cities.
Looking back now, Hanoi seems like a dream; a quivering vision of old and new in the extreme heat of Northern Vietnam, and one I’ll not forget in a while.
We’d left Gatwick the previous afternoon, and had travelled forwards through time, arriving Hanoi at 6am the following morning: Wednesday. Tired from the flight, we were nevertheless anxious to see the city we’d been reading so much about. From the airport, we began the journey inwards. Speeding past expansive rice fields, and carried forwards by a never-ending stream of mopeds, we hit Hanoi in the busy morning rush. Decanted right into the heart of the city’s Old Quarter, and under the ever-present gaze of St Joseph’s Cathedral, we set about exploring. And quickly fell in love. Beneath miles of crumbling yellow brickwork, and accompanied - at all times - by the pulsing heat of the afternoon, we wound though dappled, tree-lined streets which seemed to coil forever in upon themselves. Streets to serve every possible whim: for silk, for chickens, for shoes, for wedding gifts, cigarettes, and even for drums - we were totally overwhelmed. But we all agreed, almost immediately, that Hanoi ranked highly in our lifetime list of favourite cities. And it had only taken a matter of hours. Wales felt very far away. That first evening, we plunged once again into the labyrinth of streets in search of food: past the the street vendors in their triangular bamboo hats, past the boys sitting along the shore of the Halair lake, and on until our eyes began to shut against our will, and we were forced to creep back. I think we all slept deeply that night!
The following evening we performed at the Ambassador’s Residence; current ambassador Dr Antony Stokes would soon be leaving his post, and we were performing at the farewell party. An unusual performance for us, then. But despite the heat, we (and the instruments) stayed upright. Despite this, I’d still not heard any live Vietnamese music. And so, the next afternoon, I was thrilled to find myself by accident in a venue on Thang Long which hosted weekly Ca Tru performances. Recognised by UNESCO in 2009, Ca Tru is a ceremonial form of singing which dates back to the courts of the 11th Century. Comprising of three performers, the group centres around one female singer who uses breathing techniques and vibrato to create unique ornamented sounds, while striking a wooden block. The two other musicians play a three-stringed lute and a drum. Unique and special, the tradition is nevertheless in danger of dying out if it is not preserved; and the number of performers is dwindling. It resides on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding - a list which, for someone who sings traditional music, seemed incredibly poignant. I found myself thinking about the poetic ‘cynghanedd’ form, which (also from the courts of the Middle Ages) is still used in Wales today. Inside the old foundations of the merchant house, with birds flitting in the roof and incense burning, the determination of the musicians (young, and senior) to protect the form was incredibly inspiring.
On the Friday, Iwan and I visited the Hope Choir. Based at Hanoi’s Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for the Blind, the young choir was started by its two enthusiastic and lively conductors: pianist Ton That Triem and his wife, soprano Nguyen Xuan Thanh. All the singers are visually impaired, and have performed their diverse repertoire of songs (which ranges from Vietnamese folk songs, to J.S. Bach) on many international stages. But the choir’s members are also all proficient instrumentalists, and it was one of their orchestral pieces which sticks most firmly in my mind today. On that stifling hot afternoon, ‘Nostalgia for the Black Horse’ seemed to us a whirling, galloping race across some imagined, dusky plain. And with its bends and plucked strings, reminded both Iwan and I instantly of the Appalachian folk music we adore (we’d had a similar impression on hearing the Ca Tru performers). This was also our first experience of seeing anyone play the Zither, and what a wonderful introduction to the instrument! I’d like to thank the members of the Hope Choir for the kindness extended to us during our visit. It was such a pleasure to be able to introduce songs from the Welsh-language tradition to such an enthusiastic group - their rousing chorus of “Ymlaen, ymlaen” (forward, forward) in ‘Gyrru’r Ychen’ (an old farming song from Glamorganshire, meaning ‘driving the oxen’) was an emotional moment for us, so far from home. Having said our goodbyes, we drove to the city’s West Lake. As the sun set over the high-risers on the opposite shore, we stepped out over wooden walkways through a smaller lake filled with Lotus flowers. It was a wonderful last view of a city I’d fallen in love with. And which we all hope to visit again.
Ho Chi Minh City
We arrived Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday evening. If Hanoi reminded me of Havana, HCMC was its Parisian older sister. With broad boulevards lined with Bonsai, an impressive Opera house, French pattiseries and a towering Financial District made up of huge sky-scrapers, this was an entirely different city. So again, we went exploring. Here we found large boats cruising along the river, and green parks filled with families. Following a tip written on a piece of paper, we tried our best to find a shop which we’d heard sold old vinyl from the pre-1975 Golden Age (the diverse and exciting sounds of Saigon rock and soul) - but despite our best orienteering attempts through scorching heat in the city’s suburbs, the shop eluded us. Typical, but it was worth a go!
On Wednesday, we played to a large audience at the HCMC Conservatory: the city’s only public music conservatoire, which admitted students at age 18 to study a wide range of instruments: classical and traditional. I was very moved by the warm reception we were given during the evening. The songs in Welsh seemed to please the audience most, and they seemed to love the saddest ones the best - fortunate, given the ratio of sad to happy in the set-list that night! I was even more surprised when, after the gig, I heard a voice address me in Welsh (with a proper Ynys Mon accent) - a young teacher who’d recently moved to the city, and who’d read about our visit in the Daily Post!
Having had another day to explore and to taste what HCMC had to offer, it was time for our last workshop in Vietnam. This time, we travelled to the Soul Academy, a relatively young music and dance academy run by Thanh Bui (who rose to fame in Australian Idol in 2008) in the city’s District 3. We were met by a lovely classroom of students of various ages who listened to us perform some of my songs, and then proceeded to ask a range of interesting questions about my songwriting. It was a real pleasure to meet such a sweet and energised bunch of kids, and I was impressed by the technical resources available to them. Waving goodbye, it seemed to me that this school was a product of a new, rapidly-changing Vietnam - in which an international approach to the musical curriculum is quickly becoming the norm. And I found myself thinking again about the Ca Tru performers in Hanoi, and that unyielding conflict between cultural preservation and the apparent urgency of progress; a conflict which felt strangely familiar somehow. As we prepared to leave HCMC, I realised that I’d been lucky enough to experience both sides: the old, and the very new.
There’s so much more that we were desperate to discover about Vietnam. Sadly, there wasn’t time. But I only hope that we’ll all be able to return one day, and maybe even to welcome our new friends to Wales.
Our thanks to Hong, Them and the British Council team in Hanoi, and to Yen and her team in HCMC for their kindness and hospitality.
Diolch yn fawr
Georgia Ruth x