Nostalgic melodies: the music of the past

legendary singer Khanh Ly

Our family has always been fond of music. It has become intrinsically connected to my memory of my youth and my impressions of our identity as a family.

My earliest memory of my sister is a musical one: the two of us lying together on a futon in the one bedroom all four of us shared when we first immigrated to Hawaii, me half asleep, my sister singing songs from a lyrics book she held in one hand as she stroked my hair slowly with the other.



Returning to the memories of student days

Pure white dresses coloring the campus

The chaste everyday life of a student,

Beautiful and vibrant like a fresh flower

With its small worries, its trifling sorrows

The soul unburdened, untouched by anyone

Eyes full of innocence, hair flowing freely

The word ‘love’ flows across the ears,

Yet love has not yet touched the heart,

The beginning of spring beckons with the promise of tomorrow

Youth has passed by, friends scattered here and there

Far and distant, a horizon away

Remembering them affectionately, you say a few words

Recalling the sound of their names, in those moments side by side,

Happily passing time in that beloved school,

All those deep feelings, so hard to forget

Now, the memories flow with the passage of time

The days pass by, flowers bloom, then wilt away

Trying to survive amidst a lavish world

Drifting in the vicissitudes of life

Looking back in fondness to those long-gone memories.


Even before we came to the U.S., I was already old friends with Vietnamese music.  By the time I was three I knew by heart all the lines of at least two cai luong (Vietnamese renovated opera) plays.  I loved going to the theater to watch cai luong shows with my nanny, delighting in the rich story-lines, the vibrant costumes, and most of all, the splendid voices of the lead performers.

A cai luong performance often features music from a variety of genres, with lots of melodies borrowed from foreign music as well as folk melodies, but the most celebrated bits are the stanzas of vong co.  Vong co (literally meaning “nostalgia for the drumbeat”) is made up of less than two dozen lines of melodies, originally derived from a single song written by South Vietnamese composer Cao Van Lau.  In cai luong, the various melodies are re-used, over and over, in different permutations, to convey the emotion felt by the characters in the story.  Vong co is so difficult to sing that it takes decades of training to perfect one’s voice.  It’s common for a show to boast only a handful of really good singers among the many roles in a production.

Listening to a vong co performance, one can somewhat predict the turns and bends a singer’s voice will take based solely upon what has already been sung.  The melody has become ingrained in one’s mind; it is like recalling a conversation with an old friend.  Despite this constant repetition, each vong co song retains its individuality, and one never gets tired of listening to it, but instead relishes in the familiarity, marvels at the poetry of each separate incarnation.  No music in the world moves me the way vong co does.

(Sorry, too complicated to translate, but you can just feel the emotions.  Sung by the legendary King of Vong Co, Ut Tra On:)


There are things that come quite close to vong co in my heart, however.  I have a deep love for the way Vietnamese music represents nostalgia.  The Vietnamese music that I love the most are those songs that existed before the Vietnam war and those that are a direct result of the war.   I’m not a very patriotic person by nature, and I don’t have the same nostalgic feelings towards Vietnam, in particular–other than the overwhelming urge to eat All The Food again!–but these songs about loss and love and nostalgia for a time that has gone by are just so beautiful I almost can’t bear them.

Especially when they are sung by the incredible Khanh Ly.  Her voice just evokes nostalgia.  She’s so good that she’s even mentioned in the lyrics of the song:


O, Saigon. I’ve lost you, the way you’ve lost your name

Like a river whose waters have been swept away

Like a person departed, face at a distance, far from the heart

I wonder to myself, do you still remember?

O, Saigon, where are the days when the city was in a bustle

Within that joy of a question, a word of greeting

The dawn of life full of freshness and a multitude of colors

What is left of it now?

Who has gone, who still remembers the line of old tamarind trees

The parks in autumn, the yellow flowers, the stone statues

They’re all at an end now, those distant dreams

Swept along the tide of life

O Saigon, where did those rainy-season days go, walking under a coat,

Hand in hand, whispering some phrase or other?

Where are the flower stands, the road home from a music performance

Where is the lively sound of Khanh Ly’s singing?

O Saigon, the days in which we sang side by side have ended

Where now is Pham Duy and the sorrowful love songs

My tears fall, mourning those moments in the beginning

What is left of them now?

O Saigon, I’ve lost you the way you’ve lost your name

Like a row of red leaves, waiting, expectant

The sky reflects a small, gentle figure

Such a pitiful sight, leaving only silence upon the lips

O Saigon, I’ve lost you the way you’ve lost your name

Like cold incense upon a lonely grave

The faraway sky that has abandoned the soil

What is left now?

Cai luong and wartime/post-war Vietnamese music have influenced my aesthetic as a writer more than anything else.  I find that what draws me most in writing are stories about loss, about longing, about disconnects.   This soundtrack of my life not only allows me to tap into the memories of my own past, but is also a doorway to understanding the collective experience of an entire generation of people.  Music brings with it a different perspective, done up in the broad strokes of an artist’s hand.  My writer’s soul would be less vibrant if not for these songs.

I will be listening to them until my very last days.


This week’s Write or Die Wednesday prompt was inspired by “Springsteen” by Eric Church: “Funny how a melody sounds like a memory / Like the soundtrack to a July Saturday night.” Which song(s) brings back memories for you and why?

  • Lani

    Wonderful. I love getting to know another side of you. I hated listening to Thai music growing up. Hahahaha. My mom’s taste were too old school. Although now, I’m okay with it.

    • Tam Lee

      Thanks! Ahaha I think I’m just an old-school kind of person! XD

  • Vashelle

    Tam, thank you so much for sharing this! I feel like learned something new and interesting about Vietnamese music. I watched all of the videos and I especially liked the sound of the one by Ut Tra On.

    I can definitely understand your feelings about the music from your culture and the way it evokes feelings of pride and nostalgia. I feel the same way about mariachi music. It reminds me of my upbringing and my family –grandparents especially :).

    I like listening to world music, so I plan on adding Ut Tra On to my YouTube favorites. Thank you!

    **and I might twitter tag you on one of my favorite mariachi songs so you can listen to one of MY faves :)

    • Tam Lee

      Aaaah glad you found it interesting! Ut Tra On is great! Let me know if you want me to translate anything!

      And please do tag me with music! I love listening to new stuff

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