Editor’s Note: Heather Woodward, a Ho Chi Minh City-based American, has been teaching English in Vietnam for two and a half years. She wrote this article to share her feelings about studying the Dan Tranh (plucked zither of Vietnam) and relate it to other forms of Vietnamese traditional arts.
One of the many reasons I've decided to live in Vietnam is to study the Dan Tranh, a beautiful, Vietnamese musical instrument, which I absolutely adore. Ever since I was young, I've wanted to learn how to play an instrument; and here in Saigon, it's both financially feasible and I have enough free time to do so. I've been playing for about a year and six months; playing while belting out traditional Vietnamese folk songs probably (and unintentionally) in a very strong American accent. Although I don't speak Vietnamese, my incredible music teacher, Bao Do Thi Phuong, who speaks English, graciously (and patiently) explains the meaning behind every folk song. That way, I understand what it is I am singing.
Having spoken with my students, I've learned that it is not popular to play a traditional musical instrument. I was told, quite straightforwardly, by one girl, that only people as old as her grandmother play the Dan Tranh. To which I replied, "Do I look like your grandmother?" That shut her up. Of the students in my class who play instruments, most play the piano, which is, arguably, the most western musical instrument of them all. Down the street from my house there is a piano shop, which has rows of keyboards for students to practice. It's quite a hopping joint. Lots of kids come there to practice at night. And, of course, learning to play any musical instrument is excellent; but unfortunately, according to my students, much of the younger generation consider Vietnamese musical instruments to be as cool as their granny's underpants.
I recently went to a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. The entire show was in Vietnamese, but as I looked around at the audience, there were no Vietnamese people there to understand what was being said. There were only westerners who, I'd bet you ten bucks, couldn't understand any of it. Nevertheless, it was a very entertaining show. Those puppeteers can do amazing things. I highly recommend going to see it if you don't mind feeling a bit lost in translation. It seems as though it is the tourists who are keeping these daily culture shows in Ho Chi Minh City alive and in business. These examples, I believe, are just part of a larger trend for the younger generation to embrace more Westernized culture.
If you want to find the younger Vietnamese generation, go to the movie theater, where they're lined up to see the latest Die Hard movie or go to a cafe where they are drinking coffee or if you are really desperate, you can find them at the piano shop near my house. Some Vietnamese argue that the younger generation are wasting themselves by not getting in touch with their cultural heritage. Although, I do wish that some traditional customs came back into vogue, like the Dan Tranh, I realize that culture evolves over time and that the younger generation are just putting their own spin on what it is to be Vietnamese in the 21st century.
There were American traditions that have faded as well. For example, the drive-in movie theatre, malted milkshakes, cracker jacks, and the decline of baseball as America's number one sport. All of these things have been replaced; instead of baseball being the national sport, it's arguably American football. The difference is Vietnam is replacing their traditions with more Westernized traditions, which has to do with globalization. I hope that the government pays more attention to helping these traditional artists so that they could fully devote their life to their job and maintain the national heritages. And younger generations, therefore, have a chance to study the traditional arts.