Ask anyone from Vietnam who Trinh Cong Son is and they’ll either recite you some of his lyrics or tell you about the significance of his music. Son’s compositions of around 600 songs span over 30 years of Vietnamese history. International press dubbed Trinh Cong Son the Bob Dylan of Vietnam. His blend of folk music, mostly referred to as ‘yellow music’, dealt with themes surrounding the human condition; love, loss of love, existentialism, the human race and the unknown fate of the Vietnamese people.
Trinh Cong Son: the Life of an Artist during War
Born in 1939 towards the end of the French colonial period, Trinh Cong Son studied at a French school in Hue. After short stints studying and working in Sai Gon, Quy Nhon and Lam Dong province, he returned to Hue during the Vietnam-American war in 1963. His circle of friends during this time were poets, painters, writers and university lecturers. He never intended to be a songwriter. Singing and playing guitar were passions he discovered during adolescence. For him, music served as a vehicle to release his inner feelings. Son started writing and performing around the late 1950s and by the time he moved back to Hue, he was already an acclaimed musician.
In Hue, Trinh Cong Son shared a modest 2nd floor apartment with his mother and sister that overlooked a small part of the Phu Cam river. During the composition of his first collection of songs, his lyrics dealt in metaphor and surrealism. A female university student, who he would watch from his balcony, would be his muse for approximately 80 of his songs. The most famous of these being Diễm Xưa (Diễm of the Past).
While the war between North and South Vietnam continued , it had hardly touched the city of Hue. Trinh Cong Son’s first collection reflects this as war references only creep into a few of his songs. After the introduction of American troops in 1965 and the escalation of the fighting, the Tet Offensive of 1968 brought about one of Vietnam’s bloodiest battles in Hue. The street below his apartment, where Son once watched his muse, were now filled with dead bodies and the constant roar of firearms and rockets. Son’s songs after this period dropped the surrealism and metaphors in exchange for the same war imagery Vietnamese people were facing every day. Gia Tài Của Mẹ (a Mother’s Legacy) was one of many Trinh Cong Son compositions after the Tet offensive.
During the two-month battle of Hue, Son would sneak to the university and play to the hundreds of civilians that took refuge there. As word of these intimate performances got out, other local artists and musicians would also join in, turning the event into a local jamboree. Bernard Weinraub, an American journalist who befriended Trinh Cong Son, once said that his public performances were so heart-touching that ‘as soon as he [started] strumming his guitar and singing, the audience [wept].’
At a time when Vietnam was politically divided to its very core, Son’s songs were conciliatory and unifying. His stance was apolitical and his only concern was the fate of Vietnam’s people. Trinh Cong Son never aligned himself with any ism except for humanism. ‘I love life with the heart of someone who despairs’ Son wrote at the beginning of his second song collection. His refusal to side with either the communists of the South Vietnamese led to South Vietnamese authorities uncertain on to how to deal with him. They feared (as the communists would later do after reunification), that his songs would strengthen the position of the anti-war movement or influence soldiers into refusing to fight the war they were trying to wage.
In 1969, the South Vietnamese government officially banned Trinh Cong Son’s music from being distributed or played on radio. Similar to the banned dissident writers of the Soviet Union during the Stalin years, Son worked in a fashion similar to samizdat; finding printers that would help copy his work and distribute it underground. Despite becoming somewhat of an outlaw, his songs continued to gain popularity among the South Vietnamese public. His songs gave voice to the thoughts of many who couldn’t express them publicly. He became the spokesman for an entire generation.
Cafe Gac Trinh: The former home of Trinh Cong Son in Hue
While Trinh Cong Son left Hue after reunification, his apartment at 19 Nguyen Truong To street remains and now serves as a small cafe decorated with photos and paintings of the singer-songwriter. Although Cafe Gac Trinh’s function is primarily commercial, the building and it’s surrounding areas have hardly changed since the war. It feels very much like the neighbourhood of Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov in Moscow. Trinh Cong Son was a name once found and later lost in Western news outlets. Tourists visit the city he wrote some of his most famous folk songs without even knowing who he is.
Pictures and portraits of the songwriter decorate the walls. Songs he wrote play softly through the cafe’s speakers. Aside from some of the cafe’s small renovations, Cafe Gac Trinh hasn’t changed much since Trinh Cong Son’s tenancy here. The cafe is minimalist and reflects the singer-songwriters bedouin lifestyle.
Gac Trinh spans four rooms with the front three providing seating areas. A small stage and a communal guitar sit in the corner facing the entrance, free for anyone to perform. The last section, which is accessible to the public, includes a mezzanine with a modest shrine to Son. Although a lot of the objects on show here didn’t belong to Son, there is an original songsheet from one of his early drafts. The wooden table and chair also belonged to him. The balcony at the cafe’s entrance has a couple of stalls facing towards the street below; presumably in the same spot Son sat and gained inspiration for many of his songs.
While there isn’t much to show for those looking for more of an insight into Trinh Cong Son’s life, the area still retains the setting that inspired so many of his songs. The cafe is a great tribute to the artists and romanticists of 20th century Hue.
Reunification and the Echoing Legacy of Trinh Cong Son
On 30th April 1975, the north Vietnamese took control of Saigon and reunified Vietnam. Trinh Cong Son was invited that day to a radio station to sing his song Nối Vòng Tay Lớn (‘Joins Hands in a Great Circle’). It was the first time his music was on public airwaves since 1968. The song imagines people from all over Vietnam holding hands throughout the country, something that had seemed impossible throughout the years of war.
Although offered escape out of Vietnam, Son was determined to stay with his people; ‘we are all Vietnamese.’ he still performed in the 1980s despite his musical output being limited after the war. Throughout the 1990s, he had relocated to Ho Chi Minh City where he played to intimate crowds with his friends at a restaurant. Despite his death in 2001, his songs are still very much in the hearts of Vietnamese people across the country. Today, he is commemorated at festivals with musicians singing his compositions and Youtube vloggers covering his songs. Cafe Gac Trinh stands as a small relic commemorating the life of one of Vietnam’s greatest singer-songwriters.
Cafe Gac Trinh
19 Nguyen Truong To Street* (Second Floor)
*the google maps for the directions to Cafe Gac Trinh are incorrect. This link takes you to the restaurant directly underneath the cafe.
There are some great articles I used when researching for this page:
The Tri̇nh Công Son Phenomenon by Schafer, JC. A fantastic academic paper that looks into understanding the popularity of Trinh Cong Son. A must-read for anyone wanting to know more about Son.
US Newspaper article on Trinh Cong Son’s arrest dated 18/10/1968. Shortly after the Tet offensive.
The Life and Music of Trịnh Công Sơn (Đặng Tiến, 2001. Translated by Gibbs, J). An opinion piece on Trinh Cong Son as an artist, written after his death.
Comparsions to Mikhail Bulgakov, Samizdat and Bob Dylan are purely personal opinions and/or extend as far as the comparatives mentioned above. There are many reasons why Trinh Cong Son or his situation was not like the aforementioned.
Thanks to Mr Minh from Gac Trinh for telling us more about the cafe, Ms Linh for helping with collecting some of the information for this article and Ana Fortuna for her photographs of Gac Trinh Cafe.