Even from the very outskirts of this small village in Northern Vietnam you can hear the echo of beautiful folk songs being sung by beautiful women. Festival time has arrived and all the villagers have butterflies in their stomachs. Moving closer to take a look, the Quan Ho singers appear in their multitudes. They are performing inside what is known a Thuy Dinh, a small palace floating in the middle of a lake, in Den Do village of Dinh Bang of Bac Ninh Province, an hour bike-ride from Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital.
Xuan Lan, a 65-year-old retired literature teacher, is the show’s artistic director and she has been singing this ancient folk form since she was a young woman. “I don’t know why, but the locals here are gifted with this beautiful voice especially for Quan Ho folk songs, maybe there is someting in the water we drunk growing up” she tells Chào, laughing.
Quan Ho is distinctive traditional music of the Kinh Bac [northern] region, with Bac Ninh and Bac Giang provinces the home of the music. There is no consensus on when the music began. Some say that it was as far back as the 11th century, others believe that it is as recent as the 17th. Traditionally, the performances see two groups of singers playfully dueling with each other in a form of courtship. The Lien chi are the female singers and the Lien anh are the males.
There are many competing myths and legends as to how this particular art form arose, but the most popular is that Quan Ho originated in Viem Xa village in Bac Ninh Province when the daughter of King Hung flatly refused to marry the man that her father had chosen for her.
Instead she travelled around the country with her ladies-in-waiting. On her journey, she and her staff are said to have been swept away to Viem Xa village by a sudden hurricane. It is here she remained to help rebuild the village, learning to farm and singing folk songs. Even today, the Vua Ba Temple in the village receives thousands of visitors every year, coming to honor the “mother of Quan Ho,” particularly ahead of the annual festival.
The name Quan Ho itself means “courtier stops,” courtiers being those who held important roles as assistants to the King at court. It is said that one day a courtier was crossing a river, and he heard beautiful singing from the mudflats that immediately stopped him in his tracks to listen.
Quan Ho costumes are a far cry from those worn by, say, Vietnamese Tuong performers, which are fancy, ornate and complicated. Quan Ho clothing is discrete and graceful, which is believed to chime with the values of those who sing it. The Lien anh usually wear what appear to be long black gowns and black head turbans while carrying their iconic black umbrellas, which are used to protect them from rain and sun, though today are sometimes used as classic fashion accessories.
The Lien chi usually wear an iconic multi-layered dresses called mo ba mo bay, which matches their khan mo qua, the wide black scarves that wrap around their heads almost resembling a crow’s beak, and are believed to make the face look thinner, giving it an oval shape, which was much desired in the past. The costume is supposed to emphasize the unique beauty of each woman, making them more attractive to their male suitors.
“We are not simply singing this beautiful music, but actually living it. Living the actual Quan Ho cultural ideals that the lyrics teach us.”
The most unforgettable and visually stunning aspect of their outfits are the enormous one-of-kind flat hats called non quai thao, which are surely some of the widest brimmed hats known to man. At first glance you are unlikely to think they are hats at all, such are their absurd size. They are woven from dried palm, have with a silk strap, and are even fitted with a small mirror cunningly hidden inside so that the singers are able to do a quick check of their hair and make-up before they start singing.
On being asked about these exotic hats, Lan’s eyes light up and she becomes animated explaining the outré headwear: “In the past, farmers needed a big hat on the field to hide from the sun, and it has remained the same until now,” she says. “Of course, the hats add to the ladies’ attractiveness. But not just that, they have also been used as an audio amplifier speaker when they bring it down near their faces, making their beautiful voice go further and sound better.”
We don’t sing Quan Ho, we play Quan Ho
During our talk, Lan suddenly holds her breath and whispers as if about to impart some secret information of vital importance: “The thing is, true Quan Ho singers don’t sing,” she says. “We play. “We are not simply singing this beautiful music, but actually living it. Living the actual Quan Ho cultural ideals that the lyrics teach us.”
As Quan Ho was mainly about “making friends” in the past—specifically the males of one village making friends with the females of another—the lyrics and etiquette surrounding the performance are nuanced, ultra-polite and hospitable, a far cry from the romantic pop-songs of today.
Lan explains that to her the entire culture behind Quan Ho is about upholding a certain degree of formality, being pious and always maintaining a good morality. It is these life-lessons that she tries to bring to her younger charges today. As the famous Quan Ho song “Khach Den Choi Nha” (When Guests Come) puts it:
“At such a precious event, you become my guest,
Pouring words, singing down this cup of tea for you
You can eat this piece of betel, even though wind is blowing on the bridge”
There is a clear ritualistic aspect to Quan Ho, with the performances creating a panorama of many aspects of traditional Vietnamese life. It is said by some that the folk style is even imbued with the soul of the Kinh Bac people. It is not just about the poetry of the music itself but also creating a sense of community and friendly exchange.
Vu Thi Ha is a 21-year-old University student that has grown up around Quan Ho and performs it to this day. Whenever she hears it she feels nostalgic: “I grew up hearing Quan Ho singers, singing on the floating dragon boat at every festival like Tet, at every important ceremony or at weddings, longevity parties and so on. So whenever I hear it, I feel excitement floating up in the air. When I’m far from home, it really gives me the vibe of home.”
Lan tells me that while anyone can sing Quan Ho, to truly live Quan Ho, to play Quan Ho and let it become a true part of your soul is a much tougher thing. “Nevertheless,” she says. “These days I just feel grateful that Quan Ho is now blooming in every corner of Bac Ninh, and we have not lost our precious tradition.”