Art & Culture
Hello Vietnam, Bonjour Vietnam: a tale of two songs
How two songs with the same name offer very different perspectives on how Vietnam is seen as a nation
Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story
Sometimes meaning is found in music. And so it is with the simple phrase Hello Vietnam, as when used as the title of two drastically different songs. Both created by Western songwriters, the two songs offer conflicting international views of Vietnam over the years. One is a now defunct American perspective, an odd pro-war rallying cry sung with awkward wording. The second, more commonly known in its native French “Bonjour Vietnam,” offers a more enticing view of Vietnam inspired by the Vietnamese diaspora.
Sung by Johnnie Wright, “Hello Vietnam” was composed by Tom T. Hall in 1965. The country-style song differed politically from other songs of the time. Unlike more groovy anti-war anthems such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” Wright’s song is explicitly pro-war. In fact, upon re-listening to Wright’s song, some may feel that he was more interested in beating the jingoistic drum that creating truly beautiful music.
Country music has its detractors and it’s a safe bet that “Hello Vietnam” will win over few fans to the genre. Wright belts somber, patriotic platitudes to the slow crawl of country twang. The lyrics depict a young American soldier’s tearful goodbye to his sweetheart, putting his country before his love. Despite the touching scene, Wright’s warmongering politics muddle the song’s sincerity.
At one point, Wright stops singing altogether to give a rhymed diatribe against communism in Vietnam:
I hope and pray someday the world will learn/
That fires we don’t put out will bigger burn/
We must save freedom now at any cost/
Or someday our own freedom will be lost
Think of it as unrefined spoken poetry a la conservative talk radio.
Nevertheless, Wright’s “Hello Vietnam” was the most successful song of his career. It stayed on the top of the country music chart for three weeks, during the infamous draft that enlisted so many willing and unwilling Americans in to what was an immoral war.
Songwriter Tom T. Hall turned to Vietnam for more inspiration in 1970 with “Girls In Saigon City.” The song is a reverse of “Hello Vietnam.” Instead of a painful goodbye with his girlfriend, an American solider finds himself broken up with while overseas and finds comfort with the local women. While far catchier than “Hello Vietnam,” Hall’s newer song falls into the overused trope of depicting Vietnamese women purely as sex objects.
While the country diddy has waned in popularity over the years, Wright’s song will forever remain a fixture in the war-era zeitgeist thanks to director Stanley Kubrick. The song plays in the opening of “Full Metal Jacket.” As the soldiers ready themselves for boot camp with sullen faces, Wright’s patriotic jingle plays with a big hint of irony.
Our other Hello Vietnam released in 2006, has a much more positive outlook of the country. The emotional ballad is beloved by both Vietnamese citizens and Vietnamese communities across the world. Originally titled “Bonjour Vietnam,” this song is written by French songwriter Marc Lavoine for Belgian singer Pham Quynh Anh. Lavoine was inspired to write the song after meeting Pham Quynh Anh.
Intrigued by Quynh Anh’s fascination of Vietnamese culture despite never being to Vietnam, Lavoine wrote the song to express the singer’s desire to reconnect with her homeland. The poetic lyrics about Vietnam portray the country as a land of exotic wonders, full of Quynh Anh’s personal mysteries:
Tell me all about my color, my hair and my little feet, that have carried me every mile of the way/
Want to see your house, your streets, show me all I do not know/
Wooden sampans, floating markets, light of gold
The moving song offers a rebuke to biased Western interpretations of Vietnam before building into a sweeping crescendo.
All I know of you is all the sights of war/
A film by Coppola, the helicopter’s roar/
One day I’ll touch your soil/
One day I’ll finally know your soul/
One day I’ll come to you, to say Hello Vietnam
Quynh Anh stresses Vietnam with her ancestral accent, adding an air of authenticity to her compelling number.
Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese, resonate with this song. The moving tune was quickly shared across the Internet by Vietnamese people all over the world. Many believe the song to be a message to Vietnam from the Vietnamese diaspora. Despite the many miles and generations of history separating them from Vietnam, the global Vietnamese community still acknowledges and respects their shared culture.
In 2008, Quynh Anh finally got her wish and visited Vietnam for the first time. Before performing at a gala dinner for European Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam, she spent 10 days touring her fabled homeland.
Like any newcomer to Vietnam, Quynh Anh admits to be bewildered by the everyday chaos of Vietnam. “My first impression came immediately after I left the airport. So many motorcycles ran on the street and we were surrounded by them,” she told SGGP News. This was the first time I could see that. It was amazing and something that I never thought I would see.”
Overcoming the immediate culture shock, Quynh Anh’s first time in Vietnam felt like a homecoming. “In Europe, because of the cultural difference, people encourage singers differently. But for me, after a few days of being here, I totally feel like I’m home. While I was walking along the street some days ago, I felt very friendly glances from the pedestrians around and I no longer felt uncomfortable, or that this place is so strange to me.”
“Hello Vietnam” is still popular across the nation and abroad. In fact, many travelers to and around Vietnam have probably already heard the song’s soulful melody. Passengers of Vietjet flights hear the song in a mixture of English and Vietnamese versions, during landings, welcoming them to another beautiful sight in Vietnam.