Music & Speech

Daniel Bowling really ought to do this study with Vietnamese speakers. In Vietnamese, there is a long tradition of interaction between the six tones of the spoken language & the (mostly pentatonic) music used to accompany songs & poems. Last weekend, I was invited to the home of a family of very talented traditional musicians & treated to an informal concert of various forms of Vietnamese music. In most of these forms, because the language itself is tonal, the poet or songwriter has followed forms that place rising or falling or level tones in particular places in the verse line. The instrumentalist(s) & vocalist, also following a set of conventions, but also improvising within the conventions, perform the text so as to emphasize & play with the composer’s intentions. My sense is, though I’m not entirely sure of this, that, contrary to the Western art song / lieder tradition, the music is driven by the vocal text rather than the other way around.

The musicians I listened to played the đàn tranh & the đàn đáy, stringed instruments with a pentatonic tuning & the ability to bend notes in order to suggest the tonal slides & glides of the Vietnamese language. There is also a two-stringed lute that has no natural tuning & can be tuned to any of the other instruments. Half-way through the concert the other night, a young man showed up who was a virtuoso on this instrument, playing incredibly complex runs of notes on the raised frets. In the south, I have seen Western guitars with the spaces between the frets scooped out in order to play microtones.


Mưa Sớm

Hanoi shop keepers — because their goods spill out onto the sidewalk — have a seemingly infallible sixth sense about when it is going to rain. When you see them putting up their awnings or moving things indoors, take cover because it will rain soon (mưa sớm).

How Old Are You?

It’s common in Vietnam to be asked your age, even by people you don’t know very well. In the little restaurant I’ve been going to on Lý Quốc Sư, the woman who owns the place has been kind enough to tolerate my halting Vietnamese & I have achieved the status of a regular customer. So the other evening, as she was cleaning up my table, she asked, “Ông bao nhiêu tuổi?” and when I replied “Sáu mười một” (sixty-one), she replied, “Khỏe!” which means “healthy,” but in this context meant something more like, “Wow! Not bad for an old guy!”

Still Testing Vietnamese Character Encoding

As noted in the previous post, I’m trying to figure out how to include tiếng Việt quốc ngữ characters in my blog posts. Because a Vietnamese name or term, say, for a particular kind of food, is either meaningless of means something else when stripped of its diacritical marks, I have been reluctant to write much that required such names or terms. It looks now as if I am part-way to a solution. Stay tuned.

Hmm . . . the words I was having trouble with in the previous post were t?i c? — let’s see what happens here. Still no good. Characters with two diacritical marks seem to display just fine — those with a single mark do not display correctly.

Just changed the wp-config.php file. Let’s see if I can now write tôi có viết Tiếng Việt. Đúng rồi! Fixed.

Marketing Vietnam

Talking to a young Irishman staying at the hotel who is working here with the Ministry of Tourism. He says the Vietnamese hardly have the concept of marketing. They are proud of their many historical sites & cultural treasures & actually spend a good deal of money fixing them up, but once that’s done they seem to believe that people will just naturally find out about them & flock to see them. Well, there is something sort of refreshing about this, of course, but my young friend’s job is to figure out ways to make Vietnam available to the West. Does that inevitably mean commodifying it? Perhaps it does. For what it’s worth, I think that individual entrepreneurs in Vietnam have done a pretty good job of getting the word out about their services for tourists. I follow a couple of Vietnamese tourism feeds on Twitter & they are pretty active. Perhaps the government could look for the best of these individual efforts and aggregate them. This is far outside my area of expertise . . .

Tourism is important to the Vietnamese economy & that’s going to continue indefinitely, even as the tech sector & industrial production & agriculture continue to modernize. For many in the West, I think, Vietnam remains a challenging tourist destination, for several reasons: 1. For North Americans, it takes a long & expensive flight to just get here; 2. For many in Europe, North America, & Australia, there remains a strangeness factor — culturally the place is just very different from what we are used to; 3. Language: in the cities you can get by easily if you have a little English & quite a few Vietnamese my age speak French or Russian.

An Asian tourist photographing the Guardian of the North at Quan Thanh Temple in Hanoi

When you put those fact together, the result is what you would expect. By far the greatest number of tourists in Hanoi — by my extremely informal, anecdotal survey — are Australian & northern European. I hardly meet any Americans. What’s more, they are disproportionately young, falling into the backpacker category. Adventurous, they stay in hostels & drink bia hoi, which means they don’t spend much money. At the other extreme are the wealthy Westerners who know that by staying in the most expensive hotels and travelling in organized air-conditioned tourist buses, they can have a sort of exotic, cinematic experience without ever actually having to leave home. On this trip, for the first time, I have seen families — usually mom & dad & a couple of teenagers — traveling together & that, I think, is a very hopeful sign. All such families I’ve met here at the hotel, by the way, have been Australian. There are also a fair number of Japanese tourists, who tend to travel in large organized groups, but I really don’t know anything about their assumptions or motives for coming to Vietnam.

If I were in charge of Vietnamese tourism, I think I’d let the backpackers & the elites take care of themselves — I suspect those groups will always be there — but I’d focus on providing interesting, entertaining, & educational experiences for middle-class European & North American tourists, especially families. Market Vietnam as a “trip of a lifetime” that will be more than just another vacation. I guess I’m suggesting that making the “challenging” part of the equation a strength rather than a weakness.