QUAN HO (the booklet)
Courting ballades, friendship songs

Very little is known about the precise origins of quan ho songs. They are part of a very ancient practice, which is clearly still very much alive in popular tradition today. According to one legend, in bygone times, the notables of one village invited those of a neighbouring village to share with them the annual rites and ceremonies dedicated to their protecting spirit in the aim of strengthening the links between the two communities. The invitation was accepted and soon all the villagers were to be found at the annual meeting. During these festivities the boys and girls of the two villages partook in friendly musical jousting matches, taking inspiration from the diversity of daily life and their unfailing fraternity. The tradition persisted and has progressively been adopted by other villages.

Beyond the beauty of the
quan ho songs and their stylistic and vocal composition, these works display a symbolism of conviviality and mutual aid which has developed through their practice. Young people take advantage of the occasion to express their amourous feelings in the hopes, perhaps, of stimulating less platonic relationships.

"Songs cover the noise of the bombs"
Neither the turbulent history of Viêt-nam in general, nor the devastating war led by the United States (1963 - 1973), or the recent and brutal economic reforms (1980 - 1990) have managed to suppress the
quan ho. On the contrary, everything in these songs which "make life happier", calls for fraternity and mutual aid between village communities. The quan ho songs, just like the revolutionary songs, were a significant cultural catalyst for the resistance of the Vietnamese people during the intensive bombing of North Viêt-nam by the American Air Force. These seemingly innocuous songs of a bygone era inspired respect and symbolized a popular heritage of solidarity which fit in perfectly with the ideological line of the communist governance.

Traditionally, the
quan ho is always sung by a couple of the same sex answered by a couple of the opposite sex belonging to another village. The structure of the song itself is also highly coded. Thus, during the subtle play of questions and answers between the couples of different villages, the answers may not contain words already used during the formulation of the question, but the musical mode must be identical. The quan ho therefore requires a well-developed sense of poetic repartee, which is generally prepared and rehearsed from one meeting to the next.

Originally, the
quan ho was not accompanied by instruments. Today, however, it is not unusual to see a dàn bâu, generally equipped with an electronic amplifier, in the traditional ensembles (doam dânca). This mono-stringed instrument is specific to Viêt-nam and has no equivalent elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The varied tones of this instrument sometimes strangely resemble the intonations of the human voice. It takes after both the zither and the musical bow. In these recordings, made in Bac Ninh, the singing is accompanied by such an instrument.

quan ho has undergone numerous adaptations in recent times, not so much in terms of the songs themselves and their principle of being performed in couples, but rather in terms of the musical accompaniments. These are sometimes very bold (synthesizer). Dances also accompany some performances, especially during official tours abroad. These days, the most modernized versions are broadcast in the form of videos, on the national channel of Vietnamese television.

Nevertheless, the
quan ho in its original form is still present at many rural festivities, particularly weddings, which take place in springtime, and the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, the Têt. A complete quan ho includes over five hundred songs and can last three days. The quan ho songs have no title, but there are three distinct subdivisions in the repertoire: the first includes songs which evoke the meeting and welcome (la rang); the second comprises those which refer to courting, intimacy and general exchange (giong vat), and the last category is made up of songs which deal with the theme of separation (già ban).

quan ho is actively practised in around fifty villages, mainly distributed throughout the province of Bac Ninh and, to a lesser degree, in that of Bac Gian, both of which are situated in the north-east of Hanoï. The North Vietnamese consider the quan ho to be an important cultural heritage. Since 1994, the government, equally aware of the feeling of national cohesion which it expresses, has made considerable efforts to preserve this tradition and ensure its continuity. The oral tradition of quan ho has thus recently been entirely transcribed, a cultural center has been devoted to it and a secondary school of quan ho in Bac Ninh now offers younger generations structured access to its teachings.

These recordings were made in July 2001 in the village (
thôm) of Viêm Xá and in the town of Bac Ninh, county town of the province bearing the same name.

CD tracks


  • Meeting
    Songs of the first part (
    la rang)

    1. This song expresses the joy of meeting again after a long separation.
    "We desire the arrival of men like fish wait for the rain."

    2. In this song, friendship is evoked as a treasure and compared to gold even though "nothing in the world is as precious as the friendship between men and women".

    3. The men reply:
    "Friendship is worth more than gold..."

    4. "The men of North Viêt-nam (Kinh Bac) are handsome and good. We want to be with the men from the North."

    5. And the men (from the North) reply: "How beautiful are the women from the North! They have magnificent arms and marvellous skin. If only we could have such arms for a pillow... But the heavens do not help us!"

  • Discovery
    Songs of the second part (
    giong vat)

    6. This song, from the second part of the
    quan ho, evokes the emotion of the singers at seeing their partners again.
    This song is performed by Ngo Van Cu and Nguyen Van Chung, aged seventy six and seventy one respectively at the time of recording.

    7. "At each stage of life one meets adversity. We will do the best we can to endure. There's no need to worry!"

    8. "We are the girls of Bac Ninh. We are happy to greet you, but if you love us, you should not leave again..."

    9. The men reply: "Even though we are men from Bac Ninh, wherever we go, we will see you again!"

  • Separation, leavetaking...
    Songs of the third part (già ban)

    10. This song, as is the case of most songs of the
    già ban, evokes a characteristic of Vietnamese hospitality, i.e. the host wanting to stop his guests from leaving.

    A guest tries to leave the gathering to go home. The villagers try to stop him leaving because they enjoy his company..."

    11. This song goes over the happy times spent together... So many memories that we promise never to forget...

    12. The young girls ask their men visitors to stay with them a little longer and continue to sing for them...

    13. The men reply: "But we must leave! We will see each other again at the next feast, or in the springtime. Take care of yourselves and, if your heart so desires, wait for us..."

    14. As for the songs above, this song tries to make the guests - in this case the singers - stay so that they can sing some more
    quan ho

    15. "We must leave you. All good times must come to an end. If we leave, will you miss us? And as for us, we don't know what our feelings have in store for us..."

    16. The men reply: "If you leave, take care of yourselves. If the river is too deep, do not cross it; if the boat is too heavily loaded, don't get aboard... Even though we love you, we must leave you. If you meet better companions than us, go with them, but if you find none better than us, then we wish to see you again!"