Ten years ago I was sipping rice wine on the floor of a tiny bar in Sapa, Vietnam. The amiable bartender, a 15 year old boy wearing an ACDC t-shirt and plastic neon sandals was singing along to the smoky-smooth vocals of Khánh Ly, on repeat. With a hand on his heart and a daydreamy glow to his eyes, he informed me she was one of the most beloved singers in Vietnam.
A few weeks later I tracked down some of her recordings at a bootleg CD shop in Da Nang. Like many contemporary Vietnamese songs, the arrangements in a majority of Khánh Ly’s songs are synthesized smooth jams that focus primarily on her vocals. It’s not totally dissimilar to karaoke, and feels a little flat in parts, but Khánh Ly’s emotive vibrato can turn any base tune into magic.
Khánh Ly’s career began early, on the streets of Saigon when she was 17. By the end of 1962, she relocated to Đà Lạt and performed in clubs and resorts. In 1964, she met Trịnh Công Sơn, a young composer and a teacher at a school in Bảo Lộc. They became fast friends and spent the next several years collaborating. During the Vietnam war, Trịnh Công Sơn’s anti-war lyrics alongside her vocals appealed to peace seekers and quickly launched them into success. Khánh Ly was the first Vietnamese singer to achieve international fame.
Some Khánh Ly songs for your listening pleasure: