Song and dance is entertainment but on occasions it means more; Chau Van has a religious significance, praising both national heroes but also deities which are so important in Vietnamese culture. It is stories put to music which has a range of rhythms.
There are two distinct types that you may come across if you take a holiday in Vietnam:
• Hat tho is slow chanting which is the standard religious form. There is little chance in pitch and stress throughout the performance. There may be little opportunity for tourists with a Vietnam travel package to observe this precisely because it is during a religious event.
• Hat len dong is more varied; it expresses the desires of the spirits.
The main instruments used in Chau Van are the lute which is moon-shaped (dan Nguyet), a piece of wood or bamboo which is struck (phach), clappers (xeng), gong (chieng) and drum (trong). On some occasions, there is also the flute (sao) and zither (dan tranh).
Costume is very important. The red robe represents the heavenly palace, the yellow the underground palace, the green the musical palace and the white the aquatic palace. Headgear and the design of the robe is dependent on the particular supernatural being involved. Style has varied over time but not colour; the four palaces are central to Chau Van singing.
This form of singing requires training because the singer breathes from the midriff into the nose to create sound and it is essential that the audience can understand the chanting.
Chau Van singing originated in the Red River Delta in the north around the 16th Century and subsequently spread nationwide. If you on travelling in Vietnam, it is possible that you will come across this signing in most parts of the country. It has adopted songs from all regions, folk tales that were once peculiar to just one area.
If you are in the North, the ceremony will start by someone asking the deities to come and they will be represented by someone there, usually a woman. In Central Vietnam, it is different; there is mass participation and the rhythms are more complex. There is a festival at the Hon Chen Palace close to Hue on the Huong River; it takes place on boats with plenty of offerings, fruit and flowers. In the South, some of the classic music of the area has influenced the tunes played.