Cheo is another form of Vietnamese opera which is especially popular in the North. It originated in Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of the Dinh Dynasty, that is in today’s Ninh Binh Province, in the 10th Century. The people of the Red River Delta in North Vietnam have always celebrated the harvest and if your tour in Vietnam corresponds with harvest time, ask your travel agent to include some time there within your Vietnam travel package; you are likely to hear this singing.
Cheo tells stories that have been passed down orally through the Ages without anyone knowing the authors. There are many groups that perform Cheo, telling stories of daily life, history and legend. There is a combination of comedy and tragedy, something like modern pantomime with dancing and music as well as sketches that make the audience think.
The characters within the stories are important. Every Cheo performance has a hero, a heroine and a clown. The aim is to involve the audience that is immediately able to recognise the characters and relate to the story. Performances on a large stage require a theatre though within a village, in all likelihood, some mats will be placed on the floor in the communal house. A bell will sound to announce to the villagers that a performance is about to start. There is nothing elaborate in a village performance. The costumes are fairly simple and the make-up quite plain unless the performance is at a theatre. Here the orchestra will sit below the stage with the usual traditional instruments of“dan nguyet”, “dan nhi”, drums, “dan tam thap luc” and flute.
The audience is likely to know the famous Cheo dramas; “Quan Am Thi Kinh”, “Luu Binh - Duong Le”, “Truong Vien” and “Kim Nham” are good examples but there are more. These dramas date back a century but there are more modern ones to reflect current life.
Unlike other forms of musical entertainment, Cheo is rooted in ordinary, daily life. It expresses the values that everyone in Vietnam holds dear; family, relationships; love and celebration as well of course as the harvest. That being the case whenever there is a special occasion, Cheo singing will play a part. Depending on when you are in Vietnam, you will have a good chance of seeing this traditional singing which can claim to be amongst the oldest in the entire region.