One of the many cultural gems of Northern Vietnam is Xam singing which was thought to have been created in the rural villages in the 14th Century. You are certain to come across this type of singing if your Vietnam travel package includes time in the north. Hanoi is one of the two main points of entry with its busy airport and Vietnam visa on arrival making it extremely accessible to overseas tourists.
Legend has it that Prince Tran Quoc Dinh, who had been blinded by his brother in a contest over a jewel to decide the next king, used his voice to call the birds of the forest to bring him fruit. He was able to find his way out of the forest and subsequently he taught blind people to play instruments and to sing; ‘’Xam’’. It was a way for them to possibly make a little money as well as enjoy themselves, because life could be hard.
There is no proof of this in documentation so perhaps this form of singing was really something that the villages created for themselves, though everyone in Vietnam likes a legend?
Troupes of Xam singers were often invited to villages after the harvest and made some money for performing. They could not earn enough money without travelling, especially when the harvests were poor or conflict was happening in the country. The result was that something that was developed in rural areas spread to the towns where more money might be available. As a feature of the North, Hanoi became a logical place for Xam singing.
There is a chance to listen to Xam singing in many public places including markets, by the road or on river banks. It can be sung by males or females but the singers are usually blind. Certainly, you will not have to go out of Hanoi to hear this singing because you can see a performance at Dong Xuan Market every Saturday night. There are many reasons why you should see more of the north on your holiday in Vietnam of course.
Xam singing comes in many forms and it varies it seems by location at times:
• Xam cho is performed at the market (‘’cho’’ means market)
• Xam tau dien is performed on a train, exclusively in Hanoi.
Xam thap an and Xam co dao are other forms. The stories are often about famous people, for example Nguyen Khuyen and Tran Tuan Khai, though they may also be propaganda songs.
There is usually a single vocalist who may also play an instrument. The main instruments in the performances are castanets, drums and flutes. There are no elaborate costumes involved in a performance incidentally; everything is very casual.
Xam singing is at risk of disappearance. As a result, the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism has nominated it to UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage; if it was to be accepted that would certainly provide a boost.Tourism is certainly helping as well as visitors are often attending current performances.
Read more: Vietnamese music and Instrument