Historical Dictionary



One of modern Vietnam’s greatest musicians and singers. Born in Hanoi, Pham Duy grew up with the arts; his father and brothers were well known for their cultural achievements. Pham Duy entered the private Lycée Thang Long in Hanoi in 1936 and became involved in nationalist politics there during the Popular Front period, brushing shoulders with the likes of future General Vo Nguyen Giap. During World War II, while studying the fine arts in Hanoi, Pham Duy wrote his first major song Co Hai Mo. Thanks to this hit and others, he soon embarked upon a singing tour of Indochina as a member of the Duc Huy musical troupe. He even performed on Radio Indochine in 1943–1944.

The famine of 1945 and the outbreak of war between the French and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) changed all this. Pham Duy joined the resistance and put his singing talents in the service of the nationalist independence movement in Inter-Zone IV (Lien Khu IV). He participated in the DRV’s arts and propaganda campaigns in the early days of the resistance war; he wrote songs in favor of the struggle and the armed forces, critical of French colonialism. He befriended another resistance artist, Van Cao, and the two became close friends. Pham Duy also came to respect the arts-minded Maoist general running the zone, Nguyen Son. Pham Duy wrote songs such as The Warrior Without a Name (Chien Si Vo Danh), The Debt of Bones and Blood (No Xuong Mau), Competing in Patriotism (Thi Dua Ai Quoc), and Music of the Years of Youth (Nhac Tuoi Xanh) among many others. All these songs dovetailed nicely with the party’s belief that all art should serve the war, the revolution, and the mobilization of the “masses”. He also discovered the brutality of war while on missions that provided him with new material for his songwriting. He wrote a particularly powerful song called Mothers of Gio Linh (Ba Me Gio Linh), in which he recounted the true story and the profound sorrow of mothers whose sons – a teacher Nguyen Phi and a commune chief Nguyen Duc Ky – were beheaded by French soldiers in Mai Xa village, Gio Linh district in Quang Tri. Returning to the village in 2005, Pham Duy still remembered “crying like a child after writing the song” during the Indochina conflict.

If such songs certainly pleased the DRV’s leaders at the time, Pham Duy was less enamored of communist ideology and its politicization of art, culture, and music. From 1950, he objected to the increasing communization of the state and the resistance movement to the detriment of non-communist nationalists such as himself. And he could not stand the party’s limits on independent thought and artistic freedom. He refused an invitation to join the party and undergo cultural training in Moscow. Instead, in the early 1950s, he left the ranks of the DRV and returned to the French-controlled urban zones, hoping that the Associated State of Vietnam could provide a better nationalist alternative than the one promised by the communists. He was among hundreds of crossovers to do so. Upon his defection, the DRV immediately banned his songs in resistance-controlled zones and dismissed the importance of his art. His oeuvre would, however, attract continued admiration and fans in the Republic of Vietnam until 1975 and among the Vietnamese overseas community to this day. Since the end of the Cold War and Vietnam’s capitalist transformation he has reconquered airwaves and fans in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Indeed, in 2005, Pham Duy left California, where he had resided since 1975, to live in Saigon. His music was officially approved to hit the airwaves in July of 2005. See also BORIS VIAN; CAM LY, MASSACRE; COLLABORATION; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; HÉRAULT, MASSACRE; MY THUY, MASSACRE; MYTH OF WAR; NEW HERO; RECTIFICATION.