Closer US-Vietnam ties help music flourish on both continents
Government censorship guarantees that exports from Vietnam's booming music industry boast themes of love and patriotism - not the political undercurrents that swirl through songs by Vietnamese expats in the United States, whose plight is a common theme.
What these divergent branches of the same music long have shared is style, with soaring songs that sound like sentimental Western-style ballads. Now, after three decades of independent evolution, they are growing closer still - a reunion that reflects warming US-Vietnamese relations, and is the next natural step in the music's own journey.
Artists on both sides of the Pacific once beholden to political issues say they are more free artistically, and that the beneficiary is the music. The new dynamic is clear in Orange County, home to the largest population of Vietnamese outside Vietnam.
Singers living in California who once were boycotted by anti-communist activists for performing in Vietnam can tour their homeland with little worry.
And expatriate Vietnamese who saw Vietnam's music industry as the long arm of a government they despise are slowly moderating their views. So many starlets from Hanoi and Saigon now perform in the United States that some fans can't be sure who comes from where.
Loc Nguyen, a 64-year-old San Jose resident and music fan, was a fighter pilot for South Vietnam and spent time in a communist re-education camp. Like many expatriate Vietnamese, he fled after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
He recently went to see the aging Elvis Phuong, a star who made his fortune in the United States, but was equally excited to hear two baby-faced Vietnamese divas who recently arrived in California.
Nguyen said that after many years, expatriate Vietnamese are beginning to realize performers should be judged by the music they make, not where they're from.
"If I was to hear a beautiful Russian song, I'm not going to hate it because it's associated with the Soviets," Nguyen said through a translator.
Orange County's crowded Little Saigon district is the Nashville of the expatriate Vietnamese music industry. Production houses such as Paris By Night and Asia Entertainment, Inc. churn out thousands of CDs and DVDs by expatriate stars.
The DVDs in particular - recordings of live concerts and variety shows featuring dozens of singers and comedians - are a common touchstone for a community of about 3 million Vietnamese living in dozens of countries.
As recently as five years ago, the anti-communist zeal of expatriate Vietnamese caused trouble for artists on both sides of the Pacific.
When Elvis Phuong toured Vietnam in 2000 for the first time since 1975, promoters canceled 12 shows in the US in protest, according to Caroline Kieu Linh Valverde, an Asian-American Studies professor at the University of California, Davis.
Now, Phuong lives most of the year in Saigon and regularly performs in the United States and other Western nations. A mainstay of the American Vietnamese pop scene, Phuong found fans in Vietnam hungry for live performances after buying pirated copies of his CDs and DVDs.
This year Lynda Trang Dai, a.k.a. the "Vietnamese Madonna," returned to her homeland for the first time since 1979. She's already planning a three-city "Lynda Live in Vietnam" tour for August.
"Sometimes I have to hold back from crying because it's just so touching the way the audience responds to me. They idolize me, like the real Vietnamese Madonna," said Dai, 35. "They've been waiting for so long for me to come back."