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Folk music

Vietnamese folk music is extremely diverse and includes quan họ, hát chầu văn and ca trù, among other forms.

Quan họ

Quan họ or quan họ Bắc Ninh (alternate singing) is popular in Hà Bắc (divided into nowadays Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang Provinces) and across Vietnam; numerous variations exist, especially in the northern provinces. Sung a cappella, quan họ is improvised and is used in courtship rituals.

Hát chầu văn

Hát chầu văn or hát văn is a spiritual form of music used to invoke spirits during ceremonies. It is highly rhythmic and trance-oriented. Before 1986, the Vietnamese government repressed hát chầu văn and other forms of religious expression. It has since been revived by musicians like Phạm Văn Tỵ.

Nhạc tộc cải biên

Nhạc tộc cải biên is a modern form of Vietnamese folk music which arose in the 1950s after the founding of the Hanoi Conservatoire of Music in 1956. This development involved writing traditional music using Western musical notation, while Western elements of harmony and instrumentation were added. Nhac toc cai bien is often criticized by purits for its watered-down approach to traditional sounds.

Pop music

Vietnamese pop music has long been dominated by songwriters, including Diệp Minh Tuyền, Thanh Tùng and, most especially, Trịnh Công Sơn and Văn Cao.

Ca tru

Ca trù (also hát ả đào) is a popular folk music which is said to have begun with Ả Đào, a female singer who charmed the enemy with her voice. Most singers remain female, and the genre has been revived since the Communist government loosened its repression in the 1980s.

Theatrical music

Vietnamese theater is strongly influenced by Chinese opera and other forms, and includes genres like hát tuồng, hát chèo and cải lương. These types of performances have lost popular ground in recent years, while others, like water puppetry, have undergone a popular revival.


Widely believed to be the oldest extant form of Vietnamese opera is hát chèo, which has existed since the 11th century in the Red River Delta. Stories typically revolve around popular legends and are accompanied by a repertoire of adaptable music. Flutes, stringed and percussion instruments are common. The audience in a chèo performance applauds using a drum; this is often in response to a stock buffoon character who comments on the events of the story, and of the day, leading to an anti-establishment reputation which earned chèo the ire of 15th century rulers of the Le dynasty, as well as other, later rulers. Modern chèo often relies on libretti for its stories.


Hát tuồng was imported from China around the 13th century and was used for entertaining royalty for a time before being adapted for travelling troupes of actors. Stories in the opera tend to be ostensibly historical and frequently focus on the rules of social decorum. Like cheo and other forms of opera from around the world, tuong employs the use of stock characters who are recognizable from their make-up and costumes.

Cải lương

Compared to tuồng and chèo, cải lương remains popular in modern Vietnam. Originating in the early 12th century, cải lương includes historical and contemporary themes, and its modern incarnation is influenced by French theater. Cải lương has remained adaptable for modern innovations and now includes electric guitar and other new inventions. It is accompanied by nhac tai tu, which is a complex and partially improvised form of chamber music.

Rối nước

Water puppetry, or rối nước, is a distinctively Vietnamese art form which arose in the 12th century. In it, a split-bamboo screen obscures puppets which stand in water and are manipulated using long poles hidden beneath the water. Due to strict restrictions on learning the art of water puppetry, the form had nearly died out before the Maison des Cultures du Monde intervened in 1984 and helped reinvigorate the genre.


  • Blackburn, Philip. "Ancient Rock Music". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 262-269. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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Last modified: 10/19/17