Vietnamese folk singing is a time-honored tradition, but there is one very unique style of folk-singing that is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Quan Ho singing is marked by the fact that it reinforces ties between villages; two women sing a challenge to two men from another village, and the men must meet the challenge, and return with a challenge of their own. The result is beautiful, unpredictable harmony.
What is Quan Ho?
Quan Ho comes from the Bac Ninh and Bac Giang provinces in northern Vietnam. The songs have been passed by oral tradition, and the art involves not only the music and lyrics, but also the costumes, and is an important part of many festivals.
The women wear large round hats and beautiful scarves, and the men put on turbans, tunics, and carry umbrellas, and then a competition begins that requires the singers to be clever and highly skilled. Although traditionally Quan Ho was sung without accompaniment, today it is often performed with instruments.
The singing represents different relationships. It is the relationship between the male and female singers as romantic lovers, it is the relationship between two friendly villages, and it is the relationship between the performers and the audience. Each element helps define Quan Ho, to give it life and meaning, and the resulting harmony is so much more than just a beautiful song.
When the women sing out a challenge to the men, the men must match their melody but sing different lyrics. Their response is followed by their own challenge, which the women must then meet, further progressing the song. There are 213 different melodies and over 400 lyrics, so the folk-songs are also an impressive display if musical skill.
The History of Quan Ho
Quan Ho has a very long history with several conflicting origination stories, although all seem to agree it was created in the Bac Ninh province. Many believe that it is an ancient form of Royal Court music or religious singing. Others argue that it originated in the villages of Lung Giang and Tam Son, where they celebrated their long-lasting friendship each year through singing competitions that would last all night. Either way, it has been around for centuries.
During the Ly Dynasty, from 1009 to 1225, the Ly kings spent most of the year in modern-day Hanoi, but in the spring they would return to their homeland in Bac Ninh. There they would host a month long celebration, and Quan Ho singing would be performed in front of great crowds. The tradition has continued to be passed through the ages, and today it is still a valued part of Vietnamese festivities.
A UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
In 2009 Quan Ho was named by UNESCO an Intangible Cultural Heritage. It was recognized for several reasons. First, Quan Ho expresses the cultural identity and spirit of the people in the region and strengthens bonds between village communities. Secondly, the songs are performed at many cultural gatherings, including religious ceremonies and festivals.
For these reasons, UNESCO has decided to honor Quan Ho and make an effort to help preserve this beautiful tradition. Quan Ho is now part of many Vietnamese schools’ curriculum, to make sure that future generations continue to learn about the ancient art.
Where to Go to Hear Quan Ho
Bac Ninh is still the place to go to hear Quan Ho. Although you can hear beautiful performances year round in Bac Ninh, the best time to see true Quan Ho is during the Lim Festival. The Lim Festival is every year on the 13th day of the first lunar month in Lung Giang village (also known as Lim). More than fifty villages in the region take part in the festival every year, which makes it the biggest folk festival and most impressive display of Quan Ho to be found in Vietnam.
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Want to Know More?
If you want to find out more about the traditional art of Quan Ho (and hear some of the traditional music), the UNESCO foundation has put together this documentary.
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