BackArts & Culture » Music & Art » The Tale of 2 Vietnamese Christmas Songs: 'Hai Mùa Noel' and 'Bài Thánh Ca Buồn'

The Tale of 2 Vietnamese Christmas Songs: 'Hai Mùa Noel' and 'Bài Thánh Ca Buồn'

When it comes to local Christmas music, any Vietnamese will hear the melodies of either ‘Bài Thánh ca buồn’ or ‘Hai mùa Noel’ a couple of times every holiday season. Though Christmas is not a native holiday, we adore celebrating it. And of course, Christmas cannot be without music. Though the country has no shortage of festive songs, these two remain pillars of the holiday season. So why not take a trip down memory lane and revisit the songs, or be prepared to have your neighbors karaoke it down memory lane for you.

Christmas music in Vietnam can be divided into two categories: foreign songs with localized Vietnamese lyrics such as ‘Feliz Navida’ or ‘Silent Nights’ and Christmas-themed songs from Vietnamese composers. As early as the 1930s, Christmas-themed Vietnamese tracks have appeared, such as ‘Giáo đường im bóng,’ the only non-hymn song at the time. The 1940s witnessed the advent of Christmas hymns that are routinely played at churches every year, including ‘Hang Belem’ and ‘Mùa đông năm ấy,’ the sounds I would always hum along as a kid attending church.

Crowds of revelers in front of Hanoi's St. Joseph's Cathedral during Christmas season. Christmas is big in Vietnam despite not being a national holiday.

One noteworthy aspect of local Christmas-themed music is the theme of forbidden love. Musicians have long been using music as an outlet to express the emotional turmoil of dating someone outside their religious affiliation. Within the Catholic community here, it’s still common for families to interfere in their children’s dating lives, sometimes to the extreme of forbidding them to have relations or marry someone who is not Catholic or at least willing to convert. This reality prompted the creation of songs such as ‘Người tình ngoại đạo’ and ‘Giáo đường im bóng.’ Both express the longing for a love that could never become fruitful. Because of this, these songs are often sorrowful and histrionic.

But while songs of this theme represent a rather prevalent phenomenon in Vietnamese society, the most popular ones are actually ‘Bài Thánh ca buồn’ and ‘Hai mùa Noel,’ released under the same record label, Sơn Ca, in 1972, both became instant hits.

The songs belong to a genre of music called nhạc Vàng, recorded before 1975 and mostly originating from the south. Today, the genre is experiencing something of a resurrection as people start to listen to these songs more on social media. But both ‘Bài Thánh ca buồn’ and ‘Hai mùa Noel’ have held a special place in people’s hearts independent of this trend. Every year on December 24 and 25, the sound of these tracks echo through the streets, either from karaoke sessions or from people acting as DJs blasting music for their fellow dwellers.

Sơn Ca Christmas record in 1972, including the release of ‘Hai mùa Noel’ and ‘Bài Thánh ca buồn.’

Before 1975, most record labels used magnetic reel-to-reel tapes to record their tracks, and the most popular brand was Akai. Even though the songs have had many modern remixes and renditions over the years, the original versions hold a special charm with their distinctive sound. Upon listening to the tracks, one is immediately transported back to the 1940s or 1950s, the eras of raspy music in Disney fairy tales animations. Both songs feature a slow tempo with romantic lyrics but while ‘Hai mùa Noel’ delves into anxious anticipation and a somewhat regretful feeling of being in love, ‘Bài Thánh ca buồn’ is drenched in nostalgia about a past love affair. Both present their ruminations on love with religion and Christmas as a backdrop.

The songs were released under a compilation named ‘Sơn ca 3’ alongside other Christmas-themed songs and hymns.

‘Hai mùa Noel’ includes a mixture of sounds from violin, bass and drum, slowly enticing the listener into its melody. Compared to ‘Bài Thánh ca buồn,’ which is more intense and cheerful, ‘Hai mùa Noel’ somehow sounds sadder, exuding solemnity and poignancy. On the other hand, ‘Bài Thánh ca buồn’ starts off with melodies of drum, trumpet and bass, the sound makes for an impressive entrance before the first line is sung, gripping the audience with its intensity and Thái Châu’s earnest vocals.

The musician and composer of ‘Bài Thánh ca buồn,’ Nguyễn Vũ (right), and the original singer of the song, Thái Châu (left). Photo via Thanh Niên.

Decades after the songs’ release, the press has revisited and written about them on many occasions. Among the most compelling is the stories from musician and composer Đài Phương Trang himself. In an article in 2017, the author of ‘Hai mùa Noel’ recalled the Christmas incident in 1970 that inspired the song two years later. On a visit to church that year, the composer saw a young man waiting with much anticipation and anxiety under a tree across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral. Even after the church service had ended, the man continued to wait.

That image made quite a striking impression on the composer, so much so that the following year, when tasked with writing a Christmas song by his producer, he relied on the image of the young man he came across that day. What makes the story even more uncanny is three months after the song was released, a letter was sent to the composer from a man named Thanh who claimed to be the character in the song. They met and Thanh showed his appreciation for the song, which helped him and the girl he was waiting for on that Christmas Eve in 1970 mend their relationship. Later on, the composer even attended the happy couple’s wedding.

Đài Phương Trang, the musician and composer of ‘Hai mùa Noel.’ Photo via Thanh Niên.

‘Bài Thánh ca buồn’ doesn’t have a dramatic background story and its stories somewhat pale in comparison to ‘Hai mùa Noel.’ Nonetheless, its popularity seems to have always been a notch above ‘Hai mùa Noel.’ With inspiration drawn from the author’s own adolescence living in Đà Lạt, the song centers around a love affair that blooms in the festive atmosphere, but precisely because it happened during Christmas, the holiday season later would only be a torment when the affair has come to an end. Perhaps this explains why the song resonates more with people. When a significant moment occurs in a special time and setting, it amplifies the memory and makes it even more unforgettable. Imagine falling in love in the Christmas atmosphere with sparkling lights and breezy weather, when everything just seems to make sense and is in harmony. And Bài Thánh ca buồn speaks directly to that specific feeling that got us to love it so much.

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