• Vuong Vu

A Song for Autumn: Lý Cây Đa by Phạm Duy (Ode to the Banyan Tree)

Second generation Vietnamese Americans may not be familiar with a song called Lý Cây Đa, but if we ask our parents about it, not only will they recognize the song, chances are they’ve memorized the words. The song was taught to virtually every primary school student in Vietnam, much in the same way we learned Mary Had a Little Lamb in kindergarten. It may have been taught to school children as a language lesson, but there is nothing childish or trivial about the deceptively simple song. Lý Cây Đa is actually poetry with historical and cultural importance. It is a glimpse into the Vietnamese soul.

Lý Cây Đa originated as a form of oral poetry called dân ca. Such poems are passed from one generation to another through recitation, chanting, and often singing. They are often heard in the rice fields while people are working. In fact, it is through popular music that many of these poems survive today. Lý Cây Đa is perhaps the most famous of these songs. It attributed to legendary songwriter and singer Phạm Duy, who traveled throughout villages of northern Vietnam to archive the region’s tradition of poetry and music.

Even though it is attributed to Phạm Duy, the poem has been around for generations. With oral poetry, it is difficult to determine dates and timelines, as there are no written record. What is known is Lý Cây Đa goes back to a more idyllic time when Vietnamese life was centered in villages and the seasonal rhythms of rice farming. It is about a young man and woman, in love, planning to meet at the harvest festival on a full moon night. Here is a recording of the song from 1968:

Ode to the Banyan Tree

Let’s climb the hill and sit at the root of the banyan tree.

We’ll sing an ode to the banyan tree.

Who will bring sorrowful love

For the both of us meet at the full moon festival?

We’ll sing an ode to the banyan tree.

We’ll sing an ode to the banyan tree.

Let’s split bamboo to weave a cone hat, a three-layer cone hat.

We’ll sing an ode to the cone hat, layer by layer.

Who will weave our sorrowful love

For you to wear to the full moon festival?

We’ll sing an ode to the first month of the coming year.

We’ll sing an ode to the first month of the coming year.

With brown cloth, let’s sew a shirt, a tunic shirt.

We’ll sing an ode to the seams of the tunic shirt.

Who will sew our sorrowful love

For you to wear to the full moon festival?

And we’ll sing an ode to the light of the moon.

And we’ll sing an ode to the light of the moon.

Lý Cây Đa

Trèo lên quan dốc ngồi gốc cây đa.

Rằng tôi lý ối a cây đa.

Ai đem tính tang tình rằng

Cho đôi mình gặp xem hội cái đêm trăng rằm?

Rằng tôi lý ối a cây đa.

Rằng tôi lý ối a cây đa.

Chẻ tre đan nón, kìa nón ba tầng.

Rằng tôi lý ối tầng ba tầng.

Ai đan tính tang tình rằng

Cho cô mình đội xem hội cái đêm trăng rằm?

Rằng tôi lý ối a tháng giêng.

Rằng tôi lý ối a tháng giêng.

Vải nâu may áo kìa áo ối a năm tà.

Rằng tôi lý ối viền năm tà.

Ai may ôi à tính tang tình rằng

Cho anh chàng mặc xem hội cái đêm trăng rằm?

Rằng tôi lý ối a sáng trăng.

Rằng tôi lý ối a sáng trăng.

When Pham Duy released the song in the late 1960's, it struck a nerve with the Vietnamese people. Perhaps it was because Vietnam was divided at the time and war was raging throughout the country, and people longed for a more peaceful time. Perhaps it was because there was a mass migration from the countryside into the cities, and people who were uprooted and relocated were nostalgic for traditional village life. The song resonated with Vietnamese people and it became a national sensation--and remains so to this day.

At a time when I was exploring and struggling with what it means to be Vietnamese, I found the answer in the words of the song. What is it that the young man and woman bring to meet each other at the harvest festival? They bring "tính tang tình rằng." They wear it; they weave it into their hats and sew it into their clothes. I've roughly translated it as "sorrowful love." It is a rather rudimentary—and even inadequate— translation, but I wanted to capture the essential notion that we Vietnamese carry in our hearts the understanding that life is tragic. Through much of our four thousand years as a people, we have struggled through one famine after another, one war after another, one back breaking rice harvest after another, but we persevere. Despite our tribulations and sorrows, we continue to love, to celebrate, to build, and create beauty. Such is life to us, and we carry this bittersweet understanding in our bones and in our genes, and it makes us who we are—resilient, generous, brave, and poetic.

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Vuong Vu


Writer and dreamer, Vuong is founder of Tourane Poetry Press and editor of Perfume River Poetry Review. His work has been published in prominent literary journals, and he is a frequent reader at poetry events in the South Bay. His work is an examination of the Vietnamese-American experience, what it means to be Vietnamese so far away from quê hương (motherland). He believes that every Vietnamese is a poet at heart.

#Literature #Poetry #vietnam #author #history

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