The ritual practice of Then singing of the Tay, Nung, and Thai ethnic minority people is Vietnam’s latest intangible cultural heritage recognized by UNESCO. Honored in 2019, this is one of two intangible cultural heritages alongside Ca Tru ceremonial singing that have the largest presence in northern Vietnam. The Then ritual is observed in 11 northern mountain localities.
The dossier of Then singing describes it as an essential ritual practice in the spiritual life of the Tay, Nung, and Thai ethnic people, reflecting their bonds with nature and the universe. Their cultural customs, singing, and dancing are bold in Then songs, which are passed on to younger generations with Then masters being the key.
La Viet Manh, a renowned Then master in Lang Son province, said “I sing Then songs to pray for older people’s health and longevity. I learn from my ancestors Then songs, which are an integral part of our ethnic people’s spiritual life. It is in our blood. It typifies our culture and encourages us to be kind and honest to others.”
In 2017, UNESCO recognized the art of Bai Choi singing as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Bai Choi is often seen at spring festivals and resembles a game, using playing cards in village huts. This art is practiced in nine localities, the widest practice held in central Vietnam.
Bai Choi singing was brought to life by the ordinary people to entertain themselves. The singing eventually evolved into a unique folk theater art genre in the central region. Proverbs, poems, and chants are sung over folk rhythms to reflect local customs, daily activities, love stories, and life lessons.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has said Bai Choi singing is a combination of creativity and recreation, using music, poetry, performance, painting, and literature.
“Bai Choi songs are sung to share the singers’ feelings, knowledge, and life experience,” he said. “The songs are all about nurturing kindness and patriotism while criticizing social evils to strive for a better life. Bai Choi singing is one of only few art genres that are entertaining and able to bond the working people altogether.”
Don Ca Tai Tu is an amateur music and song style popular in South Vietnam which was recognized by UNESCO in 2013. It’s seen in almost all localities in the Mekong Delta region. This genre finds its root in the royal music court and soft folk songs in central and southern Vietnam. It profiles the southerners as industrious, honest, courageous, and kind-hearted.
Don Ca Tai Tu has found its appeal and attraction, especially to the young. Dang Hong Truc, a top prize winner of the 2019 Don Ca Tai Tu festival.
“Don Ca Tai Tu is part of my life. Though others might think of it as an obsolete style, I still find it really appealing. Don Ca Tai Tu gives me such a great source of spiritual relief,” Truc said.
The large number of intangible cultural heritages demonstrates Vietnam’s colorful culture, strong social connections, and its respect for cultural diversity. It is working to fulfill the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.