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Enchanting Bai Choi melodies from central Vietnam

Bai choi folk singing from central Vietnam is an original stage performance art which draws participation from people from all walks of life. The folk art genre, which combines music, poetry, acting, painting and literature, has been recognized by UNESCO as an intangible heritage of humanity.
Creative folk singing
Bai choi originated from farmers who had the habit of erecting bamboo huts in the fields to keep watch for wild animals. The huts were hung with drums, bells and cymbals which were beaten when the animals came in order to drive them away. During their free time, the animal-watching farmers played cards and sang songs based on the names of the cards, giving birth to this folk singing in the central part of Vietnam. Bai choi gradually developed into a festival of singing accompanied with music. Bai choi is now often seen at local spring festivals and resembles a game, using playing cards (Bai) and bamboo huts (Choi).

The art of Bai choi not only serves as a form of entertainment but also provides an environment for social interaction among the community, drawing participation from different kinds of people.

The folk art genre, which combines music, poetry, acting, painting and literature,
has been recognized by UNESCO as an intangible heritage of humanity. Photo: Tat Son/VNP

The cards held by Hieu, which correspond to those held by players. Photo: Thanh Giang / VNP 

 Bai choi game consists of 30 pairs of cards with different names.
The cards are stuck on wooden bars, each of which consists of three carts,
for players to choose. Photo: Thanh Giang / VNP 

 The more songs that are sung, the more cards appear. Photo: Thong Thien / VNP 

Visitors play Bai choi in Hoi An town. Photo: Tat Son/VNP


Bai choi takes two main forms: the Bai choi games and Bai choi performance.

Bai choi games involve a card game played in nine bamboo huts arranged in a face-to-face U-letter shape. The game is not about winning, but about singing. A set of playing cards comprises 30 pairs of cards each of which has a name. The cards are divided into two stacks: one kept by Hieu, the singer who is the leader of the game, the other is distributed to game players. In the game, players in each hut buy three cards and wait in their huts. Hieu draws a card among those he keeps and sings a song asking players to guess the name of the card based on the clues in the song. The players who hold the same three cards as those sung by Hieu will win the game and get a prize, which is a lucky money envelope, and are offered a cup of liquor.

On December 7, 2017, Bai choi singing of central Vietnam was recognized at the 12th session of the UNESCO Inter-governmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Jeju, the Republic of Korea (RoK).
In the Bai choi game, Hieu plays an important role and must know many Bai choi songs, poems, folk ballads, and be quick at repartee. The songs he sings must contain the words related to the names of the cards the players are holding. These songs are about moral lessons, love for the village and nation, national unity and kindness.

In Bai choi performances, male and female Hieu artists perform on a rattan mat.

Bai choi singing is interesting in that it largely depends on the flexibility of the singer rather on written music pieces,” said Meritorious Artist Nguyen Kiem from Binh Dinh Bai choi Troupe, adding that a Bai choi performance is the peak of this folk singing. With only a mat as his stage, a Hieu artist can perform different roles, from a child, to a soldier or a general, and sings different Bai choi songs. Hieu does not need complicated makeup, costumes or musical instruments, but only the ability to improvise in their singing and performance.

Heritage songs sung in a heritage spot

World heritage site Hoi An in Quang Nam province appeared under the dim light of lanterns where visitors enjoyed the Bai choi performance by the bank of Hoai river. Bai choi festival night in Hoi An has become a familiar event for locals and foreign tourists, which gives an exciting air to this ancient town without losing the calmness typical of Hoi An.

Bai choi festival night has an air of freshness of the modern life while still showing a charm and tenderness which are a distinctive cultural trait of Quang Nam people.

 Visitors enjoy sweet folk melodies sung by Hieu. Photo: Tat Son / VNP

 Distributing cards to players and collecting cards after the Bai choi game ends. Photo: Thong Thien / VNP

South Korean visitors show interest in Bai choi. Photo: Tat Son / VNP 

 A Bai choi team member tells visitors the rules of the game. Photo: Thong Thien / VNP

Most visitors to Hoi An know about Bai choi and who Luong Dang is, a famous Hieu artist here. Luong Dang’s creative and flexible way of singing as well as his sense of humor impresses visitors at their first visit to a Bai choi festival.

There are folk art genres in the world which bear similarities with Bai choi such as Pansoriin South Korea and other types in China, Algeria and India. But Bai Choi draws attention from foreign folk music researchers for its unique wording, melodies and music.
“I have known about Bai choi since I was very little. My grandmother took me to every Bai choi game she played in. When I was ten years old, Bai choi became part of my life,” Luong Dang said.

Dang was keen on reviving this original folk singing in Hoi An, saying he first had the idea of restoring the Bai choi games in 1998. With local leaders, Dang went to Cam An, Cua Dai, and Thanh Ha communes to find old Bai choi singers to learn about this folk art.

After over 30 years of singing Bai choi, Dang was very proud to contribute to preserving and developing the folk art of his homeland which has become an intangible heritage of humanity.

Bai choi is an indispensable spiritual food for people in the former royal city of Hue during the lunar new year festival, and is an important event of the Hue festival.

Thanh Thuy Chanh village in Thuy Thanh commune is the only place in Thua Thien Hue where Bai choi guilds meet regularly. Bai choi is regarded as a folk treasure which helps connect Thanh Thuy Chanh villagers closely and brings them joy and love for their homeland.

 At every festive event in Thanh Thuy village, Thuy Thanh commune, Huong Thuy district,
villagers hold a Bai choi festival. Photo: Tat Son/VNP

Each Bai choi festival consists of nine games. After each game, the winner can stick a flag on his hut.
Photo: Thanh Hoa – Tat Son / VNP 

Tran Duy Chua, a well-known Hieu artist in Hue, sings while distributing cards to players. Photo: Tat Son / VNP 

Unlike Hoi An, Bai choi singing in Hue is characterized by sweet melodies which not only entertain visitors but help them learn the cultural values of Hue people.

Singing Bai choi was not difficult but it was difficult to touch the hearts of listeners, according to Tran Duy Chua, a popular Bai choi singer in Hue, who has acted as Hieu in Bai choi festivals for over 10 years. “Each Bai choi song tells a story with its own tune and rhythm which can be slow and touching, or quick and stirring. A singer must master this folk art in order to convey the message delivered in each Bai choi tale,” Chua said.

According to Swedish folk music researcher Ebsjorn Watermark, Bai choi is a diverse art form combining different folk arts, including Tuong (traditional classical opera) and Cai luong (renovated theater).
Story: Thong Thien
Photos: Thanh Hoa, Tat Son, Thanh Giang & Thong Thien

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