Don Ho and Ngoc Lan

Damn, another sleepless night. The coffee was kicking in, but not strong enough to cause insomnia. My mind was onto something else (something real special), and my brain was rushing like adrenaline on fire; therefore, I needed some soothing music to calm down my nerves. I pulled out three of my favorite past-bedtime soundtracks—Don Ho and Ngoc Lan’s Con Duong Tinh Ta Di, Tinh Phu, and Xin Con Goi Ten Nhau, all released between 1992 and 1993 under Giang Ngoc, one of the first productions in the early Vietnamese-American days. Unfortunately, they had shut down their shop.

Giang Ngoc had a strange marketing strategy. Even though they grouped the two together, Don Ho always had more songs (6 to 4) than Ngoc Lan. My guess is that Ngoc Lan had already established her name at the time, and Don Ho was just getting his feet wet; therefore, people who liked Ngoc Lan would pick up these albums, and give Don Ho a spin. Giang Ngoc productions were right, Don Ho was new at singing Vietnamese “golden” ballads, but that what made these albums shined. He was inexperienced, but he had tremendous soul. His flows were as natural as breathing, and he poured his heart out on every single song. I was impressed at how he was able to transform himself from English and translated tunes into Vietnamese romantic ballads with such refinement and effortlessness. He nailed “Ngu Di Em,” “Chieu Nay Khong Co Em,” “Loi Tinh Buon,” “Em Den Tham Anh Dem 30,” “Goi Ten Bon Mua,” “Xin Hay Quen Toi,” ” Kiep Dam Me,” “Khuc Thuy Du,” “Chiec La Cuoi Cung,” “Dem Vu Truong,” “Dau Tinh Sau,” “Vet Thuong Cuoi Cung,” “Vet Thu Tren Lung Ngua Hoang,” and “Xin Con Goi Ten Nhau” dead on the spot with his relaxed, feathery, whispery, and deeply personalized style.

On the other hand, angelic-voiced Ngoc Lan drowned her souls and sorrows into “Tha Nhu Giot Mua,” “Giet Nguoi Trong Mong,” “Le Da,” “Mua Thu Cho Em,” and “Tinh Phu.” Not only she could express sentimental ballads, but Ngoc Lan could also maneuver her flow around up-tempo beats. The smoothness, richness, and silkiness quality in her vocals made her rendition of “Trung Vuong Khung Cua Mua Thu” unsurpassable. Yet, what amazed me the most was her cover of “Vi Toi La Linh Muc.” I was dead wrong when I thought only male singers could sing this tune. She had not only proved that my assumption was incorrect, but she also demonstrated how she could take it to another level from a female point of view. She pulled it off with her ethereal, exotic aesthetics.

What are lacking on these albums are the duets. I wish they had done more than just two tracks together because I love how his low, smoky tone complements her high and clear pitch and vice versa. “Biet Dau Nguoi Cuoi” showed the playful interaction between the voices as well as their rhythmic sensibility. In contrast, they took the time to express the lyrics in the slow-tempo “Con Duong Tinh Ta Di,” like two matured lovers reflecting on the good old days. Mad props to Thanh Lam too for the gorgeous saxophone accompaniment. Personally, these three albums had opened up the gate to the Vietnamese music scene for me, and I must credit both Don Ho and Ngoc Lan for allowed me to appreciate our original music.

Bonjour Vietnam