Trúc Phương started his music career at the age of 25. The above portrait was probably taken when he reached 20 something, that is to say in around 1953. At this time, he was still living in Trà Vinh, which was later renamed into Vĩnh Bình under the rule of Ngô Đình Diệm. From the long hair to the shirt with shoulder straps, we can tell that Trúc Phương is an easygoing and fashionable man with an artistic soul.
Pretty much like his contemporaries, Trúc Phương often depicts the lives of the South Vietnam soldiers and the love stories of young people in the idyllic settings in his works. Although he had a somewhat disappointed life, with three failed attempts feeing the country, he is renowned for many good songs, namely The Night Train of the Old Year (Tàu đêm năm cũ), Across the Four Tactical Zones (Trên bốn vùng chiến thuật) or Midnight Rain (Mưa nửa đêm).
The Night Train of the Old Year tells the story of a young woman who has to stay separated from the man she loves due to the war. With this outlook, it is apparently reminiscent of the classics like Nguyễn Du’s Kiều (Người về chiếc bóng năm canh/ Kẻ đi muôn dặm một mình xa xôi/ Vầng trăng ai xẻ làm đôi/ Nửa in gối chiếc, nửa soi dặm trường), Đoàn Thị Điểm’s Chinh phụ ngâm or Thâm Tâm’s Tống biệt hành, yet with a modern nuance. Also, it is often paired with Chuyến tàu hoàng hôn by Minh Kỳ and Hoài Linh, although these two songs were written independently. Trúc Phương published his song on 5 Mar 1962, whereas Minh Kỳ and Hoài Linh finished their work in “the rainy season of 1962”, as written on the music sheet.
Across the Four Tactical Zones, on the other hand, captures the brutal scenery during the war through the eyes of a soldier. This subject matter makes it stand out from most songs of its time. According to a reputable literary critic, this is one of the three greatest songs of the South Vietnam, together with Nguyễn Văn Đông’s Chiều mưa biên giới and Trần Thiện Thanh’s Rừng lá thấp. He also says that this song reaches the level that frightens its listener, which Trịnh Công Sơn’s songs could not match up to. The depiction of immense and emotionless universe, stark contrast to the lonely and vulnerable existence of human beings, somehow reminds us of Tô Thùy Yên’s Chiều trên phá Tam Giang.
Midnight Rain appears to be about the reluctant separation of a couple in the middle of a rainy night when the man has to leave his lover for something that needs to be done. Once again, the idea of broken bonds becomes relevant, as it used to be depicted so many times in other works around the fateful year 1954. Thanh Bình in Tình lỡ, for instance, talks about a man’s feeling when he has to leave his woman in the North to migrate to the South (Một vầng trăng vỡ đã thôi không theo nhau/ Cuộc tình đã lỡ với bao nhiêu thương đau). That situation of people severing the relationships they have can also be found in another important work, Đêm giã từ Hà Nội by Mai Thảo. The image of a half moon, with one part lost and one part remaining, is the allegory of the fate of Vietnam in 20th century.
The Night Train of the Old Year
When the night was getting over, I accompanied my young soldier to the station. He’s getting back to his regiment. Holding his hands, I wished such a feeling could be engraved in our memory. A cool breeze slightly wetted my skirt.
The train had departed. Why was I still so missing him, even though I knew too well that this is something he must do. Returning home in melancholy, I asked myself if I felt sad, or if the night train was cold. Probably if he knew how I felt, he would have been really happy.
That moment when I heard the wind sweeping through the empty streets and stared at the distant full moon, I dreamed of being in his arms again. One day, I would come back to this station, look around finding my man from the train, the train whose whistle I have had waited for so many sleepless nights.
Although we’re apart, and he still had a long way to go, I placed my trust in him. This is a duty to the country’s future that he must fulfill. In a letter sent to me, he said he would come visit me one night. We hadn’t made any vow, so I questioned if he would kept in his mind the image of the girl he loves or our stories of the old days?
Last night I dreamed of my young soldier getting back home on the old train. He looked happy on the busy streets, almost forgot the cold out there in the frontier.
One summer night, I came back to the station. The old train brought back my man, and tonight I’m sitting here, writing down these words from my heart.
Across the Four Tactical Zones
I usually travel around, leave shoeprints on the black mud
with eyes fattened up by the fire of hostilities,
and feet foreign to the tactical zones.
Travel jacket can’t bear the winds from far afield
of a thousand nights out.
Mountain clouds and jungle fog cover the entrance.
Paddle fields are filled with immense amount of water.
Lying in wait for the enemies night after night
Battledress protects the solders; soldiers protect their hometowns
Doing this for life.
Gio Linh embraces enemies’ bodies to manure the trees
Pleime goes through seasons of rains and winds
Tây Ninh burns us with blazing sun while the battlefield is filled with blood
Đồng Tháp sees almost no woman; who to love?
Living by brotherhood, the away-from-home men meet in the whirlwind of luck
Calling each other homie,
the bonds created during nostalgic and wistful walks across the four tactical zones
Lying awake at night, I hear the rain outside falling drop by drop on the dimly lit apartment
Our shadows are printed on the leaked wall
Resting my head on his arms, I listen to the old stories he tells with a nostalgic feeling. I want to ask if it’s because the embrace of life is incomplete, and the private thoughts have not yet revealed in the letters sent out, every time when the midnight rain comes, it makes me feel melancholy before sleep.
The cold rain pouring outside is probably penetrating someone’s clothes, which makes the night seem so long and sad. Tonight, a man has just departed and left behind so much yearning in my heart.
When we have already engraved these feelings in our heart, please keep them as the souvenirs. I would then fall asleep in happiness, when the midnight rain finishes off the very last drops.