Khánh Ly is the stage name of Nguyễn Thị Lệ Mai, who was born to a typical family in Hanoi on March 6, 1945. At age 9, she already revealed her talent in singing with the song Thơ Ngây [Innocence] in a local talent contest. She didn’t win but was undeterred. By 1956, her family left Hanoi for South Vietnam and settled in Đà lạt. In 1959, the young girl hitched a ride to Saigon to participate in a children’s talent contest produced by Pháp-Á production at Norodom Palace (now known as the Independence Palace) where she won second prize for her rendition of Phạm Duy‘s Ngày trở về [Homecoming Day].
In 1962, Lệ Mai made her public debut at the club Anh Vũ, 43 Bùi Viện street, in Saigon. She picked the stage name Khánh Ly, which was a combination of “Khánh Kỵ” and “Yêu Ly”, the two characters from Nguyễn Đỗ Mục‘s Vietnamese translation of 東周列國志 [Chronicles of the Eastern Zhou Kingdoms/ Đông Chu liệt quốc], her favorite novel. Nonetheless, just a few months later, she returned to Đà Lạt and stayed there for 4 years singing at various nightclubs and resorts.
Khánh Ly’s real breakthrough only came when she teamed with the songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn. They first met on a rainy night in 1964, when Trịnh Công Sơn was a school teacher. He invited Khánh Ly to relocate to Saigon and perform with him, but she turned down because she wished to stay in Đà Lạt. Three years later, however, the two ran into one another on Lê Thánh Tôn Street, in Saigon, and after several serenades and coffee at a place called Quán Văn, their musical collaboration began. Khánh Ly and Trịnh Công Sơn sang together the antiwar songs called ca khúc da vàng [yellow skin’s songs] at small cafés, clubs, and even on the campus of the Literature Faculty of Saigon’s University [Đại học Văn Khoa]. She once took off her shoes to feel more confident in singing; such an event gave her the nickname “Nữ hoàng chân đất” [the queen with the bare feet].
During the escalating bloody war, their songs struck the listeners with so much emotion that the two soon took South Vietnam’s music scene by storm. Khánh Ly became the first Vietnamese woman to headline her own show. During the late 1960s to early 1970s, she also worked with multiple companies and played a large part in the productions of Phạm Mạnh Cương Program, Trường Sơn Centre, Sơn Ca Productions, Jo Marcel Productions, and so on. She opened the nightclub Khánh Ly on Tự Do Street, as well as the shop Hội Quán Cây Tre in Đa Kao district. With the backing of the South Vietnam government, Khánh Ly performed in Europe in 1969, and in the following year, she toured in North America.
Toward the end of 1970, Khánh Ly received an invitation from Nippon Columbia, the Japanese record label, to perform at the Osaka Fair, which marked the beginning of her long association with Japan. The two singles Diễm xưa and Ca dao mẹ were translated into Japanese (“美しい昔” and “ユエの子守唄”), and the Vietnamese duo performed at several Japanese universities. An album recorded in Japanese followed and received commercial success.
Although Khánh Ly and Trịnh Công Sơn were close and had been working together for many years (and were the subject of no small amount of speculation), the two always kept their relationship professional and artistic.
During the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Khánh Ly joined the mass exodus of refugees in crossing the Pacific Ocean and settling a new life in California. Like many others, she had to struggle to find jobs in the United States to support her children. Meanwhile, her fame in Japan endured, and she accepted more invitations from Nippon Columbia as well as Toci Film to perform and record in Japan in 1979. Her second album with Nippon Columbia sold two million copies in Japan. In 1987, she recorded Lời ru cho Đà Nẵng [Lullaby of Da Nang], a song with music by Hako and lyrics by her third husband, Nguyễn Hoàng Đoan. She also performed Châu Đình An‘s Đêm chôn dầu vượt biển and appeared at Japan’s Asian Music Festival. In 1996, Hideo Kado produced a biographical documentary about Khánh Ly for NHK which was released in 1997.
In the later part of the 1980s and early 1990s, Khánh Ly traveled vigorously and performed in Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland, and East Germany after the Berlin Wall was taken down in 1989. Being a devout Catholic, she also sang at many church-sponsored events in which her most memorable performance was at the canonization of 117 Vietnamese priests in the Vatican where she met Pope John Paul II. In 1996, Khánh Ly, together with other renowned artists including the songwriter Trầm Tử Thiêng, hosted a charity concert in order to raise money to build the shelters for 2000 Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines.
After 1975, Khánh Ly and Trịnh Công Sơn reunited once in Canada, and that was perhaps the last time they saw each other. Trịnh Công Sơn passed away on April 1, 2001, in Vietnam while Khánh Ly was living in California. Only until May 2014 did she return to Saigon for the first time in almost 40 years.
Trần Quang Hải, son of Trần Văn Khê, placed her right after Thái Thanh in the list of ten most influential Vietnamese female singers, even above Lệ Thu, Bạch Yến, Hoàng Oanh, Hà Thanh, Phương Dung, Bích Chiêu, Thanh Thúy, and Ngọc Lan.
Personally, I first listened to her through the cassette tapes of my aunt titled Hát cho quê hương Việt Nam [Singing for my country Vietnam] and Sơn Ca 7, then through the digital video disc Một đời Việt Nam [Vietnam: A life]. This sort of music had a great impact on my adolescence.