20/20: Vietnam's Pop Princess

By<a Href="/sections/2020/2020/brown_bob_bio.html"> Bob Brown</a>

Nov. 24, 2000 -- Rising from castoff to star is a compelling theme in show business myth-making, and it is what attracted us to the story of Phuong Thao.

Phuong Thao is one of Vietnam’s most popular singers, and her real experiences were far more dramatic than those often fed to us by Western public relations enterprises.

As the daughter of an American serviceman in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, she was teased and reviled. Amerasian children in Vietnam were commonly referred to as bui doi — the dust of life.

To eke out a living, Phuong Thao and her mother peddled food in roadside markets near the town of Sa Dec, in the Mekong Delta where Phuong Thao was born. Many of her features were clearly Western, but her mother kept her father’s identity secret. Phuong Thao saw no photos and heard no stories through which she might identify with a father, although she constantly had to absorb the cruelties thrown at her by those who viewed her only as the child of a former enemy.

She says her grandparents gave her much of her identity — her mother often traveled to seek work — and a local music teacher helped discover the talent that eventually led her to stardom. As a teenager, she won a regional singing contest, then lived in the corner of a rehearsal room after moving to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, to find work with local bands.

No one who has heard her dark, rich, expressive voice would wonder why crowds responded to her, regardless of her origins. Music, after all, is a great, common language, and Phuong Thao is remarkably gifted in it. In addition, more than half the population of Vietnam is now under the age of 25, born after the war ended.

For our story on 20/20, we reported on Phuong Thao’s success as a singer and her first meeting with her father, a former serviceman named James Yoder. Yoder married his wife Ilene following his tours of duty in Vietnam, and adopted Ilene’s children from a previous marriage. He didn’t know he had a biological child until he was located and told about Phuong Thao 28 years after her birth.

Vietnam’s Rock Scene

Often, when we go on an assignment like this one, we see fascinating elements on the peripheries of the story that we have no time to include because they are separate stories in themselves. One such element was the bustling world in which entertainers make their living in Ho Chi Minh City. In the United States, we’re accustomed to concerts featuring an opening act and a headline act. In Ho Chi Minh City, as we followed Phuong Thao and her husband, guitarist and songwriter Ngoc Le, we hopped from venue to crowded venue, where the shows were comprised of a dozen or more artists whose appearances were juggled on and off stage in an energetic, vaudeville-like atmosphere.

We were unnecessarily worried about arriving early enough to set up our cameras, a mandatory precaution in the U.S. Instead, we were simply worked into the flow to which Phuong Thao and her husband had become so accustomed.

They arrive at the venue, often on a motorcycle, a half-hour or so before the appearance time they’ve arranged, which often means the show is already well under way. Phuong Thao applies her makeup in a backstage room packed with other performers, then waits to be introduced for her numbers, which she and Ngoc Le perform flawlessly, sometimes with backup musicians in place, and sometimes to pre-recorded music arrangements.

On any given night, they may ride their motorcycle to another venue and another show organized in much the same manner. The crowds are much more reserved than Western audiences, but are nevertheless open and smiling when Phuong Thao, unconventionally, walks into the audience to encourage spectators to sing with her, or even to follow her back to the stage.

One thing the Ho Chi Minh City shows lacked was a sense of how the arrangement and placement of songs in a thoughtful, well-produced concert can create for an audience an irresistible emotional flow that has a beginning, middle, and end. The ebb and flow of artists arriving and departing seemed a bit too haphazard for that. Nevertheless, I found these shows and the performers in them to be not only immensely entertaining, but refreshing in comparison to the meticulously staged, technologically overbearing shows that have become a staple in large arenas in the West.

The performers are often exceptionally accomplished, even when doing their own versions of songs by Elton John, Mariah Carey, Santana, and the like (Phuong Thao’s songs are mostly originals, written by her husband). As a spectator, you’re swept into a display of talents and personalities that has you rooting for each one, good and bad. None of the songs is of a type whose lyrics would challenge the political status quo in Vietnam, but their musical and stylistic range is wide and enthusiastic, from straight pop to hip-hop.

Home BuildingPhuong Thao and Ngoc Le were remodeling a small apartment in Ho Chi Minh City when we visited. Needless to say, the lifestyle of a rock star in Vietnam is comparatively modest. But it is a world away from the destitution in which Phuong Thao spent much of her childhood. The most telling evidence of that is her 2-year-old daughter, Phu Nam — a child with a home and a father and the approval of crowds who cheer her when she is introduced on stage.

I asked Phuong Thao why she had chosen to stay in Vietnam, when Amerasians were offered a way out through the Orderly Departure Program established by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments in the late 1980s.

“I thought that I should first achieve a career and a future for myself,” she said. “After that I could go everywhere by my ability and my talent. I didn’t want to go to the U.S. and start my career over again, didn’t know how to do it and also was not sure if I could find my father.”

“I sing for survival, that is what I choose to do and I think that my occupation helped me to find my father. The fact that my husband and I bring our daughter onstage doesn’t mean that we want to lead her to follow our career. It is simply because my daughter loves to be on the stage with us, being on the stage always makes her happy.

“Like me when I was a kid.”

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