Mournful Hawaiian guitar on Saigon’s streets - Rusty Compass travel blog

Mournful Hawaiian guitar on Saigon’s streets

| 15 Apr 2016
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15 Apr 2016

Last night I stumbled across this guy, Mr Vinh Phuong, playing Hawaiian guitar outside the Rex Hotel in downtown Saigon.

It was quite a scene. His backdrop was the metal hoarding for the Saigon Metro - presently under construction. And he and his Hawaiian guitar were perhaps 50 metres from what was, before 1975, the Abraham Lincoln Library in the Rex Hotel. Now it’s a Chanel store - frequently draped in hammers and sickles of course.



Given recent edicts forbidding “gatherings” on the city’s best known public promenade - Nguyen Hue St, I’m not sure how long it took for Mr Phuong to be moved along.

He was playing traditional Vietnamese tunes when I first spotted him - incredible mournful stuff. Definitely not a style normally associated with the Hawaiian guitar. But then downtown Saigon sure doesn't look like Hawaii either. It was perfect in the setting.

After I stopped and showed some interest, he switched to playing a slide rendition of “Love Story”. Also amazing - with the  chord structure turned on its head. Would love to have seen Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw working with Phuong’s take on the song.

He told me he’d only picked up the slide 6 months ago - but that he’d been playing guitar for decades. He’s 68 - and looking for some extra cash to help pay the bills.

The Vietnamese do some very cool things with the guitar. From the melodic gymnastics of “cai luong” to the blind beggars that perform outside many local restaurants - the instrument may be familiar, but its adaptation in Vietnam is uniquely wonderful.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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