As a child, she knew it was a gift. “I may have inherited it from my father,” she says. “I remember that every evening as he went to pick up shrimp, he used to sing and read poetry. The songs resonated far and wide and I sang along but was not noticed. I was ‘immersed’ in one particular verse though:
“My family works all year round
Thanks to the famous tile bridge
Day by day listening to footsteps
Tourists come to see the sights...”
Little did she know how prescient those words were. Sadly, life got in the way. She says: “I stopped singing when I got married and followed my husband to Thuy Thanh commune, also in Hue province. When I came here, it was still wild, the grass was taller than people and many still lived in leaf houses. Like most others on this land, my family was farmers and even in good years they would harvest every single rice crop. But due to harsh weather, pests and natural disasters, often it would not be enough: the work was really hard and the meagre income was not worth all the effort.”
After many years of this, Nguyen and her husband decided they had had enough of the land and tried their luck on water. She says: “In 1992, we borrowed VND7 million (a huge amount of money at that time) to buy a motorboat to deliver sand. Every day, we drove it along the Huong river to about 12km downstream. After seven years, my husband fell ill and I could not take care of him, the children and work at the same time. So I sold the boat to pay off the loan. At the time, we owed about VND 21 million.
“In order to have money to look after my husband and another baby, I got a job with a casting bricks company. The work was very hard, especially for a woman, but I had to try to make ends meet somehow. I did it for a few years but 10 years ago, I longed for an easier life and opened a drinks stall. It was at the famous Thanh Toan tile bridge on the Nhu Y river. It was quite different then: there was no development, the grass grew wild and there was nowhere for tourists to stop and have a drink.”
In this celebrated but unlikely setting, something triggered Nguyen’s latent talent: she rediscovered her singing voice that had been dormant since childhood. “Since I was married, I had not sung because I was too busy,” she says. “But opening the shop provided the opportunity for the voice to be heard again”.
“Whenever guests stopped for a drink, I sang or read poetry to them. At first I sold only tea but when it got busier I served sugar cane juice as well. After a while, it seemed that many visitors had come to hear me sing rather than for drinks. Soon I was making enough to cover expenses and feed my five children.”
The relatively good times did not last: in 2014, her husband died. But this doughty lady would not be bowed. She carried on with the stall and continued to sing, increasing her repertoire. Word spread of her wonderful voice and ability to recite ancient and traditional Hue songs. Literature students from Hue colleges would come to hear her renditions – sometimes of imaginary conversations between boys and girls of long ago. Seeing their keen interest, she had to explain some of the meanings but would also compose new lyrics herself.
She says: “I am a sales person when singing or reading poetry, and I see that visitors sometimes stop for a long time to listen. I enjoy the sounds from the past because I feel it maintains part of the identity of my homeland. And thanks to the songs, more guests now know about Thanh Toan. As a result, my family’s life has changed dramatically”.
“Foreigners may not understand the language, but, through expressions and tones, they also feel something of the meaning of the song. I remember having one foreign woman listen to me and then burst into tears. I asked the tour guide why she was crying, and the guest said that she could feel the love from a mother to her children through my song. I was surprised but she was right”.
“Once a guest asked me to take pictures and sing for him. When he was leaving, he said: ‘If I have a chance, I will come back to visit Thuy Thanh to hear you sing again”. These are memories that I will never forget.
“I never had any problems with the singing here. The authorities even invited me to the Thanh Toan museum to introduce a bit of culture to travelers but I refused: I felt that selling drinks would give me more freedom. In addition, I think wherever I am, the most important thing is that I always introduce the country to visitors through the lyrics.”
Nguyen Thi Kinh really does have a voice for the ages.