Doctor brings dan tranh overseas

A Vietnamese-American doctor of traditional medicine has never forgotten what he missed most after his family left Vietnam to move to the US 22 years ago.

Members of the Huong Viet Traditional Music Group, founded by doctor Hong Viet Hai, perform dan tranh at an international zitherist festival held last month in HCM City (Photo:
Members of the Huong Viet Traditional Music Group, founded by doctor Hong Viet Hai, perform dan tranh at an international zitherist festival held last month in HCM City (Photo:

After arriving in his adopted country at the age of 13, Hong Viet Hai worried that he would not be able to pursue his dan tranh (16-stringed zither) lessons that he had been taking in Ho Chi Minh City.

But soon after his family settled down in Washington state, Hai found a teacher of traditional Vietnamese music.

However, he had little time for serious practice as he was busy with adapting to a new culture and high school.

But in his final year at the University of Washington, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry, Hai devoted more time to the dan tranh.

And he continued to do so after enrolling in Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, where he earned a master's and doctorate degree in acupuncture and Oriental medicine.

In 2001, Hai and two of his Vietnamese friends began to schedule regular meetings to practice and teach others traditional Vietnamese music. Soon, the class grew to 70 to 80 students.

The class, which he still teaches, is a way for him to remember Vietnamese culture, Hai says. His youngest student is six years old, while the oldest is 82.

"During my first years living in the US, it was only the sound of traditional Vietnamese music that moved me," he says. "I don't see this as really a class. I just want to share my knowledge of traditional music to those who love it."

His medical clinic, the Silver Crane Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Clinic in Everett, Washington, always has traditional Vietnamese music playing in the background.

Some clients were a bit uncomfortable listening to it at first, he says, but after he described the healing power of the music, they began to appreciate it more.

Between 10am and 7pm every day, he works in the clinic. After 7pm, instead of taking a rest, Hai plays music with some of his students. He reserves Saturday and Sunday for his music class.

He speaks Vietnamese in the class at times, which has helped improve the language skills of some students, he says.

"The idea of opening a traditional music class began when I wanted to show Vietnamese who had been born in the US something about their origin and culture," he said.

Hai says that he has brought musical instruments to the class as a way of igniting their interest.

"I always asked them to touch it. After that, they wanted to learn," he says.

With his more accomplished students, Hai later formed the Huong Viet (Toward Vietnam) Traditional Music Group, which performs in the US.

In July, Hai returned to Vietnam and played with overseas-Vietnamese zitherists as part of an international zitherist festival held in HCM City.

Nguyen Thuy Loan told Vietnam News during a trip to HCM City that she was fortunate to meet Hai in the US, where she has lived for 38 years.

"My sister and I visited Vietnam once, and before returning to the US, we bought two 16-stringed zithers. At first, we just bought it to decorate our home and we didn't expect to find a teacher in the US," she recalls.

Her sister heard about Hai, and they both visited his clinic and began to take his dan tranh lessons, says Loan, who works at Boeing.

Pham Thuy Tien, 14, who was born in the US, says she heard about Hai's class from her mother's friend, who was studying with him.

"I like dan tranh because it's traditional music. At first I thought it was very easy, but later I found it to be technically difficult," she says.

Japanese Etsuko Ito, one of Hai's best students, who can speak Vietnamese well, says she met Hai during a concert in Seattle in 2007.

"At first I wanted to learn how to play the dan bau (monochord), but after meeting Hai, I changed to the dan tranh," she says.

Despite the differences in nationality, age and gender, Hai's students share his love for and respect for Vietnamese traditional music and intend to practice and play for years to come.

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