If you come to Northern provinces of Vietnam like Bac Ninh or Bac Giang at their festival times, you would encounter Quan ho singing – a Vietnamese folk music style characterized by alternating groups of female and male singers issuing musical challenges and responses. It is proudly that Quan ho singing was recognized as the Intangible Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO in 2009.
Originated from Bac Ninh province in about century 13th, Quan ho firstly occurred to satisfy the singing hobbies of famers there, like a kind cultural activity at which people in Bắc Ninh and some other areas nearby gathered, shared their passions, with their fascinating voices. To begin the song, a pair of female singers will sing their challenge phrase (câu ra), and then a pair of male singers will respond by selecting and singing a “matching phrase” (câu đối), which must repeat the melody of the challenge phrase. Once they are finished, the order is reversed, and the men will issue their own challenge phrase with a different melody. Surprisingly that in the past, Quan ho singing was unaccompanied by music. However, nowadays, the singers are accompanied by instruments, whether traditional Vietnamese instruments or modern ones such as electric keyboards and make their songs more attractive and interesting to the listeners. One of the most unique features of Quan ho in the past that might not be seen in Quan ho today that once becoming Quan ho singers, some couples of them were believed to be born for singing Quan ho with each other ever after. That is the fate of Quan ho singers.
Bac Ninh province is still the homeland as well as the most development of Quan ho. Many new enthusiastic singers continue to develop Quan ho together with their elder singers. They gather in clubs, exchange their knowledge and Quan ho rhythm, as well as train other younger generation how to perfectly sing Quan Ho songs. But more importantly, they spread the spirit of original Quan ho to their descendants, with the hope to see traditional Quan ho return in foreseeable future. The Viem Xa hamlet in Hoa Long commune, Bac Ninh city is considered as the father land of traditional Bac Ninh singing.
Quan ho today is performed everywhere and every time, not only in special occasions like before. Travelers to Bắc Ninh only need to pay small amount of money they can have some Quan ho singers sing for them. People in other regions, maybe other countries can also listen to Quan ho via recorded CD or on the Internet anytime and anywhere they like. There are a huge number of Quan ho melodies, with thousands of different songs having been recorded. There is also famous film about Quan ho singing named “Den hen lai len” telling about the love story of Quan ho singers in Bac Ninh during the war time before 1945.