“I'm poor and have no diamond ring
For your dazzling betrothal
I made a ring of grass
…hoping you know my heart”
In the song Nhan Co Cho Em (A Grass Ring for You), Vinh Su includes a poem about a poor man who has no money with which to properly mark his engagement.
The theme of a man rich of heart and poor of pocket characterizes all of the 70-year old's sentimental ballads, which became famous in the south during the Vietnam War (1954-1975) and remain popular choices in the karaoke parlors now frequented by the country's new rich.
A rich and cavalier life has left the old poet in virtual poverty. He says he lacks the money he needs to cover the cost of his cancer treatment.
During a recent visit to his modest home in an alley in District 7, Vinh Su struggled to sit up in his small bed: “I have to welcome a journalist properly,” he said.
The most valuable thing in his modest home is a scooter. “A student leant me the bike so I can ask people to carry me when I go out,” he said.
Everything else in the cramped house is visible from the doorstep: bags of medicine, a few cups, an old rusty stovetop and pots.
He beckons a guest toward a new plastic chair: “The husband of singer Giao Linh gave it to me after visiting and realizing I had nowhere for him to sit.”
Vinh Su was once dubbed as the king of nhac sen – a sentimental musical genre that hit its peak popularity during the war – and views his own love life as equally tragic.
Su said he and his first wife occupied a large, lavish home that they sold during their divorce. She took half the value. And so it went.
Three subsequent divorces--all inspired, he says by his cavalier lifestyle--whittled away at his wealth.
He was no help.
"I used to make a lot of money but spent it all on drinking with my friends. I did not care much about the money until now. I should have saved some," he said.
Vinh Su was born in Ho Chi Minh City in 1944 to a couple from the northern province of Ha Tay who migrated south to work at a French colonial rubber plantation.
His parents quit the plantation and settled in District 4 to make rice noodles for a living. Vinh Su grew up in the island district known for its gangsters and poverty, composing music for the commoners.
He enrolled in the first grade at the age of ten and quit studying after graduating from primary school. After apprenticing under his uncle, a musician, he went on to compose hundreds of songs under various pen names: Vinh Su, Co Phuong, Han Ni, Diem Nhi, Duc Vuong, etc.
Most of his songs are written in sentimental bolero and recall sorrowful tales of poor men losing lovers to wealthier romantic rivals.
"I can hear the notes in my head but cannot write them out. It’s so unbearable, even more unbearable than the pain of cancer.” --Composer Vinh Su.
Vinh Su's most popular tunes include: Go cua trai tim (Knocking at the heart), Hai ban tay trang (Two empty hands), Dem lang thang (Wandering night), Hai mai nha tranh (Two cottages), Chuyen xe lam chieu (Late afternoon Lambro bus).
“That’s my way of composing,” Vinh Su said. “The hoi polloi welcome my songs and I write for them.”
Vinh Su says he's had four wives, none of whom could stand to stay with him.
“Before getting married, I warned that I love freedom and will do anything I want as long as I am loyal to them," he said. "However, no one could stand my love of freedom."
One woman, Ha Ngoc Le, returned and has cared for him since he was diagnosed with serious colorectal cancer in 2011. Four surgeries and several grueling rounds of chemotherapy have cut him down to a pitiful 40 kilograms.
Charity music show to help composer Vinh Su
The Saigon Entertainment Company will host a charity concert to honor Composer Vinh Su in Ho Chi Minh City on August 20.
The event will begin at 8:30pm at Nam Quang Club, 147 Cach Mang Thang Tam, District 3. Tickets can be booked via phone number 0909.940.299 and 0915.863.636
Revenues from the event and donations raised during the show will be donated to Vinh Su for the treatment of his cancer.
Vinh Su is living at 86/52 Street 37, District 7, Ho Chi Minh City.
Vinh Su said he has switched to traditional medicine to curb expenses. His primary income is a quarterly royalty check that only comes out to about VND6 million ($285).
Le said the couple now spend no more than VND30,000 (US$1.4) a day on food. She cooks breakfast and lunch for him in the morning before going out to work as a dishwasher.
Su said he has seven children but they are too busy with their own families to take care of him: “My children are poor and cannot help me much. They also visit me whenever they have time.”
The composer is optimistic about his disease despite the pain and difficulty the surgeries have wrought. What he wants, more than anything, is to get back to work.
“I hope I can recover quickly. I can hear the notes in my head but cannot write them out. It’s so unbearable, even more unbearable than the pain of cancer.”