The golden oldie

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Le Thi Nhung (C), 74, wowed viewers all over the country with her emotive singing after a lifetime of being a secret singer

Le Thi Nhung, 74, developed a secret love for music during her childhood in Tay Ninh Province.

She sneaked into mandolin lessons at a local community center and tried to remember as much as she could until she had the chance to practice on a friend's instrument.

Nhung also sang, whenever she could.

But her father forbade her from pursuing music - a lowly occupation in Vietnam, especially for a woman.

So she kept her interest secret.

Nhung married and had eight children with a man who died young on the battlefield.

She worked hard, took care of her kids and then her grandkids. In 2001, she participated in a community concert at the local Provincial People's Committee.

Suffering now from high blood pressure, her children discouraged her from competing in singing competitions. Too much excitement could prove fatal, they felt.

Early this month, however, Nhung left her house early in the morning and boarded a bus for Ho Chi Minh City.

She walked into the HTV studio on Dinh Tien Hoang and joined hundreds of people auditioning for the Tieng hat mai xanh (Evergreen singing) competition.

The contest, which drew over 2,000 contenders, was Vietnam's first song competition with an age minimum - 35. Nhung filled out a form to audition for the competition's over-50 category.

"I was embarrassed when standing and singing in front of too many people," she said. "I know I am old. But I still tried, because in the past, I could not pursue my dream, given all of life's barriers."

That afternoon, Nhung returned home and didn't breathe a word about her adventure.

Her children didn't discover that their mother had competed until a call came to the house requesting  Nhung's presence at the live, televised semifinal round, the following weekend.

"My family worries about her," said Nguyen Thi Hanh Dao, Nhung's fifth daughter. "Her health has gotten worse recently. But now we realize that it's singing that makes her happy which is important for her health."

She and her kids travelled to the competition, where she was one of 60 semifinalists.

A week later, the lifelong secret singer was chosen as one of ten finalists.

On April 23, her family, joined now by a host of elderly friends, traveled to Ho Chi Minh City's District 1 to offer their support. Her grandchildren could be seen, seated front and center, holding signs bearing slogans like "Fighting Grandma!"

Nhung stepped onto the stage with a gentle smile, her hair pulled up into a bun. She wore a brown loose-fitting blouse and black silk trousers and plastic slippers.

The old woman took the stage and began to sing Hoai Cam (The bygone feeling). As a low, simple guitar began, her voice wavered and she asked to begin again.

The roaring applause and powerful sound system had disoriented her, she said.

The judge panel, made up of professional singers and performers agreed to let her try again.

She pulled the song off, beautifully - finishing on a high note that caused the judging panel to heave a sigh of relief. The frail old singer had completed the song without faltering.

Viewers all over the country texted in their votes. At the end of the night, she was handed a VND5 million (US$250) Audience Choice award.

The old lady said she would spend her reward on a feast for all the friends and family who had come out to support her.

In her estimation, she was the weakest finalist in the contest.

"Now I just want to perform to the best of my ability" Nhung said. "I don't want to let down all the people who have been supporting me. This is the best thing that's ever happened to me. I really appreciate all other contestants; they're doing their best to be listed in the finalé. I do not have any intention or future plan after the contest, but for sure, I will sing till my last breath."

On Wednesday night, Nhung sang Mien Nam nho mai on Nguoi (Southerners are much obliged to You [Uncle Ho]).

Once again, viewers all over the country handed her the Audience Choice - another VND5 million.

Like the contest's other ten finalists, Nhung will be invited to record a five song album, preserving her music forever.

The top ten singers will meet, again, on May 2 at HTV studios to determine the final six.

The three best singers will go on to compete in the final round, on May 11, at the White Palace Conventional Center in Ho Chi Minh City.

The more the merrier

Lam Phong, one of the Tieng hat mai xanh (Evergreen singing) competition organizers said that the contest has drawn far more public attention than they expected.

"There were over two thousand applicants," said Phong. "It was the audition that conveyed the contest's message most clearly. Children took parents to the contest and even many old couples participated togexther, it was a great fun."

From around 2,200 applicants which have since been narrowed down to a lean ten.

Thirty nine-year-old Tran Thanh Quang, one of the top ten, said that it would be more fun if the contest had room for more contestants.

"Sixty semifinalists from a pool of 2,000 seem to be a little bit strict," he said. "Maybe, next year,  the organizers could offer more chances for middle-aged and elderly singers to express themselves. While it doesn't take the judges much time to listen to a song, the singer may have waited his whole life to sing it."

Quang is favored by many to win the contest, since he performed in the Bong Sen Song and Dance Theater for 14 years. He was listed as the fourth runner-up of the annual Tieng Hat Truyen Hinh (Television Singing) competition, held in 1994, after being knocked out of the previous four competitions.

Phong said that they will consider Quang's suggestion, next year.

"Given all the positive public support, we may make turn the contest into an annual event," he said. "It appears to be one of the biggest sources of entertainment for local middle-aged and elderly."

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