The Mekong Delta’s one-armed, durian growing virtuoso

Thanh Nien News. Original Vietnamese story by Tuoi Tre newspaper

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Thai Van Hai, 65, plays guitar with his left hand only. Photo credit: Tuoi Tre Thai Van Hai, 65, plays guitar with his left hand only. Photo credit: Tuoi Tre


After losing his arm in the Vietnam War, a master guitarist continued to pursue his passion one-handed.
Like most residents of Tien Giang Province's Ngu Hiep communie, Thai Van Hai -- better known as Hai Cut (Hai the cripple) -- earns his living growing durian.
In his leisure time, the 65 year-old plays don ca tai tu – southern Vietnam’s traditional music – on his guitar, a common pastime throughout the Mekong Delta.
What sets Hai apart is that he performs flawlessly, using just one hand.
Hai’s neighbor Nguyen Van Thuong, 42, said a number of people in Ngu Hiep Commune can play the ghi ta phim lom – a Vietnamese electric guitar distinguished by its scooped out fingerboards -- but no one can match Hai for his skills.
Hai's neighbors frequently invite him to play parties and he can often be found entertaining crowds: strumming with his left hand and locking the guitar in place with the remains of his right.
Nguyen Ngoc Minh, a don ca tai tu composer, said Hai’s skills cannot be compared to legends like Van Vi (1929-1985) and Van Gioi, now 69, but he is a “rare” and “special talent."
Hai lost his right arm in a battle in 1966 when he was 22. The injury left him ineligible for further military service, so he returned home to Ngu Hiep and settled in to life as a farmer.
He sought relief from his grief at local gatherings where people would play the somber, lovesick ballads common in southern Vietnam. Hai was drawn to the music and began to wish he could play the guitar.
Whenever he tried playing with an idle instrument during set breaks, the musicians scolded him: “Go away! You only have one hand; how in the hell can you play guitar?”
Undaunted, Hai continued to approach local artists, one of whom finally agreed to teach him how the instrument worked.
After mastering the basics, Hai taught himself one song after another. He followed bands and listened to songs on cassette to learn more techniques.
In 1971, Hai asked another local guitarist agreed to give him more complicated lessons.
That same year, Hai said, he met the leader of a folk opera troupe after a security guard tried to chase him away from their show.
After hearing that Hai could play, he played a brief audition and was asked him to perform during breaks in the show.
Hai’s travels with the troupe ended two years later when they stopped in Soc Trang Province’s My Tu District. There, he decided to become a guitar teacher.
“Local people liked my performances, so they asked me to stay to teach them in exchange for meals,” Hai recalled. “I accepted their offer, because I felt bored after two years with the troupe.”
Hai’s guitar skills helped him win the attention of many local girls, including Tran Thi Dac, who later became his wife.
“Many people were handicapped like him, but they couldn't even do housework, let alone play the guitar so skillfully,” Dac, 64, said.
After getting married, Hai took his wife home to Ngu Hiep, where he continued to play both competitively and for leisure.
These days, Hai no longer competes, but has turned to teaching guitar to people with a passion for the instrument. He and his family have formed their own don ca tai tu troupe--an outcome he describes as part of his “fate with the guitar.”

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