Pham Duy dies at 91; Vietnam’s most prolific songwriter


Pham Duy, Vietnam’s most prolific songwriter, who captured the strength of his people through years of turbulence and composed dozens of tunes after settling in California, died Sunday in Ho Chi Minh City. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Thai Hanh. He had been suffering from heart ailments after two operations, according to his family.

Known as the “musician of 1,000 songs,” Pham was revered by generations of Vietnamese, who memorized his melodies and taught them to their children and grandchildren.


Talk of his legacy — from folk tunes to spiritual and peace songs — filled the cafes of Westminster’s Little Saigon, the largest business and cultural district for Vietnamese Americans. On Sunday afternoon, customers at the Coffee Factory in Westminster ran to their cars, trying to catch radio news of his death.

Conversation inevitably turned to the death from cancer last month of his eldest son, singer Duy Quang, who, like his father, was popular in Vietnam and the U.S.

“Two talents fly above together,” said Hai Dao of Santa Ana, chatting with friends over lunch. “It seems every song we listen to has a touch of Pham Duy in it. His musical presence is everywhere.”

Pham led a musical dynasty that included his wife, diva Thai Hang, and eight children, who performed around the world as part of the band the Dreamers. Family members lived together in a compound in Midway City, just minutes from Little Saigon.

Born Pham Duy Can in Hanoi on Oct. 5, 1921, he was the son of a progressive writer who supported mass education in French-occupied Vietnam. As a young man the budding composer moved to Paris to study at the Institute of Musicology.

Returning home, he launched his career as a singer in the Duc Huy troupe before joining a musical cadre for the Viet Minh forces in their resistance against the French. He eventually headed south to Saigon and, after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, resettled in the U.S.


Pham’s work was banned in postwar Vietnam, but his music continued to be performed outside his homeland by scores of entertainers. Nostalgia, a theme he repeatedly highlighted, resulted in the song “Motherland Love”:

“I left home one afternoon

When a sad song echoed in the leaves

My sorrow is undimmed by the years

From exile I yearn

For the love of my land...”

Pham led a minstrel’s life, traveling around the world to sing from his series of songs about the lives of refugees and political prisoners.

“He is a treasure, and I wish more people knew about him from outside our community,” said Dr. BichLien Nguyen, the head of the Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation, who organized a tribute to Pham at the La Mirada Theatre in 2002. “No one can write like him. No one makes us feel the way we do when we listen to his songs.”

Ysa Le, who directs the Santa Ana-based Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Assn., is another admirer. “His songs go with the history of Vietnam. It just doesn’t touch on one subject like romantic love — it’s about struggle and faith and country. It’s very patriotic. And I’m happy to see the generation growing up here learn about his music through YouTube or watching videos” of modern stars sizzling to his older tunes.

Pham is survived by daughters Thai Hien, Thai Thao and Thai Hanh; and sons Duy Cuong, Duy Minh, Duy Hung and Duy Duc.