The Cannon and the Flower

This is not another story about the Vienam War.

Dang Thai Son started piano lessons during the Vietnam War. His mother, Thai Thi Lien, was his teacher. They were driven from Hanoi into the mountains by a sustained U.S. bombing campaign that would last for nearly three years. This was the first of two lengthy evacuations they would survive. Together mother and son worked toward perfection in mud and thatch huts, hiding underground whenever the planes buzzed overhead.

They risked their lives for the love of the piano.

Five years after the war, Son shocked the music world with his virtuosity.

Where pianos were never meant to go.

As the bombing of Hanoi escalated in 1965, schools were evacuated. Thai Thi Lien, widely known as Madame Lien, took her youngest child, seven-year-old Dang Thai Son, on a rugged journey from Hanoi to the mountains. They evacuated the pianos with them on a strange mashed-up trek to a remote village where pianos were never meant to go. Some might call this journey a legend. Vietnam’s history is filled with unlikely heroes, so heros often come in curious forms.

Dang Thai Son and Thai Thi Lien

Village concerts.

There are many reasons why this story has not been widely known. In Vietnamese culture, individual achievement is valued less than the importance of societal groups. Thai Thi Lien and Dang Thai Son personally value modesty. More than 40 years after a stinging defeat, people living in the United States may finally be receptive to a story about North Vietnamese citizens.

Madame Lien did what needed to be done. To feel alive, she had to celebrate her survival with music.

Music students Escaping Hanoi.

Madame Lien and Son did their best to pursue music during the war, but living in Hanoi, the war got in the way. For them, playing the piano is like breathing. They both say that without music, life has little meaning.

But creating beauty during wartime is not so easy.

Whenever bombs dropped on Vietnam, Madame Lien heard a different soundtrack. She thrived despite years of nightmare, hiding away in the mountains and jungle. Madame Lien has seen so many things in her life, but she recalls these events as if they happened yesterday

Thai Thi Lien, 1955, Hanoi.

She imagined the most unbelievable musical score for a war.

Madame Lien pursued classical music during not only what Vietnamese call the American War, but also during World War II and the first, second and third Indochina Wars .It is said the first piano was carried to Vietnam in 1912, by French missionaries to play music in church. Thai Thi Lien was born in French Colonial Saigon in 1918. She took her first piano lessons when she was four years old from French nuns. Madame Lien loved the piano, but remembers that the nuns were mean. Despite this first impression, the piano would become the constant love of her life.

Madame Lien's six siblings grew up with music lessons - all played an instrument and family concerts were common occurrences. Her father, Thai Van Lan, brought home a gramophone and discs of operas from Europe. Madame Lien attended a French high school in Saigon and continued to study piano, and with a streak of independence, took her first paying piano student at age 15. Her fondest dream was to study at a conservatory. Her father held a belief, unique for the time and culture, that his daughters should develop skills they could rely on to make a living. The family budgeted for Madame Lein and her older sister Louise to continue piano lessons with the best teachers in Saigon.

It was a crushing blow to Madame Lien when her older sister was sent to study piano in Paris in 1933.

Madame Lien and her siblings.

Madame Lien, far left and her family in Thu Duc, near Saigon, 1930.

The culture’s family principles dictated that the eldest child should be favored with opportunities. There was no conservatory in Cochin China, so a heartbroken Madame Lien continued private lessons. Louise Nguyen Van Ty would return to Siagon to marry, and went on to a succesful career as a concert pianist and a published composer. Madame Lien, chafing a bit at submitting to both French colonial values and Vietnamese traditions, longed to study at a conservatory. But her parents settled her future for her. They picked a husband and arranged her marriage. In 1940, a couple of years after the wedding, her husband died suddenly, having kept secret his advanced tuberculosis. Madame Lien was a widow at 22.

In 1948, economic hardship hit Saigon and she moved to Paris in search of work and keeping her dream alive of a chance to study piano. Before she would return home, Vietnam would be divided and she would never see her parents again. Later that year, Madame married Tran Ngoc Danhin, a minister of Ho Chi Minh’s who was in Paris in a futile attempt to negotiate for Vietnam’s independence.

When Tran Ngoc Danh returned to Vietnam, he arranged for Madame Lien and their daughter, Tran Tu Ha, to stay in Europe to allow Grandma’s dream of piano study.

Thai Thi Lien, second from left, her father Alexis Thai Van Lan far left, her brother Albert, and sister Louisette far right, March 1935,Gien, France.

Madame Lien marries Tran Ngoc Danhin Paris, 1948

Madame earned her degree from the Prague Conservatory of Music in 1951. She was the first Vietnamese woman to earn an advanced degree in music. And she deepened her love for Frédéric Chopin. “During my studies, I loved playing the music of Chopin, because I feel it’s very close to me — For we Vietnamese, the music of Chopin is very familiar, because even the history of Poland is very similar to that of Vietnam. Poland was split up a number of times, a history sort of similar to ours - because we were under the domination of the Chinese—but we also were divided and all the Vietnamese understand immediately Chopin’s music, much more than other music, because, it’s something very close to us.”

“The music of Chopin is very close to the Vietnamese soul.”
~ Madame Lien

Even as the Viet Minh battled the French for Vietnam's nationhood, Madame Lien was eager to return to Vietnam to her husband. Danh was with the revolutionaries in the jungle.

“Before coming back, I imagined that even in the jungle there would be a piano.”

Madame took the long and treacherous journey to join him. She imagined teaching piano in her beloved homeland. She was so excited to bring music education home, even as the First Indochina War raged throughout. As Madame made the arduous trek toward home through China And neared the border, she was buoyed by joy for teaching music.

First Indochina war/ The U.S. National Archive


“ I said, but everything that I just learned I’m going to forget if I don’t have the music, what am I going to do?”
~ Madame Lien

Escaping safely with her toddler daughter and nothing but an ID card and her diploma with “excellence” from the Prague conservatory, she joined her husband and began to teach music in the jungle.

“I carried my daughter the whole way we went, I think 110 kilometers. We had to walk during the night. But first, when I arrived, my husband was sick… in a remote village.” Still, she clung to her vision. “When I arrived in Vietnam, right away I asked if there were a piano. I thought there’s a piano even so in the jungle, but they told me, [with a laugh] “No, there’s no piano.”

Madame Lien was desperate to fix the music she held so dearly to her memory.

Each night, until she fell asleep, she played her favorite pieces on an imaginary piano in her head.

They would spend two years in the jungle, on the move every few months. As her husband slowly succumbed to tuberculosis, pregnant with her first son, she taught traditional music “It was really hard not to have an instrument, to not have anything at all.”

It would be three years before she would touch a piano.

Living in Viet Bac, the Viet Minh’s base, she began teaching music arranged for accordions as part of the Central People’s Artistic Troupe. Among the recordings was the famous Vietnamese lullaby “Ru Con Nambo” The lullaby allowed Vietnamese from both north and south to claim a common musical heritage. “I remember very well when we reached the Chinese border on the first day. We were sleeping, and then when we arrived, I could see the piano. People called out to me and said,

“Oh, Lien, there is a piano.” I rushed toward it straightaway, and I played it all night long. I played and played some more. I was so happy. I was still able to play, even after three years of not touching a piano. I could still play.”

“We were a group of musicians – in a little house – a room. And we got together in the evening to talk. Among them was the father of Son, Dang Dinh Hung, then a contrabassists, the veteran [laughs] as we called him…” She would marry “the veteran,” amid an exciting time of building Vietnam’s cultural institutions.

“Peace had to be restored not only in the music field. For example, we also thought of creating a dance school, a school of traditional music, many things. We had to start and create everything.”

“When we had the idea of opening a music school, we had absolutely nothing."

We started from scratch with no musical instruments or music scores. No score, nothing only a very old upright piano that the French left.” Madame was the only teacher with an advanced degree in music so the conservatory began exchanges with Communist block conservatories. Daughter Tran Tu Ha sums up her role “My mom, was, in fact, the first to bring Western professional music in to the country. It means she anything that was needed. She was bold and enthusiastic.”

Dang Dinh Hung, Son's father, a poet and artist, was persecuted because he was part of a group of intellectuals who had criticized the Communist party in newspapers.

In 1958, Dang Thai Son was born in the family residence overlooking a busy street in Hanoi.

After his birth, while giving piano lessons, I installed a cradle on wheels that I pushed with my foot when he cried. Later, when he was 2 or 3 years old, he loved to attend to my lessons, sitting quietly on a chair to the left of the piano. It must be said that I loved singing in my youth and I always used to rock my children by singing lullabies and all sorts of melodies. Sometimes, when I heard a tune, I took my son in my arms and danced with him. It was something irresistible and Son was quite happy.

With Son I had everything. With son’s father we did not have a normal life. We did not have any shared life. We really loved each other, it was really a great love, but due to his political story, he was cut off from society, he became embittered, and we, I recall, we never had the life of a couple, that is, we never went out together, the two of us. And Son never went out with his father.

“When {Son} started to work on the piano I knew you’d go very far, but it was always a secret between {his} father and me. In the evenings, I told {his} father, I have the impression he’ll go very far. But we don’t dare say it in front of {him} because we were afraid of disappointment.” With a dissident for a father, Son faced a future denied opportunities granted to children of party members.

“I listened to Chopin music when I was — not born yet.”
~ Dang Thai Son

"In three years, I found out he had the perfect pitch: that is he was able to identify exactly name of each note from the gravest to the highest. I let him always have fun at the piano as he wished. He did not bang on the keyboard like children usually do, he sought rather the sounds he loved to hear. And this passion he had when I was teaching piano!

One day when he was two years, a Polish piano teacher paid us a visit. I told him about Son’s appeal and aptitudes for the piano. He looked at his hands and said, "Your son has beautiful hands to become a good pianist." It was from that moment that we no longer hesitated to follow his inclination to play the piano."

"Your son has beautiful hands to become a good pianist."

Videos/ The U.S. National Archive

Students and faculty hand-dug escape tunnels and a large classroom area 5 feet deep. The homes in the village were made of mud floors and walls with thatched roofs, and Madame negotiated for spaces in them for each of the pianos. Village farmers feared the music would drown out their ability to hear enemy planes and otherwise draw attention the remote village. Despite this tension, Madame kept to a rigid teaching schedule, morning to night.

Videos/ The Vietnam Film Archive

Madame Lien teaches in the village.

“I think it was the most beautiful years of my life as a teacher.” ~Madame Lien

For the next ten years, Madame Lien and the students survived two lengthy periods of evacuations to stay one step ahead of the bombs. But they did more than survive — the school thrived. Despite the constant hardship, Madame Lien held the school together— and in the process lifted the spirits and the will of the students and faculty in the face of the horrors of the war.

”I used to play for my students in the evening, the pale light of a kerosene lamp. It was a wonderful thing, this communion of soul through music, the professor surrounded by his pupils, all captivated by the sound, so far from the realities of war.

Videos/ The Vietnam Film Archive

Daily life in the village.

With only half the keyboard making sound, the rest had to be imagined. Son practiced fingering on a keyboard drawn on paper.

Son stood in line to practice a piano a few minutes a day, “So many mice loved to get inside of the piano and make babies and… they ate the felt part from the hammer,” he recalled. And the distractions would come in larger packages, dropping through the thatched roofs,” Sometimes we play like that and just inspired and looking around and – Whup! [laughs] —snake. Just stay there, and what to do? So, [in this case?] don’t panic. Never panic, because, they can be dangerous. So, just continue playing some—some—after some time, and they’re gone. [laughing] They—they are gone! But I—I remember that, because only thirty minutes per day, it’s so short. So we all wait for this hour to come so that we could practice and it’s my most happy moment in the day.”

Fredrick Chopin

We lived and worked on for four years. Early in the summer of 1969, following negotiations for the cessation of hostilities, the bombing ended, or almost. We received permission to return to Hanoi.

”When I was 12 years, when we have really difficulty about everything, and Mom, she was invited to Chopin competition in Warsaw, uh, like a guest. And then, after this, even, Mom brought back to Hanoi full, uh, collection recording music score about Chopin. So, suddenly I did not have nothing much about other composer like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, but I have everything for Chopin.

“So day and night I play only Chopin. There’s no more the other—only Chopin.”

And it’s really, important for my future because the first time I listened to the recording is Chopin music and you couldn’t imagine—of course in the school in village we play like amateur like that, but it really—real music from the recording, Oh! Wow the first time we listen Chopin, I was really so impress. And these pieces, uh, concerto, Chopin played by Martha Argerich, one of the greatest pianists today. And then I had music score, so day and night I play only Chopin. There’s no more the other—only Chopin. That’s why, uh…mm, it’s maybe Chopin music come to my—get into my blood from when I was really [little].

Son and his father Dang Dinh Hung. / The Vietnam Film Archive

Son and Isaac Katz, Moscow. / The Vietnam Film Archive

In 1972, the bombings resumed and again they evacuated to the villages. At that time, Son was 14.

After the war, Son was selected to go to Russia in 1976 to study piano at the urging of Isaac Katz, a famous pianist from Moscow who visited the conservatory in 1974.

Dang Thai Son was “blacklisted” by the Communist Party because his father was Dang Dinh Hung a dissident poet.

“Because of my father, I have a very serious problem, because my father was a dissident. He was sent to the re-education camp for this short period and lost all his position.”

Madame would divorce Son’s father because,” It was really a great love, but due to his political story, he was cut off, he became embittered and we never had the life as a couple.” After two years, Katz prevailed and Vietnam’s minister of culture, Pham Van Dong, intervened. Son was allowed to enroll at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. After studying in Moscow, he was ready to enter his first piano competition. He chose one of the most rigorous.

“I just wanted to play Chopin in Poland.” ~Dang Thai Son

The Chopin International, held every five years in Warsaw, is considered the most prestigious and competitive piano competition in the world. And, if that wasn't daunting enough, it was Dang Thai Son’s first competition, his first public performance and his first performance with an orchestra.

For the 1980 competition, Son’s one-page resume was accepted. A friend lent him the $50 entry fee and he wore his only jacket, purchased in the children’s section of a Moscow department store.

Before the contest, Son wrote to his mother, saying,:

”Mother, I know every mother places big hopes in their children... but Mother, please, consider the other possibility to avoid disappointment.”

So I said, “I want to show that I can play Chopin too—inside, I just say to myself that I want to give a surprise for everybody. So, really I play with full confidence, and you know, the other point there, because it’s look like my real debut of the public concert. So I play with such a kind of freshness.”

A total unknown, Son’s virtuosity shook the music world.

Japanese television called Son’s room 30 minutes before the final announcement: “You won the first prize.” “So what am I feeling? I have no joy, I have no happiness, I was scared. I was so afraid, because it’s so sudden, come, I like a jungle boy – it’s so - so far.”

When Dang Thai Son swept an unequaled number of prizes to win , the overnight sensation shocked the world - a musical genius emerging from the rubble of a war-torn country. Dang Thai Son and his mother became unlikely national heroes.“The life of our family changed overnight,” says Son. “It’s like a big celebration right in the Hanoi airport. Everybody from Hanoi music school came because they know during the evacuation; we lived like a big family. We shared the joy, the happy moment; also we share the pain and the difficult moment.

Son asked for three things: to resume his studies in Moscow, to have Madame accompany him to manage his career and to get medical treatment for his father, who was homeless and ill.

And life changed in Vietnam, “Many, many young people were allowed to go abroad to study. I became the first non-Communist to have the right to go to the west to give concerts. It is a new epoch for the Vietnamese.”

Web Production, Design, Video and Editing by
Richard Koci Hernandez

Scripting and Writing by
Geri Migielicz

Web Development
Jeremy Rue

Special Thanks
Thai Thi Lien and her entire Family
Dang Thai Son
Thu Nga Dan

The Vietnam Film Archive
The U.S. National Archive