Quê/Homelands, on the other hand, is a collaboration between Matthew Sansom and Stefan Östersjö1 with the đàn tranh player Nguyễn Thanh Thủy. The idea of revisiting childhood landscapes and sites, shared by the members of the Landscape Quartet, lead to the formation of a series of projects titled Homelands. This concept – as well as other artistic methods developed within the quartet – formed the groundwork for a project in which the three musicians developed an ecological sound art project up on the mountains and on the rice fields around the village of Ngang Nội in the Bắc Ninh Province, north of Hanoi. In Bắc Ninh, both of Thủy's parents grew up in the same small village of Ngang Nội, famed for Quan Họ, the folk music tradition of love songs emerging from the province, and some of its most famous tradition-bearers come from this little village in particular. The project wished to engage with Thủy's childhood memories from the village, but also to create artistic work that would inquire into these memories through present day soundscapes. The project with Nguyễn Thanh Thủy was the first in which another artist was invited to share and develop these methods. The two works presented in the exhibition at Manzi’s Art Space in Hanoi in December 2013 were called “Làm đồng/working the rice” and “Làm rừng/working the forest.” The installations, created by Matthew Sansom and Stefan Östersjö, aimed at capturing the complexity of the interactions between the musicians and the landscape and of the intense sonorities of the Vietnamese countryside.


The soundscape also contains many traces from everyday life in the nearest villages. When you walk up any of the mountains surrounding the village, you will find that many sounds travel all the way up to the top (not all mountain tops constitute a pristine representation of a hi-fi soundscape). We went up the mountains already in the first visit for the project, in April 2013, and followed the small paths only to realize how each path would lead to a graveyard or a single tomb. In fact, the mountain where we eventually created “Làm rừng/working the forest” was filled with tombs all the way up to the top. The “meaning” of the paths on these mountains became very obvious and colored our further exploration of them.

All the mountains in Bắc Ninh are covered by little forests. The trees all around in the area are young and too slender to afford building the sort of guitar-tree sculptures that Östersjö and Hogg had been creating in Europe (Hogg and Östersjö 2015). Historically, this province afforded many big trees that were used to make huge pieces of furniture (like beds) from a single piece of wood. Now all those trees are gone, replaced by more quickly growing, lighter kinds. However, with these trees it would still be possible to play aeolian guitar with strings strung around a tree or group of trees. Eventually we settled on this approach as the counterpart to the piece created in the rice field. Rather than a guitar, we decided to use the three-stringed đàn đáy, an instrument which turned out to be congenial with the aeolian techniques which Östersjö had been developing for the guitar. The low tuning was the result of stringing the instrument around three trees in the hillside. This gave the instrument a strikingly punchy bass-register, out of which emerged remarkably sonorous aeolian sounds.

The complex soundscape of the city of Hanoi has been explored by many sound artists. The Hanoi Soundscape project comes to mind, initiated by the techno DJ and sound artist Trí Minh, which took shape as three pieces – by Robert Henke, Vũ Nhật Tân and Trí Minh – premiered in Hanoi and released on CD (Henke, Trí and  Vũ 2013). While Trí Minh worked specifically with sounds collected at the central station, the two other pieces were based on street noises. In 2014, a series of sound walks were created by the composer and sound artist Lương Huệ Trinh.6 What Arrival Cities: Hanoi may contribute to this body of work is an understanding of the interrelation between the countryside, as embodied by street vendors struggling to support their families who remain in the homeland, and the future of a rapidly developing city like Hanoi. One central narrative is drawn from the interviews with the actor Lưu Ngọc Nam. He was interviewed about the project in a newspaper in Hanoi and made the following reflection:


To me, the countryside and Hanoi are like the two sides of the hand. One side is an overwhelming image of a modern city with offices in skyscrapers. If you turn the hand over you see a rural culture being broken to pieces. (Lê 2015)


But Arrival Cities: Hanoi is also about memory, in ways not so different to the Homelands project in Bắc Ninh. Can one see an ecological sound art project like this as an appropriation of some of these memories or afterimages of the soundscape of the countryside? Perhaps the only way to hold on to these vanishing soundworlds is by active participation; by exploring their fragile presence they can be amplified in the listener’s memory. 

The sounds of Hanoi and the after-image of the homeland

Stefan Östersjö & Nguyễn Thanh Thủy


The structure of this exposition is two-fold, separated into more analytically-driven reflections by the two authors, placed in the left hand column and a more personal set of reflections in the form of a conversation on the right. The reader is invited to explore the possibility of reading the two columns both vertically and horizontally. Central to this piece of writing is a wish to explore the relation between life in a little village in the countryside and the sparkling, noisy, turbulent and economically expansive life in Hanoi. In particular, we suggest that the street vendors, the iconic rural-urban migrant workers in Hanoi, do embody these relations in their lives. Their working situations in the city and the lives of their families somewhere in a village in the countryside may decide, speaking with Doug Saunders, the future of Hanoi and eventually of the country.

The motorbike ride takes us to the house of Thủy’s uncle, where her cousin runs the household. Before she had children, she worked as a street vendor in Hanoi. Every day she would get up at 3 in the morning and bring 70 kilos of rice on her bicycle to Hanoi. (This bike has a special history, as it was bought in Russia in the 1970s by Thủy’s father, shipped to Vietnam, given as a present to his brother, and finally became the family bike.) It would take until the late afternoon to sell all the rice and then make the 1,5 hour bike ride back to the village. Here, the next task was to buy new raw rice and start working on it for the next day. The leftovers of the rice were given to the pigs, and the only gain from this daily work was this food for the pigs. The money earned in the city would normally only be enough to buy new rice for the next day’s work. Her story, and Thủy's (dis)remembered version of it, became part of the narrative in Arrival Cities: Hanoi

There are many similarities between the soundscape in Mai Dịch and the village of Ngang Nội. The concept of the “hi-fi-soundscape” is defined by the idea of “sound as signal, as an ideal of clarity and clear communication to be searched for in preferably natural quiet soundscapes” (McCartney 2010: 24) and opposes the “lo-fi soundscape” of modern cities. Following Murray Schafer, the concept is further developed to include the qualities of less overlap of sounds and a clear division between foreground and background (Schafer 1977). According to this interpretation, most of the Vietnamese countryside is just as “lo-fi” as the soundscape of Hanoi. In the early morning you wake up to the sound of the crowing cocks and the first motorbikes. In Mai Dịch, there is not really any land left for growing crops, but for many kept hens. Nowadays, after seven o’clock, when the traffic has begun, this noise forms a constant. But also in the countryside, motorbikes are an important part of the soundscape; here they make their way across the narrow paths, along the rice fields, the canals, and on the country roads. They, of course, also continue to the main road toward Hanoi to deliver goods, perhaps to the Long Biên market in Hanoi.


Situated just by and under the Long Biên bridge, this market is the center of life for the street vendors. Many live in the sheds just behind the market, one of the main arrival points for people coming from the countryside to earn a living for their families in the city. Almost all street vendors are women whose children and husband reside in a village hours away from Hanoi. They cannot afford to go back more than once every month or every other month.


In the making of Arrival Cities: Hanoi we interviewed many street vendors, asking about their hopes for the future, what they think of the city and themselves in the city (do they feel like Hanoians?), and about their reasons for working there. It is a hard life to work as a street vendor. You need to learn how to negotiate your existence in an area with the police (it is illegal to sell goods in the street), and even if you bribe them to be allowed to sell there, there will be razzias when you suddenly have to flee on your bike (people normally pass the message on when police are out to catch street vendors).
The sound of the street vendors calls are often referred to in the tourist agencies’ depictions of the city. The tradition of street vendors extends far back in time2, and the calls are a fascinating sonic signature of urban life in Vietnam. There are calls indicating almost any kind of service, not just the obvious offers of various kinds of bread and fruit. Many other services are offered: to sharpen your knives and scissors, to sell your broken machines, to exchange your old pots and pans for new ones, and so on. It would be more correct to divide these activities into two branches: the actual street vendors who walk the main streets and aim at selling their items to passersby and the various services offered to people within their own house and advertised with calls from the bicycle or motorbike. The latter category are the most audibly prevalent. Today, most of them have pre-recorded calls that are played back from little horn speakers.3 The particular sound of this amplification4 situates the sound of the street vendors of today at the threshold between ancient and modern Vietnam. The women selling fruit in the streets rarely use any calls today; they can rely on being spotted in the street, walking up to people and addressing them individually rather than with louder calls. Sometimes they also bribe policemen to be allowed to set up their bike with their goods in a certain spot and stay there throughout the day. This is the preferred working situation today. In this respect, the fruit vendors with their bicycles are some of the most silent of all inhabitants in Hanoi, surrounded by the clamor of car horns and the many machines that fill the air from morning to night. The ability to contribute to the noise in the city is partly related to one’s income.5


When Kent Olofsson and Stefan Östersjö set out to record the call of street vendors, we were also keen to capture the original acoustic calls, knowing that they exist but are more rarely heard these days. But ironically, just when we were about to head off from the PUKU cafe in Tống Duy Tân street, we heard the official news announcement from the public speakers (another common feature in a countryside village and in the city) declaring that it is illegal to sell goods in the street and that the police will be looking for street vendors that day. Of course, when we walked off with our zoom recorder, there wasn’t a single call from a street vendor anywhere, only many women on bikes heading off with their goods to their home. We got increasingly desperate since our time in Hanoi was running out and we needed these sounds for the piece. When walking the narrow lanes in Mai Dịch later in the day, we were joined by Thủy who spotted one woman who would normally be buying junk (plastic, paper, metal and glass) in the neighborhood. We asked her to make her call from one of these secluded lanes where there were apparently no police and offered her a fee for the performance. She agreed, and we got an excellent recording of the emerging and disappearing call throughout the nearest blocks in the area. This recording, post-produced into a little composition by Olofsson, eventually became one of the core materials in the collection of street vending calls in Arrival Cities: Hanoi

But what is the epistemological status of audio files? Are field recordings to be understood as a kind of documentary (Cobussen 2014)? In what ways can audio recordings represent the real life situation of people in a certain place? The film-maker Trinh Minh-ha identifies the problem in the relation between documentary film and reality in “the advent of a whole aesthetic of objectivity and the development of comprehensive technologies of truth capable of promoting what is right and what is wrong in the world and, by extension, what is ‘honest’ and what is ‘manipulative’ in documentary” (Minh-ha 1990: 80). We have seen the development of similar discourses around audio technology and recording techniques in field recording (Seaward 2015). However, sound art also carries the heritage from musique concrète, with acousmatic listening as a counterimage to the notion of documentary. One may identify the practice of many sound artists at the intersection between these two aesthetic approaches, i.e. between field recording and musique concrète. Still, the question of what constitutes a true representation or, as Minh-ha phrases it, what is “honest” and what is “manipulative” seems to prevail. This question also has a strong bearing on many layers of the soundscape in Hanoi. 

Essay on Vietnamese soundscapes

What could be more appropriate in a text about the sounds of Hanoi than to start out with a motorbike ride from Mai Dịch, an area where many actors and musicians live, through the city center, across the Chương Dương bridge over the Red river, and on to the village of Ngang Nội in Bắc Ninh? The clattering of the motorbikes is continual in Hanoi, and it follows you out on the countryside. The motorbike is like the blood in the veins of the Vietnamese society. They carry food from the market in the early morning; children (always without helmets) to kindergarten and school, lined up between their parents (in helmet as the law requires); and any kind of goods that are subject to trade: glass panes, huge china vases, broken TVs, brand new flat-screens, fish for aquariums, long metal bars that make their drivers look like medieval knights in a tournament, heavy objects like fridges, or tourists headed to a tourist site. The motorbike is what makes the city tick. But this motorbike ride stretches outside the city, towards the village where the Vietnamese đàn tranh player Nguyễn Thanh Thủy’s family lives. Her parents left Bắc Ninh when they were in their early teens to study traditional theatre in Hanoi, but she still has many relatives there. The homeland lingers as an afterimage inside every Hanoian. The countryside is never far away in the modern, rapidly developing city of Hanoi. 


A journey to the countryside also becomes a journey back in time. The Vietnamese economy has developed rapidly since the country opened up to a market-oriented economic system with the Đổi Mới reforms in 1986. This economic growth has led to significant improvement of the living standards, but the development has not been equitable. A report looking at 18 years of economic growth concludes that while the country has developed from a low- to middle income country from 1990 to the present day, “poorer groups, ethnic minorities and rural populations have seen their share in economic progress decline. Income growth has been concentrated mainly around the large cities and in areas with export-oriented economic activities” (Vandemoortele and Bird 2011: 8). Growth has been particularly slow among some minority peoples, in particular in the Central Highlands (Vandemoortele and Bird 2011: 8-9)

This text revisits Arrival Cities: Hanoi and Quê/Homelands Bắc Ninh, two music and sound art projects in which both authors took part as artists and performers. The projects originated in Hanoi and in the natural landscape around the village of Ngang Nội, about an hour's drive north of the city. By juxtaposing the two projects we hope to be able to trace some of these afterimages of the countryside in the sounds of the city, but also, to suggest a political perspective on these soundscapes. 


Arrival Cities: Hanoi is a piece of music theatre with documentary film. It seeks a new format for politically-informed theatre, responsive to the challenges of a globalized society. Arrival Cities: Hanoi weaves many individual stories together in an exploration of the dissolution of the relationship with tradition that urbanization brings. The Canadian journalist Doug Saunders discusses 21st century migration in his book titled Arrival City (2010). Building on research on five continents, his book chronicles the latest shift of human populations from rural to urban areas, which Saunders argues is the most important development of the 21st-century. He argues that this migration creates "arrival cities," neighborhoods and slums on the urban margins that are linked both to villages and to core cities and that the fate of these centers is crucial to the fortunes of nations.

Arrival Cities: Hanoi builds a multi-layered narrative from many sources. The three performers weave their memories of encounters with street vendors together with their own experiences of migration to and from Hanoi. A core narrative is the life story of Lưu Ngọc Nam, an actor and costume maker in traditional Tuồng theatre. His travels in the country, the homesickness, and the tension between traditions that he experiences become the source for a further exploration of hand gesture in Tuồng theatre and an expansive portrait of a city vibrant with memories from the Vietnamese countryside. The music is created by the composer Kent Olofsson and The Six Tones. Field recordings from the city of Hanoi constitute an important layer in the electronic soundscape, constituting the backdrop for new music for traditional Vietnamese instruments, a hybrid music which explores a space between traditional and contemporary musical cultures. Arrival Cities: Hanoi was directed by Jörgen Dahlqvist. The documentary footage was created through a collaboration of Dahlqvist with the three members of The Six Tones.

Throughout every village in Vietnam there are loudspeakers that disseminate the official news from the authorities. Their history goes back to the Resistance War Against America, when they would serve as an alert for air raids or deliver news from the front (Nguyen and McCool 2006). In Hanoi, the broadcasts are scheduled for 6:30 AM and 4:30 PM. As put by Đỗ Văn Thuy, director of the Culture and Information Department of Hoài Đức, Hanoi: “Public loudspeakers are a cultural legacy from the past. They were necessary and they are still necessary” (Thanh Nien News 2016). However, their presence is much discussed in Hanoi’s media, for instance: “There is one every 100 meters or so. On each electric pole. Blaring since 5 a.m. to praise the 1,000th Thang Long-Hanoi anniversary,” says a student at one of the polytechnic universities in an interview (Thanh Nien News 2016). So the broadcasts of official news provides the city soundscape with yet another perspective on what is “manipulative” and what is “honest.”




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Audio 1: A short clip with a recording of aeolian đàn đáy recorded on a mountain in Bắc Ninh.

Video excerpt from Arrival Cities: Hanoi. Filmed by Maria Norrman.

Audio 3: Soundfile from Arrival Cities: Hanoi.

The making of the "Working the Rice". Video by Matthew Sansom.

Fig 1: The family bike from Russia. Photo by Stefan Östersjö.

Fig 3: Loudspeakers in Hanoi. Photo by Stefan Östersjö. 

Memories of lost sounds and places

Video from Long Biên market and interview with a street vendor. Filmed by Jörgen Dahlqvist and The Six Tones.

Stefan Östersjö: Shall we start this conversation by returning to the motorbike ride from your parents’ house to your uncle’s place in Ngang Nội? 

Nguyễn Thanh Thủy: Yes, I remember that trip. It was in April 2013, and we were heading out to my homeland to do some reconnaissance for the Homelands project. We shot a video of the entire ride, and this video was also screened when we opened the second version of the exhibition at the Embassy Tea Gallery in London. 

Video from motorbike ride from Mai Dịch to Ngang Nội. Filmed by The Six Tones.

SÖ: Not only has the soundscape shifted in your homeland since you were a child, but you often speak of the changes that happened in Mai Dịch, where your parents live since the 1960s. Just after the war, when you were born, Mai Dịch was still the very last outpost of Hanoi, a very rural place with a lot of little ponds and lakes, surrounded by rice fields. 

NTT: Everything I remember about Mai Dịch from my childhood is gone now. There are no more ponds and trees. Children now stay inside most of the time.. There is no space for children here. When I was a child, you could take a bamboo carpet out to the nearest pond (where there is a parking lot today) on a hot summer night and sleep until the early morning, when you went back home. It was a good way to escape the heat.

SÖ: This was a time when there were not yet any motorbikes in Hanoi. What sounds would you hear by the pond in the night? 

NTT: You would hear the wind in the leaves of the trees, the noise of the cicadas, the ghost stories told by the older boys, and sometimes grasshoppers jumping in the grass around the pond as well. During this time I had some secret corners out in Mai Dịch where I could be alone. But of course, today there is a constant flow of people on bicycles, motorbikes, in cars, and all the one-story houses are gone, replaced by increasingly large and narrow homes. Mai Dịch is now just part of a rapidly growing city. Of course, the new housing is part of a very strong improvement in people’s lives, which has occurred with the growing economy. The rural Mai Dịch from my childhood was a very poor area, where people struggled for survival in a war-torn country, like all in the north of Vietnam at the time. When I was nine years old I was accepted to study at the Hanoi Conservatory of Music. It was the year of Đổi Mới, and it was the last year that the state would offer a full scholarship to a student in the academy. Since then, it has been up to the student’s family to cover the university fees and the living costs. During the entire length of my studies, I was supported by the government.

SÖ: So in a sense you actually grew up in the old economic system?

NTT: Yes, and my parents are actors of traditional theatre, a cultural form that has been carefully nursed by the government. With Đổi Mới, the situation for traditional culture in Vietnam has been in constant recession. The audience is diminishing, and the situation for anyone with a state salary is getting more and more unbearable, since the salaries do not follow inflation. Hence, today, anyone with a state salary needs to have a second source of income.

SÖ: Shall we return to the bike ride we were talking about? We went to your uncle’s house in the village, driving through the center of Hanoi towards the Chương Dương bridge and onwards to Bắc Ninh. The first person we met was your cousin.

NTT: Now, in retrospect, one can see how this meeting with my cousin became significant in Arrival Cities: Hanoi. I hadn’t seen her much the last years, but now we had a bit of a conversation, and we looked at the old family bike. I think you shot a picture of it?

SÖ: I did. It made a bit of an impression, this rusty old bike, once brought as a gift from your father, who studied in Russia in the 1970s. And this is the bike she still uses?

NTT: Yes, and some years earlier, when she worked as a street vendor in Hanoi, this was the bike she would use to bring the 70 kilos of rice to the city in the early morning.

SÖ: It was the next time we were in the village to work on the Homelands project that she told you about this time in her life, right?

NTT: Yes, we had more time to speak when we returned in September 2013 to work for a week out in the landscape. We visited my uncle’s house many times in this period. Làm Xáo is a local expression in Bắc Ninh for the practice of working the raw rice, and, traditionally, this was part of the work you would do in my uncle’s family. This was considered women’s work, as an extra task alongside the main work on one’s own rice field. When I was a child and would come to the village in the summer, the sound of the huge mortars you use for Làm Xáo was a very distinct part of the soundscape. There are two main parts of the process: first the crushing of the raw rice with the mortar, and then the sorting, which creates a sizzling sound. Today, farming processes have been modernized and are carried out by companies who buy land from small-scale farmers and invest in machines, which of course changes the soundscape of the countryside quite radically.

SÖ: I remember when we travelled in the highlands to collect video footage for Arrival Cities: Hanoi. We shot a video of a woman working the raw rice.

NTT: Yes, but that woman was working rice only for family use, much more small-scale and with different tools.

Video of a woman working the rice in the Highlands. Filmed by The Six Tones.

SÖ: Clearly, the economic growth, which is altering life in the cities, has not reached the Central Highlands yet. The poverty in the little villages we biked through was striking. And I recall the conversation we had with a woman who moved to the Highlands as a pioneer after the reunion in 1975. When she arrived in her new “homeland,” no land was offered to them, and they had to work as day laborers for the minority people in the area, collecting the remaining rice after the harvest. They had to be quick, because otherwise the ducks would finish all that was left. Only some years before had she collected enough money to buy her own ricefield.

NTT: Many investors are creating large factories in Bắc Ninh, so more and more people in Ngang Nội earn their living by working there. The landscape will change when the farming goes large-scale.

SÖ: Yes, I guess we did the Homelands project at the right time, when it was still possible to return to the rice fields of your childhood. The title of the piece we made with you was “working the rice,” created out in the same rice field where you would learn to water the rice when you visited in the summertime.

NTT: There is a rather particular technique for watering the rice in the traditional way. You have a rope running around a bucket, and two people can fill and empty the bucket continuously. It’s an intricate technique and a nicely collaborative one. It was not very easy. I would work on it with my cousins, who of course were already experts.

SÖ: In the Landscape Quartet project we returned to these rice fields with your instrument. We once tried to hang the instrument upside down in a field to allow the wind to play the strings with the rice shoots. Already these test recordings from April 2013 revealed a rich soundworld, not only arising from the complex sonorities of the 19 strings of the instrument, but also from the birds and frogs in the field. However, when we made the recordings in September, you also played the instrument yourself with the rice at times.

NTT: The wind was not as strong the second time we were there, and this prompted a different interaction between me, the rice, and the instrument. The first idea that came to me was to hang the instrument upside down in the field. We never really tried that in spring, but we considered several ways in which it might be done, including rather crazy ideas with long strings connected to the instrument, more in the style of the guitar tree sculptures you created together with Bennett Hogg.

SÖ: Yes, we were wondering whether we should try to bring that practice into the piece in the field. However, we gave up on it since the tiny little trees you can find by the field would never support such constructions. The final solution of how to hang the đàn tranh in the field seemed very obvious once you suggested it.

NTT: In Vietnam, many constructions have always been made with bamboo. What would be more natural than to suspend the instrument on bamboo sticks out in the field?

SÖ: You also see bamboo sticks in old drawings of street vendors, before the time when they would load their goods on a bike. Speaking of which, I am suddenly reminded of the street vendor we talked to in the shed under Long Biên Bridge. We would, as usual, ask her what dreams she had for the future. She was one of three sisters who shared a place to stay by Long Biên market.

NTT: Yes, her reply was that her reasons for working as a street vendor in Hanoi was to collect enough money to start a little business in her home village. She continued to say that she missed standing in the corn field in the wind in her homeland.

SÖ: Exactly, and when we made the interview, with the constant noise from the water pump and the fans in their shed, this image from the cornfield became so strong. When I pictured this girl, standing in the wind in a field on the countryside, it became the perfect counterimage to the heat in the narrow shed we were in.

NTT: The technology behind the call of the street vendors today is rather fascinating, and it contributes a lot to the musicality of these repeated calls, where rhythmical qualities emerge through the looping. It started with cassette recorders, but today most street vendors have cheap little sound systems, playing back pre-recorded calls on little horn speakers. Hanoi is full of small-scale business projects, with homemade sound systems sold to street vendors being just one example.

SÖ: Don’t you think that much of their musical quality emerges due to the tonal language?

NTT: Yes, I guess so, but there is more to it. Many street calls are actually structured according to the forms of traditional oral poetry. For instance, we recorded one call which uses a structure from Ca Dao, a 6-8 structure where there should be a rhyme on each 6th word:

                             Bàn là quạt cháy máy bơm

                          Ti vi tủ lạnh nồi cơm bộ đàm

                              Mô tơ sắt thép đầu dàn

                    Nồi cơm giá hỏng quạt bàn bán đê.

The content of the call is less poetic than its sonic and metric qualities; it is just a list of broken items which the man offers to buy. Even if the task of collecting broken household machines is obviously a modern chore, the form of the call and the ambulating services go back a long time in Vietnamese history.

Fig 2: Interview with a street vendor. Photo by Chris Humphrey.

SÖ: When we started working on the staging of Arrival Cities: Hanoi, Jörgen Dahlqvist, the director of the piece, wanted to work with our individual memories as a cornerstone in the dramaturgy. The stage is set up so that we either play or walk up to three microphones on stands at the front of the stage. The storytelling was developed from our memories of encounters with people in migration zones in Hanoi, but perhaps even more from our personal memories of the city.

NTT: Yes, I remember also how in the second performance, Jörgen was not happy. We started “performing” the texts rather than being in the memories themselves. It was important for the performance to be aligned with one’s memory of the situation, although that memory may in itself not be an absolute truth.

SÖ: Indeed, memories do deceive us. In the premiere of the piece in 2014, you told the story of your cousin as if she had been working like many of the other street vendors we met, selling fruit which she bought in Long Biên market. However, the next time we visited the village we interviewed her more properly only to realize that she had been selling rice from the village, working the raw rice, biking with the heavy load to the city every morning, and all this only to earn some pig food!

NTT: That memory was so vivid in my mind that I never doubted the truth of it.

SÖ: In order to make the piece, we also needed to dig into our own memories and histories, like when we went to the place near the Red river where Ngô Trà My (the đàn bầu player in The Six Tones) stayed with her son and mother during a difficult period in her life. From what she told us about it, I could not imagine how terribly poor the circumstances really were. For me, it was only when we had seen the shed that she rented and the pigsty where her mother slept that the conversation we had about this experience in the performance really came to life.

NTT: Isn’t there something rather interesting about the play with authenticity in the making of Arrival Cities: Hanoi? One could perhaps say that in the storytelling, it has been essential to remain in what we ourselves perceive as the authentic experience, while the form of the piece uses the documentary material as part of a multi-layered narrative, without laying out the footage as a documentation, of course. When we played the piece in Vienna in December 2015, I was asked whether the stories we told were true or fiction. I was happy with the question, since that play with reality and fiction certainly was part of the concept of the piece, and it is also one of the things I enjoy the most about playing the piece – the way in which you alternate between different “roles”: sometimes I am “just” a musician on stage, sometimes I am telling my own private memories, and sometimes I do feel more like an actor or a dancer.

SÖ: The way the documentary material and the soundscape recordings work in Arrival Cities: Hanoi, reminds me of how Trinh Minh-ha claims that “there is no such thing as documentary” (Trinh 1990: 76), with the argument, of course, that there is always a negotiation going on with the technologies at play and what is “honest” and “manipulative” (Trinh 1990: 80). As a piece of music theatre, every situation in the performance must draw on experiences that are felt to be authentic. No doubt, the propaganda in the governmental broadcast in speakers in the street are intentionally manipulative. In Arrival Cities: Hanoi one must acknowledge the manipulation, which always serves artistic purposes. 

SÖ: One of the highly characteristic features of the soundscape in the city of Hanoi is the sound coming from speakers mounted all through the city. They broadcast news from the government in the early morning and in the afternoon. What kind of news do you hear these days in a morning broadcast?

NTT: There are many different items that might be addressed: Sometimes they read from the state newspaper Báo Nhân Dân, but more often the content is directed straight to the people in the neighborhood, even with announcements such as not to forget to clean the house on Saturdays or not to forget to hoist the flag (if you fail to do so, you may be visited by the authorities for a more thorough reminder).

SÖ: I am also reminded of a story I heard from your aunt (who is a singer and an important cultural bearer of Quan Họ) in Ngang Nội. She was at home cooking, heard the news in the afternoon broadcast, and just got the impulse to sing to the village. She left the pots and pans, ran to the house where the broadcast was produced and asked if she could sing a song. They agreed, and at the end of the news she sang to the village.

NTT: Yes, the function of the speakers is a bit different in a little village, where you will find announcements of weddings and other family events together with more politically-oriented information.

SÖ: We heard music from both weddings and funerals when we went up on the mountain by the village.

NTT: The natural landscape in Bắc Ninh is invaded by sounds from the village. In fact, we didn’t quite realize how much one could hear the sounds of human labor before we listened to the recordings. There is a constant noise from several villages, and the further up on the mountain you go, the more you will hear it. Again, it is the sound of people making their living in many different ways. But in the countryside, there are no street vendors. You hear the sound of electric machines – drilling or working the rice – of motorbikes, of crowing cocks, and barking dogs.

Audio 4: Soundscape from a mountain in Bắc Ninh. Recorded by Matthew Sansom. 

SÖ: A silent video of me playing the đàn đáy up the mountain does look rather idyllic and meditative. I would also say that that does in fact describe my experience, since I was monitoring over headphones from microphones inside the instrument. Hence, I did not hear the noise of the surrounding soundscape too much. My experience had more to do with the wind in the long strings, the trees down the hillside, the long stretches of playing with the instrument, the site’s qualities. Only when I listened to the soundscape recording which Matt made, the particular lo-fi character of the site emerged. In his recording, the barking dogs and crowing cocks in the village, the motorbikes and machine noise from daily labor constitute prominent layers. It is hard to decide what is foreground and background here: the natural sounds on the mountain or the various reminders of daily work carried out in the villages.   

NTT: In the installation, the layers of video and audio played with this experience. There is a silent video of you seated on the mountain with the đàn đáy. The instrument is suspended with fishing line, and a soundtrack of aeolian sounds are played through a vibration speaker inside the instrument. In the room, a soundscape is played back through a stereo sound system.

SÖ: I must admit, it was only when we started writing this article that I realized how many connections there are between Arrival Cities: Hanoi and the Homelands project, or rather, I hadn’t realized the political potential of the Homelands project before it was mirrored in the stories of street vendors in Hanoi. Taken together, the two projects seem to capture some elements of the change that is happening in Vietnam, both in the countryside and in the city. Perhaps the paradox is that while a Hanoian lives with an inner image of life on the countryside, back on the homeland, this homeland is actually changing so rapidly that much of what is remembered might exist only as memory now.

NTT: Isn’t it rather important to note how a sound art project in the natural landscape can reveal so much about the development of human life in both villages and cities? I think that it was only when we made Arrival Cities: Hanoi that I saw the connections between the two. In fact, the street vendor, the iconic rural-urban migrant worker in Hanoi, embodies these connections. Their working situations in the city and the lives of their families somewhere in a village on the countryside may decide, speaking with Doug Saunders, the future of Hanoi and, eventually, of the country.

Video excerpt from Arrival Cities: Hanoi.

Fig 4: The đàn đáy in the site where the recordings were made up on a mountain in Bắc Ninh.

Audio 2: Street vendor calls in Mai Dịch. One of them in Ca Dao meter.