Refugee Resilience in Music

Mending Disrupted Songlines


Vietnam War era music is culturally iconic in the United States and Australia, and embedded deeply in the Civil Rights Movement which backdropped the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Mamas and the Papas. Marvin Gaye.

Protest songs – rock and roll rebellion, melancholy wistfulness, desires to escape into idyllic carefree love, and steadfast belief in a better world – were the hallmark of a generation.

And yet we - the Vietnamese - also have our own music from that era that also became the glue for an entire generation.

***Our*** music.

Music From The Before Times.

Before we were forced to leave a place that no longer exists.


This video is a guitar cover by Phương Anh, of a famous in-Vietnam Vietnam War era song, titled Thành Phố Buồn (The Sad City).


Vietnamese Vietnam-War-era music allowed an entire generation of Vietnamese diaspora:

To remember who they were, before they experienced things that they could not forget.

To re-member who they are, from underneath the rubble and the screams.

To re-ember our homeland and ancestors, so that we could forge new lives, while grieving the price of freedom.

Diaspora culture - refugee culture, fusion culture - is a celebration of refugee resilience.


My family had been living in Australia for nearly ten years before our community was able to access fellow Vietnamese diaspora – and diaspora music.

Melancholy tendrils, like jungle vines, would creep out from the television.

VHS cassette tapes - recordings of recordings of recordings of the original - of Paris By Night(Vietnamese-language music variety shows made by the Vietnamese refugee communities in France and then the US) had somehow magically made their way to us in Melbourne, Australia.

Think: Vegas meets French cabaret meets modernized traditional ballads with comedy.....yep Vietnamese Vaudeville!

I have memories of Mum doing the ironing while watching Paris By Night.

During the sad songs, I remember sensing my mother turning away from the whispers of nostalgic longings. And when the jungle rains became a monsoon, Mum would turn off the video player and retreat to her room.


This video is an ode to mothers and to the motherland, Mother Vietnam, sung by five artists – Ý Lan, Khánh Ly, Họa Mi, Khánh Hà, and Hoàng Oanh – each born in Vietnam during the 1940s or 1950, each famous in her own right in Vietnam, and each a member of the early diaspora and an integral part in sustaining the diaspora.


As a trauma therapist, I have received immense benefit from the trauma treatment modalities that I now use and I believe that collective trauma requires collective grief and healing.

The ancient technology that weaves its way across all cultures is song, movement, story and silence. When there is trauma, our ancestral storylines become broken, because trauma is unspeakable.

Music was not just cultural sustenance for the Vietnamese refugee community abroad; it became a vehicle for grief - individual grief and collective grief - and cultural meaning-making.

We have an inherent drive to make meaning out of suffering.

The process of transforming story into song and movement externalizes pain. And when we can externalize pain, then we can begin to work with it.....we can transform that pain into something that can be accessible for other people (including future generations), by transforming tragedy into a thing of beauty, providing cultural continuity into future generations.

Story lines become restored when we dare to remember.


This Paris By Night video, Đêm Chôn Dầu Vượt Biển (Night time hiding of diesel fuel, to cross the sea), is both a celebration of refugee resilience and an act of collective grief.

It is a love song that speaks to the hidden pain of Vietnamese refugees who fled by boat, facing separation from loved ones and risking death, for the sliver of the possibility of hope and freedom.

It teaches about our history - written by us, about us, and for us.

After Communist takeover of Vietnam, petroleum products were severely rationed, and acquiring large quantities would draw suspicion from the Communists. In order to flee the country by boat, people would hide a cup or two of diesel each week, burying it at night on the beach, for months and years, to be able to save up enough fuel to make the journey across unknown seas.


I am a child of the 80s and 90s in Australia. There was minimal representation in the media or in popular culture of people who looked like me, unless they were dead, dying, or pleading for help. The Enemy or the Destitute.

I internalized this as inferiority and disavowed my identity and cultural heritage – neither of which had fully developed.

To hear songs, to read books, to watch movies – to consume media – created by children of Vietnamese Boat People, by fellow Viet diaspora has been life blood for me. My people have such incredible depth! Creativity flows through us! This is such a different experience to the straightforward and relentless pragmatism that surrounded me.

Beyond this, to feel myself being reflected allows me to…..feel myself. To know that I’m not alone.

Viet World Wide by Lee7 featuring Fawng Daw and TwoTee is hip-hop, with rhymes in English, German and Vietnamese.

To hear English tinged with Vietnamese accents expressing the pain of not belonging, the burden of the sacrifices of our parents, and the pride in being Vietnamese.

To see Vietnamese faces rapping in German about being guilt-burdened with the debt that we can never repay to our parents while longing for one’s own happiness amidst the pain of being a perpetual outsider.

To hear Vietnamese words reflecting my longing to be a good daughter, and to be proud of who I am, where I come from and whom I come from.

I’m not alone.

This one song sparked in me the desire to meet Vietnamese diaspora around the world. Like dandelions seeds blown far from home….

Here is my Vietnamese diaspora playlist (there’s much musical variety!)


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