The modest accommodation in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung is a far cry from the Sri Lankan ambassador’s spacious residence, where, the previous week, the Hope Choir performed to raise funds. Here, in Hai Ba Trung, the story is a little different.
Under bare fluorescent lights, in dampish surroundings, a slight but energetic septuagenarian fills tiny cups with green tea, shepherding two of his sight-impaired charges into chairs beside me.
Ton That Triem's face crinkles into a broad smile as he introduces Ms Vui and Ms Huong, who have been with the choir for 10 years, and later, Mr Hoan, who is an original member.
A world-renowned pianist who has performed in Europe, Russia and America, Triem established the Hope Choir with his opera singer wife, Nguyen Xuan Thanh, in 2001, with a small group of sight-impaired singers and musicians. Now boasting 15 members, the choir has sung for dignitaries including the former Governor-General of Australia, Quentin Bryce, and former US President, Bill Clinton.
Triem points out that no matter whom the choir sings for, the performance is still the same. “It is a great honour to perform for so many important officials. But every performance is important,” he said.
The choir receives no financial assistance or support from the government, and relies on the generosity of embassies for scholarships and fundraising events, like the one at the Sri Lankan ambassador’s residence the week before.
Triem’s motivation for starting the choir can be traced back to the American War. Like many Vietnamese, his family and friends were casualties of war and many were killed or injured.
“I understand disability because of my friends’ injuries,” he said. Later, in serendipitous circumstances, he was introduced to the Blind School in Hanoi.
“I was a pupil at the Blind School, and Uncle Triem visited and taught us Christmas carols,” says Vui, who is an English major at Hanoi University.
With the demand from embassies, particularly for anthems on national days, the choir has a repertoire of traditional Vietnamese melodies and songs from around the world — in their original languages of Russian, German, Spanish and even Azerbaijani.
“Preparing the songs is hard work,” said Triem. “Meeting together to practice is difficult, because everyone must work to have something to eat.”
Intrigued by how songs in other languages are learned, Huong — who sings and plays a 16-stringed Vietnamese instrument — told me: “Uncle Triem explains the origins of the songs. We understand the countries, and the construction of the melody of each country. Then we learn the lyrics.”
The original lyrics are translated into Braille, and Triem enlists help from his many embassy friends to ensure pronunciation is correct. “Pronunciation is better because we understand the true meaning of the song,” said Triem, who is fluent in French and Russian, and also speaks excellent Italian, German, Portuguese and English.
“We do our travelling and visit many countries through the music,” Huong told me. “We are rich in music.”
Hoan, who plays bass guitar and a one-stringed Vietnamese instrument, studied music at the conservatory and has a degree in journalism, said he enjoys going to embassy events and national days. “Triem provides many opportunities for us to open our minds. He shares his knowledge through the songs and music, and we meet many foreigners.”
Triem is philosophical about the future of the choir. “Each time we sing, I think it is the last performance, but somehow we keep going,” he said. “God always seems to provide.”
Photos by Sasha Arefieva