Phương Tâm, Vietnamese surf rock star of the 60s, reclaims his inheritance at 77
It was 1945 in Quảng Bình, Vietnam’s thin north-central pass, and famine was ravaging the country. A newborn baby moans in a field of sugar cane, announcing its arrival with a brutality that would later become its signature. Giving birth inside was considered bad luck, so Nguyễn Thị Tâm – or Tâm – was born outside. A fortune teller said she would be famous one day.
Yet as a teenager, Tâm did not seem destined for traditional greatness – which, in Vietnam, usually meant academic success. His family moved to Hóc Môn, a neighborhood outside the southern capital of Saigon. Here, she failed to enter the prestigious Gia Long Girls’ High School.
But Tam didn’t care; she had music.
By age 19, under the stage name Phương Tâm, she was sharing album covers and marquees with Saigon’s most sought-after singers, musicians and composers.
Phương Tâm peaked from 1964 to 1966, then faded into obscurity for over 50 years.
She married a doctor and had three children, living a suburban life in San José. It was only recently, with the encouragement of her eldest daughter, Hannah Hà, that 77-year-old Phương Tâm reclaimed her identity as Vietnam’s first rock and roll queen.
growth of a star
Tam’s father kept the family’s sole radio station on BBC News. So, as a teenager, Tâm found her musical dose in the cacophony of her village courtyard. It was the late 1950s and American pop music was beginning to influence Vietnamese tastes – which previously included folk opera, French jazz and bolero. Tâm lingered by a neighbor’s window listening to songs like Connie Francis’ “Lipstick on your Collar,” and was quick to copy beats and lyrics she didn’t understand.
At age 16, Tâm won a singing contest and was accepted into Đoàn Văn nghệ Việt Nam, a program creating live entertainment for military personnel. It was a lot of money, but eventually Tâm dropped out of propaganda music – and high school.
She found mentors who shared her love of Western music. A well-known musician, Nguyễn Văn Xuân, took her on as a private student. He gave all his top students stage names, so Tâm became “Phương Tâm”. It meant “the direction of the heart”.
His name change marked his rise to fame. Phương Tâm has headlined the nightclub circuit and collaborated with famous composers and musicians, including Khánh Băng, one of the first Vietnamese to perform with an electric guitar. Major labels in Saigon – Sóng Nhạc, Continental and Việt Nam – have recorded his songs.
Her singing style was not only “sexy-naive”, a common trope that continues to have appeal in Vietnam today, but also downright loud and raspy at times. Despite (or because of) the subversive nature of the music she sings, Phương Tâm keeps her clothes modest.
“At night, I always wore áo dài, but always white or beige, not shiny,” says Tâm, sitting in her living room in San José.
The áo dài was Vietnam’s floaty national dress, made famous by pictures of schoolgirls. But Phương Tâm was no ordinary schoolgirl. In a 1962 music review, famous Vietnamese writer Mai Thảo wrote in “Kịch Ảnh” (“Drama”) magazine about the quivering power of this modestly dressed teenager:
“As she walks away from the background and towards the microphone with shining eyes, her hands clap to the beat – a new form emerges. The figure is now drawn with burning flames, like a green fruit ripening under your eyes.”
Phương Tâm, like other interpreters, chạy số – which literally translates to “racing numbers”. The phrase described the high-speed nightclub runs that were common for entertainers at the time: 5 p.m. at Tân Sơn Nhất Air Base, 7 p.m. at An Đông, 8 p.m. at Capriccio Bar – then Tự Do . And so on, every hour, three songs per room. At midnight, it ends with a one-hour set at the Olympia.
Tam had an admirer, an officer who followed her from place to place. He loved when Tâm sang “Tenderly”. The officer told her it reminded him of her “seductive lips”. She kept her distance.
November 1963 marked a significant change for South Vietnam. The president, Ngô Đình Diệm, is assassinated. Details of the event remain unclear, but US military involvement and presence has increased. The nightclubs welcomed a growing military clientele. One night that month, Tâm’s admirer brought in a young new military doctor, Hà Xuân Du. There was something different about the young doctor, Tâm recalls.
“He asked me for my address, and the next day he came to my house,” she says.
They started dating and “Tenderly” became their song. But Phương Tâm and Du’s marriage nearly three years later – between a singer and the son of an elite family – was outrageous. Their parents did not come to their wedding.
“They don’t accept me, but…we were already in love,” Tam says.
A different life
In 1966, as quickly as Phương Tâm rose to fame, she quit her singing career – without a farewell tour or final interview.
Tâm followed her husband to Đà Nẵng Air Base, just over 100 miles south of the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam. Between 1967 and 1968, the war — and the bombardments — intensified. Tâm took refuge with her three children.
“The rockets would go off… the sirens! remembers Hannah, Tâm’s eldest daughter. “Every time we heard the sirens, we walked into the bunker.”
Hannah remembers hiding for days in that single, oppressively hot room with a refrigerator.
With the fall of Saigon in 1975, the family was evacuated by cargo plane. They finally arrived in Southern California. There, Tâm found work – mostly random, repetitive piecework for the garment industry. She sewed, but not well.
“I only knew how to sew in a straight line,” Tam says with a shrug and a mischievous laugh. She made $0.10 per garment by cutting loose yarn. During this time, her husband studied to requalify to practice medicine.
“I came home every day and there was a burnt pot,” says Tâm. Du tried to boil a pot of water for coffee and distracted himself by studying or watching sports.
Tâm’s life revolved around children and, in 1980, supported Du’s successful pediatric practice in San José.
“It was always about cooking, cleaning, going to work, disciplining ourselves, making sure we behaved ourselves,” Hannah recalled of this time in her family’s life.
Eventually, the family acquired the trappings of Vietnamese immigrant success, right down to the white leather couch in the living room. The couple developed close ties with people in the Vietnamese diaspora, with a particular appreciation for music.
“When my then-boyfriend, now husband, came to visit my mom for the first time, he had to sing two songs on the karaoke machine: ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and ‘My Way,'” Hannah explains. .
However, his parents graduated beyond just karaoke. Their parties featured a who’s who of pre-1975 Vietnamese musicians, including Nguyễn Ánh 9, who had once backed Tâm on guitar in Vietnam.
Tâm’s past life as a singer was an open secret. She didn’t deny it, but she stuck to singing other people’s hits, not her own.
When her husband Googled her a few years ago, he found videos that were supposed to feature Phương Tâm. “‘Oh my God, what a woman does that! Check it out! Who ever put that video on and used your name?'” Hannah remembers her dad saying. For Du, there was only one Phương Tâm: his wife.
To make matters more confusing, there was another singer with a similar name, Phương Hoài Tâm, also in San José. This woman ran a skincare salon while performing on the side.
A new chapter
“My mom and dad were always a couple,” Hannah recalls. “Wherever they went, to their friend, it was never without each other.”
Then in 2019, Tam’s husband Du passed away after a long illness.
Vietnamese people often make an altar at home to honor the dead. Typically, altar images are static: a face either in a formal pose or a slightly brighter version of a passport photo.
But at Tâm, her beloved holds a microphone, singing.
Du’s death was a turning point for Hannah and Tam. Hannah went to find more information about her mother’s past life. She came across compilations of Vietnamese wartime rock music, including the most successful album to date, titled “Saigon Rock and Soul: Chinese Classic Tracks 1968-1974”.
The album attributed one song, “Magical Night”, to Phương Tâm. Hannah couldn’t be sure it was her mother’s voice. And when she showed Tâm the cover – depicting a woman in a masculine jacket, cap and oversized glasses smoking a cigarette – Tâm’s reaction was quick.
“Oh, they’re liars! I never smoke!” Tam said, according to Hannah.
Hannah contacted Mark Gergis, the producer and audio archivist who compiled this album. Gergis, who is originally from Oakland but now lives in London, has spent two decades focusing on diasporic music from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.