His fans call him The Divo. Childhood friends know him as Baby Dino. To everyone else, he is simply Duc Tuan, rising crooner set to take the world by storm
We’re in the Lilac Room of the Spa InterContinental, a calm oasis in the middle of the city. Candles twinkle around the room which smells of soothing lemongrass and cinnamon. Rose petals are scattered throughout – in the half-filled tub and in the wooden buckets prepared for our Foot Ritual. All the trappings of calm, though, seem lost on Duc Tuan, who seems permanently, almost physically, attached to his two phones. The artist who likens himself to classical crossover stars “Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli (in his more recent years) and Michael Buble (with less jazz),” fields calls from one phone and then the other (and occasionally from both at the same time) from industry people trying to set up an upcoming Hanoi performance to friends wanting to know about the latest gadgets he saw on his trip through Hungary last week.
Born in Long Xuyen to an average family (his parents were both high school teachers), Duc Tuan was always the showman. “I’m a natural born singer. I can’t even remember when I started singing but I know it was before kindergarten.” As a teen, he moved to Saigon to pursue a degree in Foreign Trade, but it surprised no one when he turned to a career in showbiz instead. “Even from my youth, my parents encouraged me to be independent. Though I was a good student, they let me follow my own dreams.”
Duc Tuan’s big break came in 2000 when he won Vietnam’s biggest singing competition, Tieng Hat Truyen Hinh. “There wasn’t a big prize, but it was the best-known singing competition back then. You could say that it was really the only one, not like now with dozens of reality singing shows. But it got me exposure and as an amateur, that was priceless. It led to performances and later making my own music.” Since then, Duc Tuan has been a regular feature at concerts, shows and television, singing in Vietnamese, English, French and Italian and amassing awards like Album of the Year 2010 and Singer of the Year. He barely had time to schedule this interview with Oi, having gotten back from performances in Paris and the Ukraine the day before and heading off the day after to Vung Tau, Can Tho, Da Nang, then on to Hanoi in a whirlwind of performances taking him to the end of the month.
Aside from movie star looks and a superb command of English, what sets Duc Tuan apart from his contemporaries is actually a love for the classics, “pre-war songs” as the Vietnamese call them. And while it hasn’t earned him throngs of rabid fans, it has fed his old soul. “Those songs are perfect. It wasn’t as much about showbiz then. It was pure. Music is now about commerce; it’s a business. Back then, it was about the technique, the craft. People weren’t writing songs with repetitive lyrics to become hits. It was all about beautiful melodies. My album coming out in October is a collaboration with Pham Duy [who passed away earlier this year], indisputably the greatest composer in Vietnamese history. He brought together classical music, Vietnamese traditional music and modern music as well. His songs were full of his own emotions; he didn’t write for other people. He was a master at the Vietnamese language, incorporating layers upon layers of meaning. Young people can listen to it and understand it according to young people. But the older you are, the more experienced you are in life, the more layers you see.”
Your Parents’ Music
Over a sea salt foot rub, I talk to Duc Tuan about his devotion to the melodies of yesteryear and how it has understandably narrowed his audience. Before the interview, I asked a handful of young Vietnamese whether they had heard of Duc Tuan. They all had, but quickly added, “My parents like him.” But surprisingly, that’s just fine by Duc Tuan. “I’m lucky because 100 percent of what I do is what I like. In showbiz, and even in life, there are very successful people but they may not be doing what they want. They can’t be themselves. But that’s a choice. Some people sacrifice themselves for fame. But I’m not interested in having a huge number of fans. I want to be true to myself and I’d rather expand the fan base I already have.”
“There are more than 6 billion people on this planet. I just need one percent or half a percent to be fans. You can spend your whole life finding people who are true fans and still not find them all, so why bother changing yourself to attract those who don’t like the real you?” he asks. “But in Vietnam, whether they want it or not, young or old, we’re all still Vietnamese. It’s still in our blood. Perhaps the youth haven’t realized it yet, but sooner or later, there will be a return to the classics. Even Vietnamese born abroad gravitate towards it, because those standards are meaningful, authentically Vietnamese.”
We’ve now moved to the massage tables, with the chirping of Vietnamese starlings as a soundtrack and the aroma of hot tea mixed from sugarcane, ginger and corn and sweetened with a touch of rock sugar and honey wafting our way. I wait for the phone calls to die down and for the spa’s “full sensory experience” to kick in before broaching more delicate subjects.
We start by addressing intellectual property rights in Vietnam, with CDs bootlegged as soon as they appear, making it virtually impossible for an artist to get rich from making music. But Duc Tuan has a quick answer. “Vietnam has actually been pioneering a change in this field,” he says with a laugh. “Virgin Megastores in NYC and on Paris’ Champs-Elysee have closed. Selling CDs isn’t the market that it used to be. In Vietnam, online downloads and ringtones are doing well. So are live performances,” says Tuan, which explains his busy schedule.
I then ask about photos of a cute baby with a full head of hair plastered all over Duc Tuan’s Facebook page, although pictures of a significant other are conspicuously absent. “That’s my baby,” he confirms, quickly adding, “But I don’t talk about my family. I protect them.” In other interviews, when questioned about his sexuality, Duc Tuan has responded simply with, “I love life.” Here and now, he grows somber. “Whitney Houston and Elton John are my musical idols. I love their music, the way they sing. I never care about their personal lives, just about their music. Thankfully, Vietnamese media isn’t as bad as other countries with paparazzi waiting to snap photos of you changing clothes or whatever.”
On his mild celebrity status in Vietnam, he simply acknowledges, “That’s my life. People whisper and point, others, like my fans come up and talk and take pictures. I’ve met a bunch of celebrities out and about like James Blunt and I’m the same way.”
Looking back on his journey, I ask him what advice he would give to his 20-year-old self, before the fame and celebrity. “Absolutely nothing. Every moment in time has its own purpose. If I had done things differently, I probably wouldn’t have turned out to be the person and singer I am now. I have never regretted a single thing I’ve done. Everything happens for a reason. You learn from the past. Mistakes have to happen yesterday for there to be a today.”
My interview with Duc Tuan took place at the Spa InterContinental (InterContinental Asiana Saigon, corner of Hai Ba Trung & Le Duan, D1), a gorgeous space with five single and two double treatment rooms, completely hidden behind a sliding wood wall on the third floor of the hotel. Pressed flowers embedded into the walls and light fixtures modeled after bamboo create a return-to-nature aura. The spa’s concept is to dazzle all the senses in a modern-meetslocal ambiance which it achieves through thoughtful design elements as well as the handmade teas, compresses (which include cinnamon, ginger, geranium oil, sesame and star anise) used in its signature Tranquil Meditation treatment and all-in-one spacious treatment rooms, each with a changing area, washroom, sofa and massage tables.
Images by Nam Quan