Mission Perspective: Sounds and Songs

Man riding red scooter with a dog as his passenger on the streets of Can Tho, Vietnam.
“We need some music in here, man. It’s getting too serious.”
—Bruce Lehnert

The first thing that hit me when I got to Vietnam was that the soundtrack was all wrong. My understanding of this place had a distinct and specific soundtrack until this point. Classic rock. Credence Clearwater Revival. The Rolling Stones cranked up to 11.

John Fogerty insisting, “It ain’t me, it ain’t me. I ain’t no fortunate one.” Mick Jagger singing, “A storm is threatening my very life today. If I don’t get some shelter, yeah, I’m going to fade away... It’s just a shot away.” 

For me, the songs have always been irrevocably shackled to images from newsreels and movies. The beauty of the music hobbled by scenes of conflict. It’s different now. There is no bad moon rising here.

There is a constant cacophony of beeps and the grinding whine of scooter motors. There are loudspeakers on scooters, pitchmen letting us all know about a nightclub, a party, a brand of cigarettes.

There’s the elderly lady sitting on a milk crate next to a cracked igloo cooler, her hand wrapped in an ace bandage. She’s yelling across the street over the maelstrom of pedestrians, scooters, taxis, and tour buses. “You! You! You buy water! You buy beer! Tiger bia! Bia Ba Ba Ba!”

Two sections of a multi-story building with palm trees below — the interior courtyard of Can Tho Central General Hospital in Vietnam.
There’s a Vietnamese cover of Never Going to Give You Up spilling out of a beer garden. (In case you were wondering, you can get Rickrolled in Can Tho.)

All the sounds smear together like an aural version of a kindergarten fingerpaint project. It’s not Simon and Garfunkel. There is no sound of silence on Hai Ba Trung, the street that runs along the Mekong River. But there is a harmony and a flow. It expands beyond mere sound. It attaches to everything. Part of the whole, it’s sound in three dimensions. You can hear it in the street din. You can see it in the ever-flowing mishmash of people weaving in and out of the unceasing traffic. The discordant consonance of ground level. The soundtrack of Vietnam.

In the operating room, the banter of the doctors discussing patients and procedures adds another note to the melody. Someone has brought in a Bluetooth speaker. Climbing above the buzz of the equipment, something familiar rises. The Allman Brothers Band. 

You’re my blue sky, you’re my sunny day
Lord, you know it makes me high
When you turn your love my way

We’re back to classic rock. Only now, it’s different. The music isn’t punctuating Hollywood helicopters flying over jungles or firefights in rice paddies. Now, it’s adding the background to scenes of healing. 

I realize now that we’re reclaiming the imagery. There’s a new soundtrack to a new movie. Flecher and Eric are writing a new narrative with their video. The songs, like the patients, are being reclaimed. Made whole. Healed. 

— Chris Corrigan