Today is the birthday of Khánh Ly, the legendary Vietnamese singer who rose to fame in the 1960s with her interpretations of songs by Trịnh Công Sơn and who later found sustained success in Japan. She fled Vietnam in 1975 and for many years now has made her home in Cerritos.
Khánh Ly is a stage name of Nguyễn Thị Lệ Mai, who was born on 6 March 1945 in Hanoi. Against her parents’ wishes, she pursued a career in music from a young age. In 1954, at the age of nine, she entered a local talent contest and performed “Thơ Ngây.” She didn’t win but was undeterred. In 1956, her family moved to the Đà Lạt and the young girl hitched a ride to Sài Gòn where she won second place for her rendition of Pham Duy‘s “Ngày Trở Về.”
The stage name Khánh Ly was created by combining the names of “Khánh Kỵ” and “Yêu Ly” — two characters from Nguyễn Đỗ Mục‘s Vietnamese translation of 東周列國志 (Chronicles of the Eastern Zhou Kingdoms). As Khánh Ly, she made her public debut at Club Anh Vũ, in Sài Gòn. Back in Đà Lạt, Khánh Ly spent the next four years performing in local resorts and clubs.
Khánh Ly’s real break came when she teamed with composer Trịnh Công Sơn. The two first met in 1964, when Trịnh Công Sơn was a school teacher in Bảo Lộc. He invited Khánh Ly to collaborate and relocated to Sài Gònbut she then wished to stay in Đà Lạt and turned him down. Three years later, however, the two ran into one another on Lê Thánh Tôn, in Sài Gòn. They thereafter performed anti-war songs at cafés, clubs, and on the campus of Văn Khoa University. Khánh Ly was nicknamed “Nữ Hoàng Chân Đất” (“Queen of the Earth”) and “Nữ Hoàng Sân Cỏ” (“Queen of the Grass”).
Khánh Ly became the first woman to headline a concert in Vietnam. She also performed on television programs like Chương trình Phạm Mạnh Cương. She opened Club Khánh Ly on Tự Do Street in Saigon as well as a shop, Hội Quán Cây Tre, in Da Kao. With the backing of the Vietnamese government, she performed in Europe in 1969. In 1970, she performed in North America.
Toward the end of 1970, she received an invitation from Nippon Columbia to perform at the Osaka Fair, which marked the beginning of a long association with Japan. “Diễm Xư” and “Ca Dao Mẹ” were translated into Japanese (“美しい昔” and “ユエの子守唄”) and the Vietnamese duo performed at several Japanese universities. A new anti-war composition, “Phản Chiến Ca,” provided Khánh Ly with another hit. An album recorded in Japanese followed and was also commercially successful.
Although the two were close and collaborated for many years (and were the subject of no small amount speculation), Khánh Ly’s and Trịnh Công Sơn’s relationship was a professional and artistic one. Trịnh Công Sơn was married to a woman named Thanh Thúy — although he was involved with many women thereafter. Khánh Ly’s first marriage was to a man named Minh Di. That union produced two children. Her second marriage was to a soldier named Mai Bá Trạc. The two had a daughter before he was killed during the war. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on 30 April 1975 and Khánh Ly then joined the mass exodus to the US, where she looked for work in order to support her children. In 1975, she married journalist Nguyễn Hoàng Đoan, and had another child. She wouldn’t see Trịnh Công Sơn again until 1992, when the two were re-united in Canada.
Meanwhile, her fame in Japan endured, and she accepted more invitations from Nippon Columbia as well as Toci Film to perform and record in Japan in 1979. Her second album with Nippon Columbia sold two million copies in Japan. In 1987, she recorded “Lời Ru Cho Đà Nẵng,” a song with music by Hako and lyrics by her husband, Nguyễn Hoàng Doãn. She also performed Châu Đình An‘s “Đêm Chôn Dầu Vượt Biển” and appeared at Japan’s Asian Music Festival. In 1996, Hideo Kado produced a biographical documentary about Khánh Ly for NHK which was released in 1997 — part of a series on influential world figures, other subjects of which included Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Guccio Gucci.
In 1989, Khánh Ly performed at the Vatican City for the canonization of 117 Vietnamese priests. After the fall of the Berlin Wall that year, she performed in East Germany with Thanh Tuyền. In 1990, she toured Eastern Europe, performing in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. In 1996, she participated in a charity concert which resulted in the establishment of an island village for Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines. Khánh Ly and Trịnh Công Sơn were reunited one last time, in Vietnam, in 1975. He died on 1 April 2001.
In 2016, Khánh Ly returned to Sài Gòn (officially renamed Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh in 1976) for the first time in 41 years. Today, Khánh Ly and Nguyễn Hoàng Doãn live in the Southeast Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos. She continues to perform, record, write for Vietnamese publications, and owns Khánh Ly Productions.