Vietnamese-American songstress dies of Covid, leaving generations of fans in grief

By Long Nguyen, Mai NhatSeptember 30, 2021 | 06:30 am PT
Bolero and folk singer Phi Nhung passed away after over a month of battling Covid-19, leaving behind a legacy of love songs and philanthropy.

The singer, 51, passed away Tuesday in Saigon’s Cho Ray Hospital, despite being treated with all kinds of techniques, including extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) intervention.

Previously, in July, Nhung delayed her plan to return to the U.S. to reunite with her daughter since she planned on volunteering in Vietnam during the raging pandemic.

News about Nhung dealing with Covid in the last few weeks has worried many Vietnamese music lovers, who could not hide their shock on hearing about the singer’s death.

Many people, including the Vietnamese diaspora in the U.S., have shown their sorrow by posting videos of Nhung’s performances in the last few days.

Before passing away, Nhung was famous for her philanthropy and talent for Vietnamese bolero, folk, and country music.

Singer Phi Nhung. Photo courtesy of the singer

Singer Phi Nhung. Photo courtesy of the singer

Nhung was born in April 1970 in Gia Lai Province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Her mother was Vietnamese and father, an American serviceman.

Nhung came to singing even though her family had no musical tradition. As a child, her love of music gradually permeated when she listened to songs from cassette tapes. When she was a child, she practiced singing every time she sat in front of the house, swinging the hammock to lull her siblings to sleep.

In the late 1980s, the 17-year-old Nhung left her hometown for the U.S. to settle down with her relatives in Tampa, Florida. She was struggling to make a living, mopping the floors and working as a waitress to earn money. But the dream of becoming a singer was always burning.

Once, Nhung met Trizzie Phuong Trinh, a famous Vietnamese-American singer, at a pagoda in Florida. Loving Nhung’s voice and beauty, Trinh persuaded her to relocate to California, starting her music career. At the time, Nhung was a single mother working as a seamstress. After one week, she decided to move to California with $300 in her pocket.

Nhung initially lived in Trinh’s house. Sending her daughter to an acquaintance, she worked at a CD store during the day, and a waitress in the evening. She used all her free time to learn how to sing and pronounce Vietnamese northern intonation, particularly suited to Vietnamese love songs.

After two years, Nhung released her first two singles, "Noi Buon Hoa Phuong" (Phoenix Flower’s Sadness) and "Noi Lai Tinh Xua" (Rekindle Old Love).

Nhung quickly breathed new life into the overseas Vietnamese music industry. Before that, Huong Lan was a big star singing folk and love songs. To Nhung, the audience gradually paid attention thanks to her rustic voice, instead of flaunting vocal technique. She gradually became a huge star welcomed by many record labels.

In 1999, her MV "Ly Con Sao Bac Lieu" (Song About Bac Lieu Blackbird) drew $30,000 in investment and became a hit on release. A year later, Phi Nhung released the MV "Phai Long Nguoi Con Gai Ben Tre" (Falling In Love With A Ben Tre Girl) with a budget of $40,000. The image of Nhung in an ao dai, recounting a love story on the Rach Mieu ferry has been imprinted on the hearts of many generations of fans. The "record queen" sold more than 100 singles albums - a record for overseas Vietnamese.

Born in the highlands, she conquered people's hearts with a series of hits about Mekong Delta. The majority of her fans related to the melancholy of the singer’s voice.

In the 2000s, she often sang with singer Manh Quynh, dishing out many hits.

Phi Nhung often hid her childhood pain behind her smiles. In late 2019, she shed tears while recalling her turbulent childhood in a game show.

In an interview, she admitted she had been in love many times, but she did not feel confident to become a wife or mother. She nurtured her love for her daughter, living in the U.S., and 23 adopted children in Vietnam.

In the last few years, Nhung grew famous for her philanthropy across Vietnam, from mountainous areas to flooded regions.

During the ongoing outbreak in Ho Chi Minh City, she spent more than two months cooking and giving food to poor people across the city.

She once said she would have a show on Aug. 22 with Quynh, and celebrate her daughter’s birthday in the U.S. But her plans were scrapped since she wanted to continue her charitable works in Saigon.

According to doctors at Cho Ray Hospital, Nhung was a fearless soldier, fighting the virus until her last breath while worrying for her adopted children, many of whom are living in a pagoda in southern Binh Phuoc Province.

"My life is blessed with kind people. God loves me so I can be an artist, and live in the love of the audience. When I receive too much, I have to give," Nhung once said.

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