“One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things”- Henry Miller
Travel has given me the opportunity to literally and figuratively see and hear the world from a new perspective. As a musician, when traveling I always look for an occasion to explore the local music scene by seeking out live music as well as checking out the music stores.
As a listener, I have had some deep experiences while traveling. On my first trip to Paris, while wandering the streets on a perfect fall day I happened upon two talented female opera students singing Delibes’ “The Flower Duet,” complete with a rapt audience of small children seated at their feet. They were singing in a stone alcove that was part of an ancient courtyard that has a beautiful natural reverb. It was at that moment I was truly in Paris. I had a similar experience standing just outside of a church in Kenya, listening to a choir sing inside. The unique and powerful sound of African voices raised together was somehow more beautiful while standing on African soil. Hearing Cambodian street musicians, the call to prayer in Dar es Salaam, Flamenco in Seville, and so on, are all treasured travel experiences.
Checking out local music stores while traveling has not been quite as rewarding. For the most part I am either unable to locate any stores at all, or end up in what for all practical purposes is a Guitar Center where the staff speaks a foreign language.
Last November, I went on a trip to Vietnam to assist my wife Carolyn, who is a professional photographer and also a cancer survivor. She won a small grant to travel globally to photograph and interview cancer patients and their caregivers around the world (you can read more about her project in her blog).
I had gotten info from the Web about a street in Ho Chi Minh City (Formally Saigon) called Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, which is the street where the local luthiers have their shops. After several days visiting with patients at the city’s cancer hospital, this sounded like a perfect diversion for the couple of hours that we were free one afternoon. We grabbed a cab and were dropped off at the intersection of Nguyen Thien Thuat and the main street we were driving on. From where we exited the cab, I could make out the silhouettes of all sorts of different shaped and sized stringed instruments hanging over the open entrances of many shops one block over. The streets of Vietnamese cities are divided into blocks of specific stores and trades. On one street you might see everyone welding because it is the steel workers block, and at another they might sell only lamps in the shops.
Luthier Street was no different. If you were going to buy a guitar in Ho Chi Minh City this was the block you visited.
I was familiar with Vietnamese “Vong Co” music, and that it was sometimes played on scalloped fretted electric and acoustic guitars. The guitarists I’ve heard have an almost Delta blues quality to their playing, so I was particularly on the lookout for such a guitar. The first shop I walked into had an acoustic Vong Co guitar that was indeed scalloped. It was also tuned very low with regular-gauged strings, as were all the Vong Co guitars I would play that day. One electric was in standard tuning, but with the low E all the way down to F below standard E! The combination of the deeply scalloped frets and low tunings left me at first unable to play anything remotely in tune. Much to the amusement of my wife, I sounded like a severely warped vinyl recording of a very drunk guitar player. The electric Vong Co guitars were either modified inexpensive Fenders, or brand new modified Teisco guitars, some with built-in fuzz, that along with scalloped frets made them strangely exotic in a David Lynch sort of way.
Once I had my Vong Co goggles off I started to appreciate the many fine acoustic instruments I was surrounded by. The Vietnamese luthiers are skilled craftsmen. Most of the acoustic instruments I played were gems—from very detailed and elaborately inlaid steel strings, to classical guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, and traditional Vietnamese instruments they all played with excellent intonation and action, and produced some beautiful tones.
The shop owners are both friendly and knowledgeable. The luthiers come from families of guitar makers, and some spoke excellent English, which was a great help as my Vietnamese is severely limited. My impression was their acoustic guitar builds were mostly modeled after well-known western guitars—Martins, Guilds and Gibsons—but I also saw some unique and beautiful designs, at one shop in particular. To say the guitars are inexpensive would be an understatement, and like all shopping in Vietnam, the prices are negotiable. Haggling is a way of life there.
Growing up, I loved to visit the guitar shops in and around New York. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, every store had a unique character and vibe that differentiated it from the other stores. Forty-Eighth Street was like an amusement park with its full city block of shops. The people that worked in them were knowledgeable, sometimes New York rude, and always wonderfully eccentric. They were an important element to the overall tone of the establishment they worked in. All of that changed for me with the advent of the music superstore. Somewhere along the line everything became predictable and generic and I started to dread visiting them. Outside of a few shops, the magic was gone for me. In Vietnam, however, I was the kid in a candy store again. This city block of shops was unlike anyplace I had ever been and yet somehow familiar. It had that something that seemed to have vanished back home—a sense of community. Each shop there is both unique and an important part of the block as a whole. My visit to Luthier Street was short but quite memorable. I left with the hope of returning, and also with a very cool octave mandolin. If you find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, do yourself a favor and make a visit to Nguyen Thien Thuat Street in District 3. You might end up with a new way of seeing guitar shops—and perhaps a Vong Co guitar as well.