Hoai Phan has spent decades perfecting the quality and design of a unique bamboo flute.
A middle-aged man rides an old scooter along the bustling streets of Saigon.
On his back is a long leather bag full of unique bamboo instruments.
The man is Hoai Phan, a flutist and a music teacher.
Three times a week, he travels tens of kilometers from his home in Long An Province to Ho Chi Minh City to give flute lessons.
His old scooter blends into the city’s traffic and despite decades of practice, few people are familiar with his unique talent.
For those that know the time and effort Phan has devoted to pursuing his craft however, he is nothing short of a legend.
Musical love affair
Phan has had a love affair with flutes since his childhood. When asked about the instruments, he speaks with great passion and fervor.
He illustrates his talent by performing various northern, central and southern styles of sound using not only his mouth, but curiously, his nose as well.
It is a skill that he has spent years developing and one that only a handful ofpeople in all of Vietnam can perform.
Phan was born in 1947 in Binh Dinh Province.
As a boy, he was fond of listening to poem recitations with flute accompaniment on the radio.
Eventually, he began to practice playing the flute and reciting poems himself and at the age of nine, Phan went to study in Saigon.
In the early 1960s, Phan joined the Buddhists’ demonstrations against US-backed regime.
He was subsequently arrested and jailed for three months.
In prison, he became acquainted with well-known poet and journalist Kien Giang.
When they were later freed, they met again and Giang brought his new friend to the city’s radio station where Phan began to recite poems.
Though Phan enjoyed poetry very much, he still devoted himself primarily to playing the bamboo flute and often consulted with senior well-known flutists.
Before 1975, he also made horizontal flutes to sell.
This style of flute is played by placing it on one’s lips and across the mouth while exhaling.
There are several steps involved in the craftsmanship of these instruments.
Making a horizontal flute involves drying bamboo pipes in the sun, holding them over a flame so they will retain their shape, rubbing them with dried banana leaves to make them glossy, and punching holes in them.
Phan realized however, that the horizontal flute had limitations and was much more difficult to play.
In the 1990s, he started improving the flute by switching to the mouthpiece of the vertical flute.
The renovated horizontal flute had a much stronger sound and was easy to play.
Phan decided to mass-produce them for sale at VND350,000-500,000 (US$22-31) each.
In addition, Phan also succeeded in making a bass flute.
When asked if it is difficult to play the flute by the nose, Phan says, “Very easy. If I can play it by the mouth, I can [play] by the nose. With this renovated flute and with my experiences and skills, I can play the flute by my nose for hours and no one can see me take breath.”