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Vietnam matriarch, now 92, spread piano culture

Time was running out, and it wasn't safe to stay. Sixty upright pianos had to be moved from Hanoi's music conservatory to a village in the countryside where students could practice without the constant threat of American bombers.

The pianos were hauled by train to neighboring Bac Giang province, dragged another 8 miles (13 kilometers) on carts pulled by cattle and water buffalo, and finally hand-carried by villagers into flimsy huts with dirt floors. Thai Thi Lien, a founder of the music school and an accomplished Western-trained pianist, was charged with making sure the war and a lack of sheet music did not stop the best players from being sent abroad for advanced classical training.

Today, looking at a tattered black-and-white photo sitting atop the grand piano in her living room, the 92-year-old sees herself as a smiling young beauty surrounded by three grinning children. The image is a reminder of that hasty journey in 1965 to seek refuge during the Vietnam War.

Thanks in part to Madame Lien, as she's known, a lasting appreciation for classical music was woven into Vietnam's culture. So much so, that the country's first professional concert hall is now being built in honor of this music matriarch.

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In the village with no running water or electricity, Vietnam's soggy air and pounding rains ate away at the pianos' wooden frames, while hungry rats burrowed inside, nibbling felt off the hammers for their nests. There weren't enough keyboards to go around, and students were forced to take turns practicing around the clock.

Dang Thai Son was just 7 years old at the time. Despite having Madame Lien as both his mother and teacher, he was forced to compete against all the much-older students for his chance to touch the keys just 30 minutes each day.

Some of the school's 400 students learning various instruments were taught in mud-wall bunkers, but there was no room underground for all the uprights. Pianists instead banged out Beethoven in the open until being forced to take cover when screaming air raid sirens warned of approaching American B-52 bombers. Some students, determined not to lose their precious turn, terrified villagers by refusing to stop playing despite the danger. The village, however, was never hit.

"It's dark, it's humid and it's dangerous. There's a lot of snakes and frogs and all kinds of insects," Son said, laughing at the memory. "When the parents weren't there, we would go out and just watch how they are fighting each other. Bravo!"

With his older sister already a skilled pianist and his brother playing cello, Son said his parents discouraged him from taking up an instrument at first, arguing that the family already had enough musicians. But the young boy was drawn to the keyboard and soon found that music flowed easily from somewhere deep inside.

He remembers his mother lovingly coaching him to play the romantic ballads of her favorite composer, Chopin. The emerald green rice fields, the moon and the jungle somehow touched him during those early years.

"Today, the relationship between professor and student can sometimes be a business relationship," Son said, perched next to his mom in Hanoi, where the family reunited this month for the Lunar New Year, or Tet. "But at that time in the village, it's like a big family and we shared everything — we shared the pain, we shared also the joy — and it's really such a human relationship that is quite different."

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Madame Lien still looks more the part of a socialite than a jungle-dwelling nationalist. Even at 92, her eyebrows are carefully trimmed into tiny crescents, her nails manicured with a clear shellac and her short, thin hair dyed dark, with small pearls adorning her ears.

Her eyes snap as she speaks quickly in English laden with a French accent, complaining that her hearing isn't so great anymore. She laughs and apologizes for not being able to easily decipher an American accent, instead offering to speak in Vietnamese, Russian, Polish or even, perhaps, a little Czech.

She has lived a life of luxury. She began studying piano at age 4 as the daughter of Vietnam's first Western-trained engineer, a man who allowed his children to speak only French in the former southern city of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. She rubbed shoulders with the likes of Pablo Picasso and other pro-Communist figures in Paris, and later became Vietnam's first woman to graduate with an overseas music degree from the Prague Conservatory, in what was then Czechoslovakia.

But she has also faced her share of hardships as a nationalist married to a revolutionary who fought alongside the country's founding president, Ho Chi Minh, to liberate Vietnam from French colonialism.

"My journey from Prague back to Vietnam was long and a very hard journey," she said, remembering how blisters bubbled all over her feet as she carried her 22-month-old daughter in 1951. "We had to walk with my baby 110 kilometers (68 miles) at night to the North Vietnamese government in the jungle where they were based. It took about three weeks."

She spent the next three months being fully indoctrinated at a re-education camp, the place where she first met Ho Chi Minh and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the architect of Vietnam's military campaigns against the French and later the Americans. She later gave birth to a son while living in the bush, just six months after losing her husband to a bout with tuberculosis.

"It was very difficult," she said, her eyes staring at the floor of her upscale lakeside apartment. "I don't want to remember this time."

It was also the only period in her life when she was separated from the piano. She was forced to wait until 1954 before she could again find comfort playing Chopin. She was sent to Beijing to record revolutionary music, lullabies and folk songs to help motivate Ho Chi Minh's ragtag Communist army to keep fighting after it overtook the French at the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu, ultimately leading to Vietnam's independence.

"When I first saw a piano again, I was very happy," she said. "I played all night."

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Madame Lien returned to Vietnam determined to start a proper music school in Hanoi. She married another revolutionary, who was also a passionate poet, and they had Son before enduring the start of another long war, this time with the Americans.

They moved the entire school to the countryside — including all the upright pianos — twice, after returning to Hanoi for a period when things seemed calmer. But that window was short-lived prior to the devastating Christmas bombings in December 1972 when American B-52s pounded the city over 12 days.

"We Vietnamese, we are not afraid to die," she said. "It is why we won the war."

In 1980, just five years after the Vietnam War ended with north and south reunified by the Communists, Madame Lien traveled to Warsaw alongside 22-year-old Son to translate for him during an international Chopin piano competition.

Son said it was remarkable that the regime ever allowed him to study in Moscow after being discovered in the village by a visiting Soviet piano teacher. After all, his father had switched loyalties during the war, becoming an anti-communist dissident unpopular with Hanoi's leaders.

But not even Vietnam's extreme distrust of the West could stop Son from becoming the first Asian to win the prestigious contest in Poland. The results were shocking to many at the time, but Son's career path was set. And his mother has remained by his side — the two have only been separated for a brief period.

Son, now 53, remains Vietnam's only international artist, performing concerts globally with world-renowned artists such as Yo-Yo Ma. He is now recognized as one of the world's great Chopin interpreters.

In Vietnam, Son is more like a rock star. Young people born a generation after the war know his face and his music. They approach him on the street and shake his hand or pose with him while friends snap photos on mobile phones.

Madame Lien remains in the background and laughs at the notion that she still teaches her youngest son.

"Oh no, now he's my master!" she says, giggling, as Son interrupts: "We play for each other!"

She spends about half the year in Montreal, Canada, where she lives with Son and can speak her native French. The rest of the time she's in Hanoi with her daughter, Tran Thu Ha, who graduated with a doctorate from Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and later took over as head of Vietnam's National Academy of Music.

Her other son, Tran Thanh Binh, the cellist who also lives in the capital, went on to become one of the country's most sought-after architects. He designed the new 800-seat concert hall in his mother's honor. It's expected to open sometime this fall.

The matriarch performed her last solo concert just five years ago — when she was 87 — inside Hanoi's elegant French colonial opera house. And her legacy lives on, with about 1,800 students now enrolled at the music school where some 200 lecturers teach.

Even today, as her tiny wrinkled fingers dance gracefully over the keys of the grand piano, the room is filled with the beautiful sound she's creating — her version of a Chopin etude, born from a long life touched by war and great peace.

And she's not finished yet. Her 6-year-old granddaughter is her newest student.