All smiles, the young, casually clad musician entered the stage on crutches, guitar in hand. The audience greeted him as they would an old friend, responding enthusiastically.
Viet Dzung, Vietnamese singer and songwriter, and winner of various American country music contests, has become a hit with Vietnamese communities in the United States. Influenced by American music, Viet Dzung composes sings that blend American and Vietnamese elements.
Dzung appeared recently in Arlington, where he has a large following in the Vietnamese community, in a festival called "Christmas for Exiles in Memory of Motherland." After he sang, the audience, mostly young people, shouted its approval: "Bis! Bis! Encore!"
Chubby and jovial, with curly black hair falling around his shoulders, Dzung told his audience: "Several attractive performances by other artists are waiting. I feel pain in my legs and cramps in my fingers when standing and singing." He surrendered to their pleas, however, and performed three more songs.
Afflicted since birth by polio "since God wants it so," as he puts it, the 23-year-old prefers to use a pseudonym rather than his real name Nguyen Ngoc Hung Dzung.
It was luck that brought him to the United States, he says. Two days after the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975, he and his grandmother took a walk to the waterfront. His family had left hurriedly for the United States only days before but because of his handicap, Dzung had to stay behind.
An unfamiliar man in a motorized canoe approached him and asked if he wanted to go to the United States. He told him "yes" and they climbed aboard. When the canoe came alongside a boat in order to board it, a communist patrol boat appeared in the distance. The man quickly climbed up and the waiting boat fled. The patrol boat pursued the boat, ignoring the old woman and the disabled youth in the canoe.
Dzung said the canoe drifted for a day on the Saigon river until another fleeing boat rescued the two and took them to Singapore. Port authorities put all the passengers in jail for illegal entry. Not until a week later were the Vietnamese released and allowed to continue their trip.
Arriving in the United States in November 1975, Dzung enrolled in high school in Wood River, Neb., where his family had settled. There he met Verlen Larsen, "a man crazy with country music," he said.
"I didn't know anything about American country music before coming to this country," smiled Dzung, who completed two years at the National Music Institute in Saigon.
"Larsen taught it to me. He often drove me in a truck with a radio blaring country music. Later we became a duet, singing in schools and local country-music clubs. My music now is a blend of Vietnamese folk music and American country music."
He has won a number of singing awards, including first place in the 1977 Amateurs Country Music Contest in Iowa. The Country Music Association sponsored his trip to Japan to sing at the Country Music Club in Tokyo.
After singing at various American clubs, Dzung got bored -- as he says he does with "anything regular." He moved to Houston in 1978, and he and some of his young friends formed a group to provide entertainment for Vietnamese refugees.
Last spring the group recorded on cassette tapes his 14-song album "Refugee's Prayers." The album was financed with money borrowed from friends -- $10 dollars a person," Dzung said.
Word has spread about the musician through coverage of the songs by Vietnamese magazines in the United States, his performances in refugee communities and his album, which is distributed in Vietnamese grocery stores.
Dzung's songs captivate his fellow yvietnamese partly because they mirror sentiments of the refugees, according to one of his fans. The songs depict adventurous escapes from Vietnam, harsh conditions in their communist-ruled country, a desire to return to the motherland and affection for the relatives remaining there. As one music critic wrote in a Vietnamese biweekly, the songs are "full of will to sacrifice and struggle."
Some Vietnamese wonder how long he can keep his fans happy with his politically oriented songs. "He sings (traditional) Vietnamese and American songs marvelously, but for some (people) political songs may be too heavy," said one young woman.
His political songs and extensive travels to entertain Vietnamese crowds apparently have not pleased pro-Hanoi sympathizers in this country."The communists harassed and threatened me," Dzung said. "One guy asked me, 'Your legs are crippled. Do you want your arms crippled, too?'"
Dzung, who has been to all 50 states in this country to entertain refugees, sets flexible rates for performances. For music and dance festivals, he'll charge as much as $400 a show plus travel expenses, but for refugee communities he sings without charge. He sang for free in Arlington so that profits from that $4-a-ticket concert could go to the surviving family of a New Carrollton, Md., man, Duc Vuong Pham, who fatally poisoned himself and his two young sons.
A Catholic, Dzung lives in California, where more than 130,000 Indochinese refugees have resettled. "My joy is with the community. I like to be present at any Vietnamese gathering," he said.
His dream now is to get a visa from Thailand in order to sing for Vietnamese in Thai refugee camps and to stay there and help them if he can. CAPTION:
Picture, Viet Dzung, Vietnamese singer and songwriter. By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post