Saigon loses an icon. Wanbi dies, aged 26.

Saigon lost a great man today when Wanbi Tuấn Anh passed away at the young age of just 26 (which would be 25 in westernised terms). But let me step back and tell you how I came to know who he was.

I first arrived in Vietnam in April 2011 for what I believed was to be a 10 day holiday, which then turned into six weeks, after which I just didn’t get on the plane home, deciding that I liked the country too much and wanted to stay there.

But I remember in that first week wanting to soak up as much of the culture as possible, and one of the ways I did that was to listen to the music video channel Yan TV. I would actually leave the TV on all day and night long when I was home in my hotel, because I’m a huge fan of Korean and Japanese music and 4 times a day, Yan TV would dedicate a special slot to that music.

I wasn’t much interested in the Vietnamese music. The language seemed awkward to me and very unsuited to singing, and also, the music itself was rather boring as popular Vietnamese music only has one style, and that is love songs, or more specifically, break up songs. But there was one singer that caught my eye and I bothered to go out of my way to remember his name.

His name was Wanbi Tuấn Anh, but everyone in Vietnam just knows him as Wanbi. The first song I saw of his was just a typical break-up song about a Vietnamese couple who break up and the girl gets angry at her boyfriend (played by Wanbi) and walks out of his life, leaving him devastated and alone. The ending was interesting though, as a Korean girl turns up on his doorstep responding to his room for rent advertisement, confusing him by speaking only in Korean, and the clip ended with “To be continued…”

I got quite into the song because Yan TV played it so often and I remember going to so many CD stores and asking them if they had Wanbi. None of them ever did, even when I showed them his name, but I was able to get a lot of his music off YouTube although I really wanted to see the conclusion to the story. Well, it turned out to be almost two years later, near the end of 2012 before I finally got to see how it turned out when he released “Tìm Thấy”, or “found”.

The song was brilliant because it was a cool R&B style unlike his previous song, and also because the video told a beautiful love story about how the two of them overcame their differences and struggled to communicate in the most unusual way – by printing out QR codes (2D bar codes) for each other to scan into their phones. The video also showed how the girl would draw funny faces on the lids of Wanbi’s green tea bottles.

At the time I discovered the video I was in a relationship with a Vietnamese girl (now my wife !) and we were struggling with our own language differences so I showed it to her as a way of saying “Look ! Language is no barrier to true love !” She then began drawing similar faces on my own green tea bottles and I have collected the caps and have them stored away to this day, so the song really meant a lot to me.

By this time, I already knew that Wanbi was sick. I’d heard the whole story from various people I had met in my travels. Wanbi had a brain tumor and he was going to die, although naturally we didn’t know how long he had since he kept such details private. I had heard about how many other singers had gotten together and held a benefit concert to raise money for the well loved singer’s surgery. Working as I did for a local English-language Saigon magazine, I was eager to see if I could get an interview with him, and one of the other photographers at the magazine managed to obtain his mobile number for me, but whenever I called, Wanbi did not answer. I was not sure if the number was incorrect, although it had been supplied by one of his close friends so I was fairly confident it was correct, but I only called it a couple of times because to be honest, I was terrified at the idea of interviewing such a popular star one on one, especially knowing about his health condition, so I decided to wait for a while before I called him again.

Only a month ago, I was out drinking one night and I had a bellyful of beer when I saw one of the local cd vendors who ride along on a three wheeled bicycle with a stereo at the front pass by and I chased him down the street and he looked at me dubiously, wondering how to explain that he didn’t speak English and only really carried Vietnamese music. I just said one word to him “Wanbi ! WANBI !” and he smiled and nodded and found me a DVD collection of Wanbi’s music. I remember returning home in the early hours of the morning, holding it up triumphantly to my wife yelling excitedly “Look ! I finally have Wanbi’s music ! I bought it tonight from a street vendor !”

When I returned to Australia two weeks ago to visit family and obtain a new passport, I put only one thing on my iPod – a rip of the Wanbi DVD that I had bought. I watched it on the plane on the way to Australia. Since I was traveling light, it was the one little piece of Vietnam that I was bringing to Australia with me and when I found myself without any money or anywhere to stay and I was sleeping in the park, I would listen to it at night to remind me of the beautiful city I had just left and how much I wanted to return. Wanbi kept me sane when I had noone else to turn to and I didn’t have the ability to see my wife.

Well, tonight, as I was flicking through my Facebook entries, I saw something posted on his fan page. I just saw the words “tuổi 26” meaning “26 years old” on the post, without attempting to read or properly translate the rest of the post. I thought “Oh it must be Wanbi’s birthday today !” and I was about to comment “Happy Birthday Wanbi” until I saw one of the comments … “RIP Wanbi”. My blood went cold and my heart stopped for a moment. “No !” I thought “It can’t be ! Wanbi has died ?” Translating the full text of the message told me the truth. Wanbi had been pronounced dead, at the young age of just 26 years old, which would be only 25 in western terms.

A beautiful life cut short far too soon, I began to cry. I composed myself as best I could and called my wife on Skype. She looked at my red eyes and quickly asked “What’s wrong ? You ok ?” with worry. I broke down and my speech faltered so much that I had to say it several times before she could understand me. “Wanbi died. I just read about it on Facebook. Wanbi died today”. She told me I was a baby, because Vietnamese people treat death differently and it isn’t normal to cry over someones death who isn’t part of your family, but I couldn’t hold back the tears and she just smiled in amusement and told me she was sorry to hear it. We listened to Tìm Thấy together on my laptop over Skype while I tried not to bawl too much.

Wanbi, I never got a chance to meet you and tell you how much your music moved this crazy foreigner, and how that song especially became the anthem for my own cross-cultural love, but I am writing this to tell everyone that Wanbi was a great man and a beautiful singer with a heart of gold and whose smile could melt any pain. I wrote about him so many times, across three different blog sites. Whenever anyone asked “Do you like Vietnamese music ?” I would always answer without thinking and say “I love Wanbi’s music !”

I want to end this article with a different song though. I want to share with you a song that I used to put on in the mornings to put a smile on my face and prepare me for the day ahead. It’s a good one to use as an example of his work because it shows him doing what he did best – making people smile. His number will stay in my phone forever as a memory of how I almost met the great Wanbi.

You might have disappeared from our lives like one of the balloons in your video, but you will never disappear from our hearts Wanbi. And your music will continue to make us smile every time we hear it. Now, without further ado, I want you to sing along… and let the music free you from your sorrow.

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Wanbi Tuấn Anh
9 January 1987 – 21 July 2013

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10 Responses to Saigon loses an icon. Wanbi dies, aged 26.

  1. Lam Nguyen says:

    I’m Vietnamese and also a great fan of Wanbi Tuấn Anh. His death put a shocked to almost everyone, we heard about his sickness few months ago and we keep praying, hoping he could stand straight up to overcome it and more importantly, i know we all realize the fact that he may not last long….But today…i’m so sad and shock about his death, it happen so fast as if i thought this is just a joke or some freaking news people made up to get more viewers….

    R.I.P Wanbi, you will always stay in our hearts and the heart of Vietnamese music

  2. Luan Pham says:

    I’m really love your blog. I am a Wanbi’s Fan so your blog touched my heart. Thanks so much!

  3. Nik Nham says:

    Hi David,
    I’ve read your comment about Wanbi on a website, so I follow your attack link to read your note about Wanbi.
    I’m a Vietnamese, I’m not a Wanbi’s fan but I was really touched when I read this.
    With my sincere, I just want to thank you for your loving for our singer.

  4. tomxii says:

    Hi there,
    I dont know you and I dont read blogs but this article really made me cry. I feel a true pain from this. Wanbi is one of the better singers who had a perfect personality and smile that could bright everyone’s day. What a shame that he passed away.
    Rest in piece, Wanbi.

  5. Ivy says:

    Came to read your entry just by accident when finding what people talked about Wanbi’s death. I know how it feels when someone, even a stranger, once have given something special to our journey now has been gone. And though I don’t really highly appreciate his voice but must admit that some of his songs are very beautiful and touching. “Chap Canh” is an example, I listened to that song every day in my preparing-for-university-exam time because of the positive lyrics. Btw about Vietnamese music, pop kind really sucks. But I believe it’ll be more interesting, qualitative and vivid if you spend time going through the surface, try more songs well-composed, highly-created by enthusiastic teams in Jazz, Blues, Dance, R&B and even Rock. These works are not well-known ‘cuz the Vietnamese’s taste of music is quite boring. Feel free to tell me if you need any suggestion (: Just want to share something ’cause I’ve been here, read your words and found them very sincere.
    Ivy, from Vietnam.

  6. Bùi Anh An says:

    Wow! What a great emotions of a foreigner friend for our POP idol!.. Thank you very very much for this post, let’s think of him as our close friend, one of whom makes us found that language isn’t serious barrier to love!..

  7. Trần Hoàng ánh Ngọc says:

    Cám ơn vì bài viết rất hay giành cho wanbi! không chỉ những người nc ngoài như ông mà rất nhiều người dân Vn , trong đó có tôi đã khóc rất nhiều khi anh ra đi …..
    Nếu ông biết được tiếng việt, hiểu được những gì wanbi đã làm, đã trải qua, và lạc quan sống với căn bệnh của anh ấy, tôi nghĩ ông sẽ còn ngạc nhiên nhiều vì con người có nghị lực phi thường này !!!

  8. pawz says:

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments. Yes, I read them (even the Vietnamese ones, with some difficulty) and I am so glad that so many people read the article and commented. Yes, I think that for WanBi to touch the hearts of so many, even foreigners is very significant. Whether you were a fan of his music or not, I think everyone recognises that WanBi was a very special person who touched many people’s lives with his positive attitude and his commitment to making people smile.

  9. Ngọc Dung says:

    He was very lenient. He always help dry people. Before he dies, he always support unlucky many children although his heath is worst than them. He is optimism although his desease is very rare. 1.000.000 people is have one person contracted. Its name “Chordoma”. He is too honest and gentle. When he died, he didn’t like anybody cries for him. He was very kind person I have ever met….

  10. Laurel says:

    Your story is a wonderful tribute to Wanbi. I learned about him & his passing while my 21 year-old son was in the hospital- recuperating from two 15+ hours of surgery to remove Chordoma from his spine. Chordoma is a disease that I had never heard of before then. I researched and read about Wanbi and learned of what an amazing and caring person he was. I was touched. I know how much Wanbi must have suffered-very privately. One in a million people are diagnosed with this disease each year. (Our son was one of ~300 people diagnosed with Chordoma in the U.S. in 2013). Thank you for sharing WanBi’s and your beautiful stories! (Note: Our son has demonstrated similar strength as Wanbi, and is also a very caring young man. He has adjusted to life in a wheelchair with a paralyzed leg-because of Chordoma. He continues to remain positive as he adjusts to more Chordoma tumors; if frequently recurs and there is no cure. I’m thankful to the Chrordoma Foundation, a charitable foundation who is feverishly working with researchers, world-wide, to find a cure so others won’t have to go through what WanBi, David & others have. Thank you for reminding me about WanBi’s beautiful music to free myself from my sorrows… :)

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