Khanh Ly, born Nguyen Le Mai (Mai Nguyen) on March 6, 1945 to a traditional family, grew up in the northern regions of Vietnam. As a child, she would fall asleep to her father's soothing voice. His serenades planted inside her a love for music, which grew stronger every day against her family's wishes. In 1954, at the age of 9, she entered a small contest in the city of Hanoi singing Tho Ngay; she did not win.
By 1956, she accompanied her mother to the southern regions of Vietnam. At the end of that very same year, she secretly entered a children's talent-search contest produced by Phap-A production at Norodom Stage in Saigon. Mai traveled to the contest by sneaking into the back of transport trucks and hitching a ride from Da Lat City to Saigon. She won second prize singing Pham Duy's famous song, Ngay Tro Ve. Mai lost to child-star Quoc Thang who would also later become an iconic figure in the music world. She was only 11.
Mai's musical career did not officially begin until she debuted at Club Anh Vu on Bui Vien Street in Saigon when she was only 17 (1962). At this point, she adopted the stage name Khanh Ly, a combination of KhanhKy and Yeu Ly, both are characters from Three Countries, her favorite novel. By the end of 1962, she relocated to Da Lat and stayed there for four years performing at various clubs and resorts. Night after night, she serenaded lovers, tourists, and the youths of Vietnam.
On a rainy night in 1964, she met Trinh Cong Son (TCS), at that time a young composer, at a club in Da Lat. They became fast friends. Fascinated by her seductive voice, Trinh had asked her on several occasions to accompany him in his performances in Saigon. Still in love with the romantic hills of Da Lat, she declined. During a trip to Saigon in 1967, she ran into Trinh on the busy streets of Le Thanh Ton. After several serenades and coffee at a small shop called Quan Van, the legacy of Khanh Ly and Trinh Cong Son has begun.