USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘vietnam’
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cat Over the Coffin

The informant, JT, is the mother of one of my friends. She is Vietnamese, and she grew up in Ho Chi Min City. Here she shares a superstition regarding funerals and her own personal experience with it:

“In the Vietnamese culture, when someone passes away, there are many things you are never supposed to do with the body. Autopsies are looked down upon by some more traditional people because the body should remain whole. If someone steals a part of the body, they may be able to do black magic with it. The person is never cremated either.

They dress the body in simple clothes and put it in the coffin, where they leave it there for about three days, so family and friends can pay their respects. But the coffin always has to be supervised, at all times. They say that if a cat jumps over the coffin, the lid will open and the person will wake up!

Let me tell you something! When I was 12, I walked by the house where they have the funerals, and I saw exactly that happen. They would keep the coffins outside so people could go to look at them. A stray cat from the street went to where the coffin was and jumped over- and the lid of the coffin flew open! I saw it with my own eyes and it was the scariest thing I ever saw in my entire life! The man sat up for a second, and then he lay down and went back to how he was before. I heard people say though- and I don’t know if this is true- that it’s possible for someone to wake up after the cat jumps and stay alive.

I guess it’s because they say that cats have nine lives, they don’t die like we do. It’s really freaky actually!

 

My thoughts: Cats feature in many superstitions around the world. They’re often associated with bad luck, witches, and even the devil. This may be because of the secretive and solitary nature of cats- they have a certain sense of mystery surrounding them. In this folk belief, the cat is associated with bad luck at funerals. Many other cultures also have superstitions involving people coming back to life at their own funerals or wakes. This could be due to the fact that before modern medicine it was harder to determine whether the person in question had actually died. So there may have been real life cases were people seemed to come back from the dead when they were really never dead to begin with that in turn inspired folk beliefs such as this one.

I noted that superstitions still play an important part in the funeral traditions of Vietnam often clashing with the “modern” and the “scientific”, such as autopsies.

general

Vietnamese Dragon Origin Myth

“The legend goes that Lạc Long Quân, the King of the Dragonkind, lived in and reigned over Vietnam in about 3,000 BCE. Sometime in his life he married Âu Cơ, who was a goddess of birds. Quân fathered 100 children who all hatched at the same time with Âu Cơ. Once they were all born, the King and his wife realized that they could not live together anymore and raise all of the children together, so they split and the King went to the coast with 50 kids and the wife went to the mountains with the other 50. According to the legend, all of the Vietnamese people of today are directly descended from these 100 children, making us all dragon people.”


This legend was collected from one of my friends. He is fully racially Vietnamese, and both of his parents emigrated from Vietnam to the US when they were adults. He said his parents try to keep their Vietnamese traditions alive, mostly through cooking traditions, but also through some stories. This is the only one he really remembers clearly. To him, it’s important because his parents identify strongly with it. They don’t actually believe that they are part dragon, but the myth takes on a more significant metaphorical meaning. I don’t really know enough about Vietnamese culture, but I could imagine that this myth provides the Vietnamese with a sense of unity as well as a divide between the mountainous peoples and the coastal peoples of Vietnam.

Proverbs

Respect your Siblings

Informant: “When I went to temple school a long time ago when I was a lot younger, we always learned a bunch of sayings and proverbs, or… I’m not sure what the difference is in English. But a very common one which I’ve had used on me a lot was

‘Anh em như thể tây chân’

which means

‘siblings are like your limbs’

The idea was if you were fighting with you brother or sister, they would say this to remind you that, you know, you’re stuck with your siblings so you might as well get along with them. Like, if you’re angry at your arm you wouldn’t just cut off your arm you just deal with it, or if your leg is hurting you, you just deal with it. In the same same way, if you’re angry with your siblings, you can’t just try to cut yourself off from them.”

Informant is a student at the University of Southern California. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the Vietnam war. She was born in the United States, and was raised bilingually by her parents (though she says that Vietnamese “Is definitely [her] primary language at home”). Most of her knowledge of Vietnamese culture comes from her upbringing in he Vietnamese family in an area where a lot of immigrants from Vietnam settled. Additionally, when she was growing up, she learned a lot about her Vietnamese heritage through “Temple School” which she described as “Like Christian Boy Scouts, except for Vietnamese Buddhists”.

Collector Analysis: According to the informant, Vietnamese culture places an extremely large value on respect and family. This proverb is a clear example of this as it both shows the importance of one’s siblings, as they are just as important as your arms and legs, and it explains the importance of working together with your siblings. In much the same way as you need all of your limbs, you need your siblings and your family in life.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Respect for your Mother and Father

Informant: “One ‘Ca Dao’ [longer Vietnamese Proverb/poem] that I’ve heard used a lot is

Công cha như núi Thái Sơn
Nghĩa mẹ như nước trong nguổn chảy ra
Môt lòng thờ mẹ kính cha
Cho tròn chữ hiểu mới là đạo con

This relates to the idea of, I believe in English the word is… filial piety…? The relationship or respect between children and parents. But in English, it’s not a common word, but in Vietnamese our word for that is hiểu, and that’s very common there too, like kids are named that and it’s a very common name, and a very common word we’d use. It’s not nearly as obscure as filial piety, which I’m still not actually sure what filial piety means, but I was told that’s the closest English translation to that word. Anyways, the best English translation for this is

Dad’s labor is as big as the Thai Son Mountain
Mom’s love is like water flowing from the source
With all my heart I respect and honor my parents
to uphold the [filial piety / hiểu] is my duty as a son/daughter

I heard this first from my parents, and they told me that their parents would say the same thing to them, and it’s supposed to show the sort of respect for parents and elders that exists in Vietnamese culture. I actually think I first heard this is the context of Buddhist Mother’s day, but otherwise it’s something that you would hear people say when you were growing up as a little kid.

Informant is a student at the University of Southern California. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the Vietnam war. She was born in the United States, and was raised bilingually by her parents (though she says that Vietnamese “Is definitely [her] primary language at home”). Most of her knowledge of Vietnamese culture comes from her upbringing in he Vietnamese family in an area where a lot of immigrants from Vietnam settled. Additionally, when she was growing up, she learned a lot about her Vietnamese heritage through “Temple School” which she described as “Like Christian Boy Scouts, except for Vietnamese Buddhists”.

Collector Analysis: One of the more interesting aspects of this particular piece of folklore, in this collector’s opinion, is the fact that according to the informant, this proverb contains words in Vietnamese which had no direct English translations. It’s strange to think that a language barrier could also extend to some degree into a culture barrier. Aside from this, this particular saying does a good job of showing the degree to which parents (and to an extent, elders in general) are respected and venerated in Vietnamese culture, to a point where they have need for one common word which serves a purpose that can only be completely encapsulated by two relatively obscure English words.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Having a successful child is a blessing

Informant: “In Vietnamese culture, there’s this very popular saying which is

‘Con hơn cha là nhà có phúc’

which means, if the child is…This is very loosely translated, but ‘if the child is better than the father, then the house is blessed’. So ‘better’ in terms of not that the father is a bad person, but that the father worked hard enough to raise a child that was more successful than him. So

‘if the child is more successful than the father, then the house is blessed,’

which means good family, good parenting, and good lineage. So in Vietnamese culture, or especially Vietnamese immigrants who came to America after the war, a lot of the children of these immigrants were succeeding when their parents didn’t really have anything, like, a lot of these kids of immigrants were going to college and being the first ones in their families to go to college and get a PhD or become a doctor or something. And this is something where if the parents would be talking to each other, and I guess bragging about their kids, they would say ‘oh, my son is successful now, more than my parents and more than us,’ and that was supposed to be a huge blessing.”

Informant is a student at the University of Southern California. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the Vietnam war. She was born in the United States, and was raised bilingually by her parents (though she says that Vietnamese “Is definitely [her] primary language at home”). Most of her knowledge of Vietnamese culture comes from her upbringing in he Vietnamese family in an area where a lot of immigrants from Vietnam settled. Additionally, when she was growing up, she learned a lot about her Vietnamese heritage through “Temple School” which she described as “Like Christian Boy Scouts, except for Vietnamese Buddhists”.

Collector Analysis: This particular proverb does an excellent job of showing the family-centric nature of Vietnamese culture. This is also a very good depiction of the American Dream, the idea that you can come to America with nothing, and be successful enough through your own hard work to give your children a better upbringing than you yourself may have had.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Lotus Flower in the Mud

Informant: “So there are these Vietnamese ‘Ca Dao’ which are almost like these miniature-ish stories or poems. I think the best translation might be ‘proverbs,’ except for the fact that these are typically longer, like four or five sentences long. Anyways, one really well known one is

Trong đẩm gì đep bẵng sen
Lá xanh bông trắng lại chen nhụy vàng
Nhụy vàng bông trắng la xanh
Gẩn bùn mà chẳng hôi tanh mùi bùn

Also, sort of similar to poems, there’s a sort of lilt or rhythm to it.”

Collector: So like a rhyming scheme?

Informant: “…We don’t rhyme that much. we’re a monosyllabic language, and we’re a lot more vowel based than English is, so there’s not really rhyming, but there’s a sort of a sound to it so you know that it’s not really just a normal conversation piece, but instead one of these Ca Dao. Anyways, the closest literal translation… It doesn’t exactly translate very well, but the closest translation is

In the mud, what is more beautiful than a lotus?
Green leaves, white flower covers a yellow center
Yellow center, white flower, green leaves.
Close to mud but never smells as mud

It’s supposed to mean that if you have something as beautiful as a lotus flower, and it grows in the mud, it is still beautiful despite growing in the mud, and it never smells like the mud. So the lotus blooms in mud, but it’s still pure. Now, people will milk that a lot of different ways, but … how I’ve used it is like, you can surround yourself with a lot of bad friends, but you are still able to remain good yourself. It’s sort of like, your environment can not be good, but you can still stay good yourself.

Informant is a student at the University of Southern California. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the Vietnam war. She was born in the United States, and was raised bilingually by her parents (though she says that Vietnamese “Is definitely [her] primary language at home”). Most of her knowledge of Vietnamese culture comes from her upbringing in he Vietnamese family in an area where a lot of immigrants from Vietnam settled. Additionally, when she was growing up, she learned a lot about her Vietnamese heritage through “Temple School” which she described as “Like Christian Boy Scouts, except for Vietnamese Buddhists”.

Foodways

Nước Mắm

Information about the Informant

My informant is from a Vietnamese family. She’s currently an undergraduate student at Indiana University Bloomington. In her spare time, she loves to knit and cook, primarily baked goods, but also some “Asian” recipes that she learned from her family. This is a recipe for a Vietnamese fish sauce that her mother taught her and which she has memorized, that she recited for me while I was visiting her with another high school friend of ours.

Transcript

“For the uh, mixed-out fish sauce. I don’t know what it’s called in English. Anyways, it is one part fish sauce, two parts warm water, two parts sugar, and two parts vinegar or mixture of vinegar and lime juice or something. Vinegar doesn’t taste as good, but it doesn’t go bad as quickly. Optional sliced ginger and optional chili garlic sauce.”

Analysis

My informant, as stated above, enjoys cooking with her mother, and, as her family is Vietnamese, this is a recipe that may have been passed down through her family. One questionable (questionable as in whether or not this recipe is “authentic”) item is the chili garlic sauce. While undoubtedly, Vietnam could have encountered the chili plant (which originated in the Americas but quickly spread around the globe after Columbus’s voyage) centuries ago, when discussing the question of whether or not a dish is authentically ethnic, people are usually uncomfortable with the idea that an ingredient was imported into the country that the dish supposedly originated in. It is mitigated here by her stating that the chili garlic sauce is optional, but does raise an interesting question (as ethnic food recipes often do) of what do we call authentic and how do we define authenticity?

Myths
Narrative

Carp and Dragons in Vietnam

There’s a story in Vietnamese mythology that’s similar to the Chinese or Japanese story about the koi fish becoming a dragon.

There was an emperor who wanted to create new dragons because dragons bring rain, which helps crops grow. So many animals in the ocean were summoned to have a competition, where they had to jump over three gates of rain. The first animal that could jump over all three would get to be transformed into a dragon.

First, a fish—I think it was a tilapia?—tried, but only got past the first gate. The second to try was a catfish, but it hit its head on the second, so its head got flattened. The emperor rewarded it with dragon whiskers for effort. Next came the shrimp, but it only got past the second, so the emperor made it look like a miniature dragon. Lastly the carp tried, and it got past all three, so the emperor transformed it into a dragon.

Because of this, dragons symbolize success and wealth, and education in Vietnam is compared to the three gates.

Informant is a Vietnamese American and a member of USC VSA, and grew up learning about Vietnamese culture.

The carp’s transformation into a dragon is a common motif in Asian mythologies, with slight variations in each culture’s telling. It is also interesting to note that this myth has parallels to social function.

Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Introduction of the Watermelon

Many many years ago Vietnam was ruled by a king who was known for his kindness. He only had one daughter so he adopted a son, who he loved as his own. Eventually the boy, An Tiêm, married the daughter, and they all lived happily together.

The king’s men, however, were jealous of the king’s kindness to An Tiêm, so they started spreading bad rumors about An Tiêm, saying he had plans to overthrow the king. When the king himself heard, he was distraught and decided that exiling An Tiêm would be the best solution, because he believed An Tiêm was able to survive outside the kingdom.

So An Tiêm and his family were sent away to a remote island where they had to farm and hunt their own food. One day though, An Tiêm noticed a flock of birds pecking on black seeds. He was curious what they were, so he took some seeds home. Eventually these seeds grew into plants that bore green fruits as large as people’s heads. The fruits had bright red insides that were very juicy and sweet, so An Tiêm called it dưa đỏ, or red melon. But later when the birds came to eat the fruit, they seemed to be calling “tây qua”, so they decided to call it that.

The watermelons sustained An Tiêm’s family, but after a while, the king started to really miss his children. One day An Tiêm decided to carve a letter onto a watermelon and cast it into the ocean, and the king finds the watermelon back at the kingdom. Discovering that his family was still alive and discovering the new fruit, the king was overjoyed and proud of his son. Because of that, the king sent for An Tiêm and they all lived back at the kingdom, happily ever after.

Informant is a Vietnamese American and a member of USC VSA, and grew up learning a lot about Vietnamese culture at home and at school. 

Folk speech
Proverbs

“Mắt to hơn bụng”

“Mắt to hơn bụng”

Literal Translation: His eyes are bigger than his belly

The informant first heard this from his mother when he lived in North Vietnam when he was a young boy, about age nine or ten.  The entire family of six had been eating dinner together for some time when the informant became full.  However, he still had food left over on his plate.  His mother then said to his father, “mắt to hơn bụng” and made him finish the rest of his food.  This proverb essentially means that the person wants more than he can handle.  The informant remembers laughing when his mother said this, because he had never heard such an odd saying.  The informant remembered this proverb until now because it sounded so strange.  “How can one’s eyes be bigger than one’s stomach?” he thought to himself.  So whenever his children put more on their plates than they can eat he reminds them not to have eyes bigger than their stomach and makes them eat it all.  He thinks this proverb is very popular in Vietnam where food is scarce because it reminds people who are blessed enough to have food on the table to not be greedy and wasteful when so many people are starving in the world.

Because the Vietnamese people are starving and hungry in Vietnam, they have learned to appreciate the importance of food and how hard it is to come by.  The Vietnamese people who generally use this proverb are adults who have experienced that hunger and try to convey that experience onto their children, who generally have not experienced hunger to the most extreme yet in their lives.  When people are hungry they tend to crave different types of food.  “I want this and this and this and that,” when in reality they want it but don’t have the stomach room to eat all of it.

[geolocation]