USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Vietnamese’
Folk speech

Vietnamese Proverb

RN is the informant, PH is myself.

PH: Do you know any legends, jokes, proverbs that you especially like?

RN: Proverb?

PH: Yeah

RN: Can it be in another language?
PH: Yes

RN: I’ll give you the English translation and you can just write [that it is a] Vietnamese proverb

PH: Do you know how to spell it?

RN: [says the proverb in Vietnamese]

PH: I’ll let you spell it.

RN: It means there’s nothing like fish and rice, there’s nothing like mother and child.

The actual proverb in Vietnamese is:

“Không có gì bằng cơm với cá, không có gì bằng má với con.”

Translations of this proverb vary, and this translation was off the top of the informant’s head. The informant speaks Vietnamese, as it is the language primarily spoken in his home, but not at an advanced level.

For another instance of this proverb, see Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong.



Bâū Ća Tôm Cua

Main Piece:


The following was recorded from the Participant. They are marked as DD. I am marked as DG.


DD: So there’s this game that me and my cousins used to play on the Lunar New Year, and it’s called Bau Ca Tom Cua, and it basically means um Gourd Crab um…it means Fish but it’s referring to a Shrimp, or um and then a Rooster. It’s basically-it’s a simple game where you have a picture of um each of the four items I mentioned, well actually some of them have 6 it’s a fish-a shrimp-, a crab, a rooster, a gourd, and a stag. And you have this little dice where on each of the little sides there’s a picture and you…usually money or candy, usually small change because my cousins and I, you know, small kids you don’t want them gambling with you know, tons of money, and we would put the coins basically on the picture that we thought was going to get rolled. So we would put the dice in a bowl and there’s 3 of them and roll them in the bowl and remove that and the ones on top, if you were right, you got to split the money.


DG: Who did you learn it from?


DD: Um, I remember playing it with my…cousin, um it must have been something we learned from probably our parents. Yeah its just a pretty common game. And even when I went to the Vietnamese lunar new year festival here, there were a whole bunch of boards.


DG: What was the context?


DD: It was a game that was traditionally played on the New Year’s, I don’t know if there was a significance for why it was played on the New Year’s… but it makes sense to me that um that at least little kids would have money on the New Year because their relatives would have just given them money.




The conversation was recorded while sitting in a classroom during an assigned period to discuss folklore. However, the context that the game would be performed in would most often be on the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.




The student was born and raised in Northern California. She is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. Although she was born in Northern California, her entire family is from Vietnam, and she is one of the first generation to be born in the United States.




This game is good for cross-cultural teaching, as it is rather simple to teach and pick up. It can be adapted to bet on candy, coins, dice, or more. It is also easily taught to small children, meaning it is highly adaptable and good for bringing up through generations. It is also a quick game to teach, making it good for fairs, etc, where all the players may not be familiar with the game. It also has a specific history, being related to the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. Due to this, this is not a game that the majority of the American population will likely know, or have heard of. I personally have learned this game in the past, at a Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration at my university, and found it very fun to play.

Folk Beliefs

Vietnamese Child Numbering

Main Piece:


The following was recorded from the Participant. They are marked as DD. I am marked as DG.


DD: In a lot of Vietnamese families, there’s a habit of numbering the children from oldest to youngest, in the way sort of like nicknames. So we’ll have, um, sister number two is the oldest sister [sibling], brother number three is the second oldest sibling and oldest brother. And, um, interesting thing about that is that you actually start with the oldest one being sibling number two because there’s a belief that if you called them the first child, the spirits will come take the child away. And it’s actually really interesting in my family because my grandparents have nine children and they were supposed to have a 10th but the first born did actually pass away… right after birth I believe, so it did actually fall into that superstition, and it’s something I know my grandmother always believed. Although with my dad’s family they don’t really number the children, but they give them nicknames to symbolize, like, where they are in the order of children. Like…uh my dad is one of the younger ones so his name is trè, which means young, and his youngest brother is út which means littlest. Út usually refers to like the littlest finger, um, so, and it’s even like I still call him uncle út, which means the littlest uncle.




The conversation was recorded while sitting in the sun on a bench on a university campus. However, the context that this numbering was used under was whenever a child was born. It would be numbered whilst still in the womb.




The student was born and raised in Northern California. She is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. Although she was born in Northern California, her entire family is from Vietnam, and she is one of the first generation to be born in the United States.




I find superstitions to be the most interesting of all folklore items. In this case, the superstition is that something bad will happen if the children are numbered starting at one. The reason I find it so interesting is because although there’s no solid, scientific proof, people still act based upon the belief, just in case. I find myself doing the same in other superstitions. This is also one that I’ve never heard of before, and one that had proof in the believers’ eyes, with the death of their first child. I also found it interesting that they adapted the numbering system to, in the form of “young” and “littlest.” This appears to be a form of an oicotype, where the folklore belief has been adapted to a new cultural zone.

Folk Beliefs

House Hunting Superstitions

“There’s two [superstitions] that my parents told me they look for when they’re house shopping. The front and the back doors of a house can’t align or else money will come in through the front door and just leave out the back (she loudly laughs as she finishes her sentence). When I asked my dad about this, he was like, ‘I don’t know why,’ and I asked my mom and she said, ‘whatever comes in through the front door will leave out the back door,’ and I was just like, ‘ok, mom.’ Also, the stairs can’t lead directly out the door because it’ll fall out the door, like your possessions, or your fortune, or your good luck. I think my parents believe in this because, when we were younger and were going house shopping, if the stairs were even remotely near the front door, my mom refused to look at the rest of the house. I guess these just superstitions or old wives’ tales that get passed down from your parents.”

Background Information and Context:

This is a superstition that was relevant to the informant’s parents while shopping for real estate. She believes that the superstition most likely came from Vietnam, from which her parents immigrated.

Collector’s Notes:

Growing up in a Vietnamese family, I, too, was exposed to many strange and illogical superstitions, usually from my grandmother. I am all too familiar with asking for an explanation of why something is good or bad luck and getting a reply that doesn’t clarify much, as my informant recalled in the above example. I also found it interesting how she was so quick to dismiss these superstitions, while I know from previous conversations that she is usually eager to accept certain other luck-related traditions like cleaning the house for the new year. I think a large part of accepting a tradition is feeling a personal connection to it and a positive association.

Folk Beliefs

Eating All Your Rice Yields a Clean-Faced Spouse

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as MT.

BD: So tell me about why your mom always tells you to eat everything.

MT: In Vietnam, if you don’t finish your bowl of rice, the number of rice grains left in your bowl corresponds with the amount of acne on your spouse’s face. My mom believes this superstition. I don’t know where she learned it from. It’s common among most Asian cultures.

BD: Does everyone in your family believe it?

MT: Yeah, pretty much. Though it’s silly, I think it’s one of those things you never acknowledge, but you try to maintain. But I’m mostly just hungry. So I eat everything anyways.


I had heard a similar idea from my mother, and I found it interesting to hear the same idea in another culture. Though most people here in America say to finish all your food, because there are people who go without, this is an entirely different perspective on a reason to finish food. This belief also reinforces the values of Vietnamese culture, the future-orientation towards one’s future spouse.

Tales /märchen

The Dog Buns

Context: One of my roommates, when he heard me explaining to a friend about how stressful it was to try and find folklore from different sources, offered some of the stories he knew from his childhood.

Background: This is a tale my roommate heard  when he was a kid.

Dialogue: It goes… There’s this Buddhist who’s, you know, vegetarian, everyone loves him, he’s very holy, um, and, the queen of the land who, I guess doesn’t really like him or wants to bring attention away from him and to herself, uh, comes up with this plan to make everyone hate the monk… So, she, um, cooks these dogs, and… puts them into meat buns… um, which could also look like vegetarian buns, and she gives all of them, uh, to the monk, and, she says, “Look! I’ve, I’ve prepared these nice, uh, veggie buns for you! Why don’t you go eat them?” Uh… She’s thinking, then she’s going to reveal they’re made of dog, and he ate them, and everyone’s gonna hate him… Um, but the monk instead digs a hole in the ground, buries the buns into the ground, puts dirt back over them, and waters them, and then the dogs come back out of the ground! And, then people realize that the evil queen put dog in the buns and now the dogs are back to life, and now they get rid of the queen, and everyone loves the monk again.

Analysis: Sort of just a cute story, really something meant for kids, like a fairy tale (and perhaps it is, and my roommate just didn’t refer to it as such). Nice little morality tale about not letting jealousy get to you, with the added iconography of the Buddhist monk instead of the traditional Western protagonist.

Folk Beliefs

The Rice Witch

Context: One of my roommates, when he heard me explaining to a friend about how stressful it was to try and find folklore from different sources, offered some of the stories he knew from his childhood.

Background: My roommate’s family was extremely superstitious when they lived in Vietnam before he was born.

Dialogue: One day my uncle got enough, like, money on a shopping errand to buy some bags of rice, and, you know, apparently, as far as we know, he did get the rice. He was heading back with two bags of rice, um, and… he came back with nothing! What he told the family was that, in the middle of the way he encountered an old lady who asked him to give him the rice, and… he just could not… control anything except the fact that he handed the rice over to her and watched her walk off with it, and then came back with, uh, nothing, and actually… everyone believed him. So I guess there’s that.

Analysis: This feels extremely of its culture, largely because my roommate specified that his family’s superstition were directly connected to the country they come from, Vietnam. This fact also leads me to believe that this witch is a kind  of witch specific to the Vietnamese and/or Southern Asian area, rather than just a witch that everyone in Western civilization is familiar with.

Folk speech

A Vietnamese Proverb: Dark and Light

This is a Vietnamese proverb that was told to me by my mother when I was very young:

“Gần mực thì đen gần đèn thì sáng.”


Literal translation:

“Close to ink then you are dark, close to light then you are bright”


This is a proverb often told to children, meaning that you should be careful with who you surround yourself with. People are shaped by others around them, and if one surrounds themselves with bad people (the dark) they will become bad, while if one surround themselves with good people (the light), then they will be a good person. This is a lesson about peer pressure, as well as a warning to young children about how friends, family, and peers can influence them.


Collectors Comments:

This is a proverb that has stuck with me for a long time since my mom first told me way back when. It reminds me of sayings such as “hanging with the wrong crowd” or other proverbs that deal with friend groups and peer pressure. This saying was my mom’s way of trying to teach me that I should be selective with my friends, and only hang around people that would make me better. The proverb makes use of the contrasts between black and white and dark and light that are common in so many cultures. While, I have heard similar proverbs in other languages, this is the first one I’ve heard that relates to ink as black and light to white.


Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Vietnamese Buddhist Wedding Feast

The informant, AA, is a Vietnamese American high school student. She is a second generation immigrant- both of her parents and their families are from Vietnam, and many of them still live here. AA shared with me a Vietnamese food tradition that she participated in herself at a wedding:


“So when my aunt and uncle were married, after the ceremony there was this big feast. There were 7 to 10 courses- they’re always the same foods at Buddhist weddings.

First there are cold dishes, like jellyfish salad, and then it goes to hot dishes, like lobster and hot pot. It’s always the same dishes in the same order. They’re always really precise about the order, especially at this wedding since my aunt is very Buddhist, actually.  It’s always very elaborate, and a lot of money is spent on the food. It incorporates many different types of seafood.

The dishes are served in a certain order as a way of wishing good luck onto the couple. For appetizers, we have sliced meats and jellyfish, and nuts shaped like dragons and phoenixes- those are served chilled as well. It’s supposed to symbolize, like, the male and female roles in a marriage. The dragon represents the groom- so powerful and strong. And then the female is like a phoenix because she is “born again” into this new life as a wife.

Later on, there is a roast pig that’s meant to symbolize virginity. I’m not sure why, exactly! I don’t know, I think it’s just a really old, sort of outdated tradition. Because back then the bride was supposed to be a virgin, and since many weddings were arranged marriages it was really valued for the girl to be a virgin.

Another common dish is shark fin soup. But since its Western style now, these kinds of weddings in America usually switch it up to pork soup or porridge. Then you have the lobster, and since it’s red it symbolizes luck and happiness and joy. Colors are really significant in Buddhist and Vietnamese weddings, especially red. Then you have fish, which symbolizes abundance, like, the abundance of money and possibly children. Towards the very end you have noodles, which is longevity.”

Which dish do you find to be the most significant, with a meaning you find particularly special?

“Desert is usually sweet red bean soup, which, stands for 100 years of togetherness because the soup contains a lot of seeds and beans- I think that one is really cute!”

Is this something all or most Buddhists do?

“It’s specifically Vietnamese Buddhist. It’s very unique to our specific background so it’s very important to me.”


My thoughts: Every culture has rich traditions pertaining to weddings. The particular wedding food customs AA mentioned are so fascinating because they show the intersection of Vietnamese, Buddhist, and Western traditions- for example, shark fin soup is replaced with other foods to reflect Western criticism/rejection of shark fin soup for ethical reasons. The idea of symbolic foods that ensure happiness and prosperity later in the marriage are common in different cultures, including the Hungarian wedding folklore collected by Géza Róheim, as well as foods that represent virginity or gender roles.


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.


“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.”


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?