“Don’t Flip the Fish”: Vietnamese Folk Magic

Main Piece:

D: When I worked at the train station– that was the very first train station at– the area name is called Cà Ná– that’s the region, the name– so that area has a village, the fishing village, so everybody there goes onto the boats. So you know when you eat fish– you know how [the] Vietnamese cook fish or fry the whole thing– so when you eat one side, you don’t flip it. You’re not supposed to flip it. Just take the bones out and then eat the other part.  

Me: Why?

D: Because they all go on the boats, they don’t want the boat to flip. So even if you don’t go on the boats, everybody has to eat like that. So you don’t have to, but nobody is gonna let you flip it, even if you don’t go on the boats. If you flip it, other people are gonna stop you.


My informant is my father, who was born and raised in Vietnam. He explains that he used to work at a train station in a fishing village called Cà Ná, which is on the southwest coast of Vietnam. While he worked and lived here, he has told me about how he would eat fish every day because that was the main food source in this village. Mealtimes are often communal, in which main dishes are shared, fish being one of them. Thus, being a part of this community, my father had to follow the practice of never flipping the fish when eating.


This is a transcription of a live conversation between my father and me. He often tells me stories about his life and past and has told me many about his time working at the train station. He told me this story when I asked if he knew about any kinds of folk magic.


My father has told me many stories about his time working at the train station in Vietnam, but this was the first time I heard about this practice. I had just finished our lecture that day, where we talked about folk magic, with homeopathic magic superstitions being common for fishing and boating communities. I told my father about one, where you are not allowed to whistle on a boat because it is thought of as “whistling up a storm.” That is when he was reminded of this story. Thinking back to our family mealtimes, I cannot recall an instance where our fish was flipped. I believe this must have become a habit for my father. As he explained, being a part of the fishing village, it did not matter if you got on the boats or not. Since everyone was a part of this community where fishing is the main source of food and work, everyone contributes to the prevention of bad luck, which would come from mimicking the flipping of a boat through flipping a fish. Though my father has immigrated to the US now and is no longer a member of the fishing village, he still continues the practice. On the sea where weather and safety are unpredictable, magical folk practices are common to resolve and alleviate the tension of uncertainty. Such is the case for Cà Ná and the prevention of boat flipping. In this case, this belief is both homeopathic (mimicking the flipping of a boat) and contagious magic (the fish was in contact with the boat).