Tag Archives: vietnam

Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival

Transcribed from my friend telling me about an event from his childhood memories. 

There is a festival that happens in Vietnam in the autumn, or mid-fall. It goes according to the lunar calendar, it is on the 15th day of the 8th month, which is usually somewhere between september and october according to the western gregorian calendar. I’m not gonna lie, it was pretty lit. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures, it has the mooncakes and the fun red lanterns. It seems to mean something different for many people, but what i have always gleaned from it and what my family and surrounding area focused on was the simplicity of it. A lot of people are poor, so these lanterns are made out of paper and it is just a fun thing for kids to run around and play with. It was never a super fancy thing, but the moon cakes are great. As kids we would literally just run around with our friends and our lanterns. Sometimes you could use this as an opportunity to flex on the people around you by bringing a cooler or more complex lantern than your friends. People could make lanterns there. There was this giant dragon that people would get inside of and dance in. It was just a really lovely time to be a kid and hang out and families were all cool with each other for the most part then and outside things didn’t matter, just the quality time with the people around you. 

Background:

The informant grew up in south Vietnam. While he hasn’t been back to Vietnam since he moved here for school nine years ago, he still has found memories of moments like this. He really appreciates the more family-focused and genuine interactions the culture there can promote versus the often isolationist  and heavily commercialized culture he experiences in the states. 

Context: 

I asked my friend about his favorite memories growing up at home. We were just eating dinner before quarantine was in place in Los Angeles and reminiscing about our childhood and simpler times in the world. 

My thoughts: 

Growing up in Southern California in the U.S. I often feel I did not necessarily get wholesome family experiences as they are not as attainable in the culture here. The closest thing I can think of would be going to Disneyland with my family, but that was more or less a financial burden on my parents for my sibling and I to have fun. Nothing ever really joy filled for us all to come together and just vibe, outside of maybe 4th of July. 

Vietnamese Funeral Traditions

Main story: 

Transcribed from my friend telling me about an event from his childhood memories. My friend will be referred to as TA and myself as MH. 

TA: Funerals are a bit different in Vietnam than here. Honestly, it gets a little crazy with the amount of people. But essentially what happens is that when the person dies they are put in a coffin for people to come and visit- I don’t know do you guys do that here? 

MH: Catholicism does open caskets during the funeral service in the church but that is usually the extent. 

TA: hmm, yeah this is usually a couple days long. So the date is set for the main service and then the few days leading up to the service like every single person in the family, including distant relatives, come visit and pay respects. It’s kind of insane how many people roll through. And then, on the main day when the casket is on the way to the burial grounds people will line the streets to say goodbye. 

MH: Like the entire way? 

TA: Sometimes, but not all the time. It’s like here in LA, you wouldn’t line up along the 10 West but you could line up alone Jefferson St leading up to the freeway entrance. That sort of thing, obviously if you are super rural then you could I guess go the whole way; but yeah that’s the main idea. And if you have money then you like have to get live music to be played, but it’s not a party it’s like sad music but you should do it if you can afford it. 

MH: Does it end there? Are there any post burial events? 

TA: Yeah, kinda. You have to go and visit the grave sight kinda frequently after the person is buried and bring them things. 

MH: Anything? Or like their favorite things? 

TA: You bring flowers, and usually their favorite food. And then you kind of just keep doing that forever haha. I guess until you die and the cycle repeats. But I think it’s a nice way to remember the dead. It may just be me though. 

Background: 

The informant grew up in South Vietnam and finds himself questioning some of the funerary tactics found in western cultures. Such as the typical Irish wake where people drink and tell stories and sort of be both sad but also cheery at the same time. 

Context : 

I was chatting with my friend on a video call during quarantine here in L.A. and I was curious about things he finds really different back home in Vietnam compared to here in the United states. 

My thoughts: 

I am Irish and Italian Catholic by heritage. So I couldn’t help but laugh when my friend was confused by the seemingly celebratory funerary practices of the Irish. I do think it was interesting how he found it disrespectful to spend the day drinking and remaining once the funeral service is over instead of a more somber procession. 

The Vietnamese Creation Myth

Background: My informant is a Vietnamese college student. Their parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam when their parents were around 20, for religious and other reasons. My informant’s identity and worldview is largely shaped by their Vietnamese culture and immigrant upbringing. One of my informant’s main life goals is to one day move back to Vietnam and be in their homeland.

Context: This conversation was recorded on a zoom meeting that we had on a Monday evening. My informant is a friend of mine, and the conversation occurred in both of our rooms. The purpose of the call was specifically so that I could gather folklore from my informant, and they were aware about that as well. After our call, some other people joined the zoom call and the atmosphere was generally friendly.

Viet Creation Myths

A dragon called Lạc Long Quân came from the sea. And he fell in love with fairy from a mountain. So one day she travels down the mountain And meet this dragon, man. And she calls love with this dragon, man. And they’re like, Let’s have babies. And so you know they do the thing they fall in love and they have 100 eggs between them. Eventually those hundred eggs hatch into 100 men. But, and this was all like, not in the mountains or like in in the sea this was in Vietnam. So then they were like “I can’t be away from my home much longer.” And so They divide up their children. She took half up to her home and he took the others into the ocean. And it’s generally believed to be that the Vietnamese people descended from these 100 eggs. And it is generally believed that the 50 that went with the fairy to the mountain are the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. And the 50 that went down to the shore with the dragon they are the ones that are ethnically Viet or người kinh.

Me: And then like after the fairy takes the people up to the mountain and the dragon takes the people down to the sea. Do they like interact with the people, or is it just like did they just leave the eggs there and then like dip?

Yeah, generally generally it slowly like they raise their kids.

Also so the 50 people in the mountains there’s another iteration, saying that they were ethnic minorities,  and some iterations say that they were meant to leaders who eventually become the rulers or like the kings. 

Thoughts: I think this is the first creation myth I’ve heard about a racial-ethnic/national category of people, if we are not counting the story of Adam and Eve. It is certainly the first creation myth I’ve heard about a racial-ethnic/national category of people from a person identifying with that racial-ethnic/national identity. I was intrigued by the motif of fairies in this myth because I am not familiar with fairies occurring often in Asian folklore. Prior to this, I had believed that fairies come primarily from European or non-Asian folklore. Regardless, I think it is really interesting how the creation myth uses the geography of the area as well as two entities to express the multifaceted nature of the Vietnamese population. 

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.


 

Analysis:
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.