Tag Archives: Vietnamese

“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).

Don’t Sweep the Floor on Lunar New Year

Main Piece:

D: On the first day of New Year, you don’t sweep the floor. They believe that you’re gonna sweep away all of the good things– they don’t talk about luck, they talk about wealth, money. So you just keep it inside the house, or maybe you can gather it in one spot and leave it there. Until…maybe– because they celebrate on the first, second, and third [days]– those are the three main, then on the third day, you can take away the trash. Or, if you swept it outside, you can sweep it back in. 


My informant is my father, who was born and raised in Vietnam. Vietnamese New Year is often a large celebration, which goes according to the Lunar calendar. In Vietnamese, New Year is called Tết, and is full of superstitions and traditional practices to ensure the following year will be filled with good luck and fortune. My father’s grandfather and mother thus performed this practice every New Year, however, my father does not believe in it as much. Since immigrating to the United States in the 1990s and having his own family, we have not performed this practice.


This is a transcription of a live conversation between my father and me. He often tells me stories about his life and past and was reminded of this story when I asked him about folk magic.


Though I was born in the United States, being the first generation of American-born children in my family, I was raised with many customs and traditions from Vietnam. Since I was young, Vietnamese New Year has always been a large celebration. Many other customs of the New Year have been continued after my parents’ generation immigrated, while others have not. It’s interesting to see which customs continued and which customs they stopped performing. It seems my grandmother and her generation hold onto certain superstitions much more than my parents and their generation. My father has always been one to not be very superstitious. Thinking of when he was a child, Vietnam was in the midst of war, and after, had to rebuild the country. During this time, financial insecurity was common. I can understand then, why this practice may have been performed more and the superstition believed more during that time when there was much uncertainty. Folk magic is often employed in such times of uncertainty. Specifically, this folk magic practice is homeopathic magic, where the act of sweeping mimics sweeping wealth out of your home (and your possession). Now that my family is not as worried about financial instability, the practice has not been continued. 

“Ta về ta tắm ao ta” Vietnamese Proverb

“Ta về ta tắm ao ta”

  • Transliterated proverb:
    • Ta: I, me
    • Về: home
    • Tằm: shower, bath, bathe
    • Ao: pond
  • Full translation: I will return home and bathe in my own pond
    • Explanation: An American equivalent of this proverb would be “There is no place better than home.” Thus, this proverb means the best place is home, and could otherwise be stated as “I would rather go home and bathe in my own pond.” My grandmother explains that this proverb could be used to describe a situation where you have traveled to another country, but facing difficulties there makes you realize that your home country was better. It can also be generally referring to another person’s home or an unfamiliar place that is otherwise not your own home. Within the meaning of this proverb is the possibility of the other country, the unfamiliar place, or stranger’s home being wealthier, shinier, or more glamorous than your country or your home. Yet, she explains, at least your home is yours, thus, the wealthier place is not necessarily better.


I like this proverb because I believe that it attests to the culture of my family and the culture I was raised in. When my grandmother was raising my father and his siblings, Vietnam was in the midst of war, and then had to rebuild after the war. Because of this, financial instability was common. The principle of being only concerned with how you are doing and taking care of your home rather than desiring another person’s wealth shines through those circumstances and has followed how my parents raised me. I remember wanting to sleep over at my cousins’ houses often when I was younger, and sometimes complaining to my parents about things they can do or have that I cannot do or have. My parents always responded then that I should want to sleep in my own house and that “it doesn’t matter what someone else has” and reminded me to be grateful for the things that are mine. This sentiment has always been with my grandmother as well, who once expressed to me how “the best place is home” to explain why she turned down my uncle’s offer for her to live with him for a few months in California. 

Grandma’s Phở Bò Recipe

Main Piece:

*preparing for 15 servings
*total time from start to finish: 3 hours

  • 1lb of beef bones
  • 400g of brisket
  • 250g of beef tenderloin (fillet)
  • 2 large onions
  • 3 limes
  • Thai chilis, green onions
  • Basil, cilantro
  • 50g hoisin sauce
  • 20g sriracha
  • Salt, pepper, MSG or chicken sugar (chicken bouillon)
  • 1lb of rice noodles
  • 300g of raw mung bean sprouts
  • 1 whole ginger = char the skin
  • 3 pieces of star anise
  • 1 small piece of cinnamon or one seasoning packet
  1. Beef bones: soak in warm water to drain the blood out, dump the water and repeat many times
  2. Wash the brisket with water until clean and let the water drain out
  3. Wash the beef tenderloin with water until clean, dry with a paper towel, then put in the refrigerator
  4. Raw mung beans, fresh herbs, Thai chilis and lime: prepare right before serving

Making the Phở Broth

  • Pour 12 large bowls of cold water or a little more in the pot and bring to a boil, at the same time, cook the beef bones and brisket in the pot on medium-low heat while it is uncovered. Watch the pot. Film will occasionally form at the top of the broth, skim it off and discard the film. Skim the film many times. 
  • Turn up the heat little by little so all of the film can form at the top to be removed, keep skimming it off until the water becomes clear. At this stage, you can put in the ginger and onion which should be charred right before putting them in the pot. Season by taste with chicken bouillon, a little salt, and MSG. Lower the heat.

Page Two

  • Use chopsticks to pierce the brisket to test if it is cooked properly. If it pierces through, take the brisket out and rinse with cold water and leave it until it completely cools down, then slice it.
  • Slice the beef tenderloin

*Taste the broth to adjust seasoning as needed and lower the heat to keep the broth at a simmer.

Plating the Phở

  • First put the raw mung bean sprouts in a strainer. Then put the uncooked rice noodles on top, blanch them in boiling water, strain the water and plate both the mung beans and noodles in a bowl. On top, plate the brisket, fillet, sliced onion, and green onion. Also include one piece of green onion about 2-3 inches long cut from the bottom up. 
  • Pour in the broth (brought to a boil before serving), until the raw tenderloin is covered. Add blanket tripe or honeycomb tripe.

Pho has to be eaten very hot with hoisin sauce and sriracha, lime, sliced chilis, cilantro, and basil. 

*Do not use fish sauce to season the broth. It will make the broth taste sour.

*Only add fish sauce to your bowl when you’re eating, if you want to. 

*The seasoning packet is ground star anise and cinnamon. Only add to the broth when the broth is clear (all the film was removed). Leave it in for one hour, then taste for proper seasoning. If it’s good, remove the seasoning packet. 


This is my grandmother’s recipe for Phở Bò, which is rice noodles in beef broth. It is an iconic dish of Vietnamese cuisine, however, she only started to make it after immigrating to the United States in the 1990s. She explains that in Vietnam, there were phở restaurants everywhere, so there was never a need to make it yourself at home. Further, since the dish takes so long to make and requires so many ingredients, it was not convenient or accessible for the normal citizen to make it themselves. Unless you owned a phở restaurant, you were not cooking this dish at home. Thus, after immigrating, because the abundance of phở restaurants and general Vietnamese cuisine was no longer a given, my grandmother, like most other Vietnamese people in the diaspora, had to learn how to cook certain dishes themselves. It was through sharing knowledge with others and the coming of the internet that helped my grandmother develop her recipe over time. It is a loved dish for her to make and share with our (very large) family.


I have been able to visit my grandmother from time to time during the pandemic. It was during one visit where she shared this recipe with me.


This is one of my favorite foods to eat, so I am delighted to have my grandmother’s recipe. Phở has always been a source of comfort and also healing for when I’m sick. Because so much effort and time are poured into the dish, as well as eating it while it’s practically boiling, the warmth of the cook shines through the meal. I also love phở because a person’s recipe can tell you a lot about their history and where they came from. The inclusion of fresh herbs, lime, among many other toppings shows that this particular recipe follows the style of phở from the southern region of Vietnam. I’ve also had the northern version, which is also delicious, but slightly different in its simplicity: very few toppings are included and the broth is made with a stronger spice base. Furthermore, this dish has changed drastically over time as new variations appear along with newly gained access to more ingredients. The Huy Fong Sriracha is now a staple topping in the southern style phở but clearly was not included in the earlier versions preceding its creation in 1980. Now, you may see variations of phở adorned with lobsters, other seafood, accommodating vegetarian or vegan diets, and many more. Tracking the differences in these variations can thus reveal changes in people’s circumstances, tastes, and trends.

Vietnamese Friday the 13th

 Main Story: 

The following is transcribed between myself and the informant, from this point forward the informant will be known as TT and I will be MH. 

TT: Are you familiar with Friday the 13th? 

MH: Yes, I am. 

TT: In Vietnam we also have Friday the 13th, but it has a different context then the commercialized one in the United States. The story goes, in the early 2000s there was a storm in a city in Vietnam and that city was semi-destroyed in the storm and many people were displaced. The people in the surrounding regions banded together and came into the town to deliver aid and help out. Then one day, well Friday the 13th, two busses carrying people who were supposed to be delivering aid crashed and almost everyone died in the collision. And now the day is cursed. 

MH: Is there any relevance of Friday the 13th as we know it in America, or like are the two ideas completely separate? 

TT: From what I remember the two are not linked but purely by coincidence. 


The informant grew up in south Vietnam, however he moved here for school alone when he was sixteen. While adjusting to America he found this to be an interesting coincidence and parallel between the two vastly different cultures. 


The conversation happened over FaceTime during quarantine. We were talking about tattoos and how tattoo parlors do “flash tattoos” (pre-designed tattoos that clients can pick from that usually only cost no more than 50$) on Friday the 13th,  and how often they are spooky themed. This then got us talking about the concept of Friday the 13th and the odd parallel between the culture of it here in the USA versus in Vietnam. 

My thoughts: 

I think the concept of the unlucky number 13 is fascinating as it centers from the western christian ideal of the 13 disciples – the 13th being Judas the traitor of jesus- so there were really only 12 proper ones. The fear around the number  was popularized in the 1890s in England. This trickled in building codes as most western buildings, especially in the U.S. omit the 13th floor. However, my friends and I are familiar with the fear of 13, and Friday the 13th, from popular slasher films in the 1980s-90s. It’s interesting to see the presence of fear surrounding Friday the 13th in a non-western culture.