Vietnamese Culture - A 1970's Perspective
                       Copyright 1996 Vn-families

Issue #23. The boat of illusion, Nguyet Cam, Heritage 
September/October 1995.

We will run this column weekly until we run out of interesting cultural 
Please direct all questions to [email protected]
Here is the proposed schedule of this column.

Issue #1:  Tet 1971 in Vietnam! by Phu Si, VB710118
Issue #2:  The Unicorn dance at Tet, by Minh Tam, VB710118.
Issue #3:  The origin of Tao Quan, the three kitchen gods, by
           George F. Schultz, VB710118.
Issue #4:  1971 - The year of the Pig, by Van Ngan, VB710118.
Issue #5   The Joy of "first writing of the new year", by Thuy Ngoc,
Issue #6:  Traditional Vietnamese male attire, by Van Ngan, VB710208
Issue #7:  The legend of Princess Lieu Hanh, George F. Schultz, VB710215 
Issue #8:  The dialogue on Mount Na-Son, George F. Schultz, VB710222
Issue #9:  The secret housewife, George F. Schultz, VB710301
Issue #10: The golden axe, George F. Schultz, VB710308
Issue #11: Golden age of Viet Nam under the Hung Kings, Pham Tung, 
Issue #12: The legend of Chu Van Dich, George F Schutlz, VB701221
Issue #13: The sandalwood maiden, George F. Schultz, VB7010??
Issue #14: Legend about Emperor Ly Thai-To, George F Schultz, VB7010??
Issue #15. Chu Dong-Tu and Princess Tien Dung, George F. Schultz,
Issue #16. The husband's most difficult task: teaching his wife, 
           Van Ngan, VB 691216
Issue #17: Superstition in Viet Nam, Van Ngan, VB6911??
Issue #18: Hair: VN style, VB7007??
Issue #19: Funeral rites in Viet-Nam, Van Ngan, VB7006??
Issue #20: "Non Bai Tho" or the "Poetical Leaf", ???, VB7011?? 
Issue #21: The different systems of writings in Viet-Nam, ???, VB710201 
Issue #22: Vietnamese literature in "Chu Nom", ???, VB710201
Issue #23: The boat of illusion, Nguyet Cam, Heritage Sept/Oct 1995
            - June 19, 1996.
Issue #24: Tran Hung Dao's proclamation to his officers, 
           George F. Schultz, VB 710201 - June 26, 1996.

The article in this issue does not really belong in this series of 
articles from the late 60's and early 70's. However, I believe it 
supplements the previous two issues very well, thus it is presented to 
you as a supplement to issues #21 and 22.

I came across this article on a flight in Viet Nam on Vietnam Airlines 
in October 1995. Heritage is the in-flight magazine of Vietnam Airlines.
                         THE BOAT OF ILLUSION
                             Nguyet Cam

Classical eastern poetry took on a popular flavor at the hands of 
Vietnamese scholars, write Nguyet Cam

  Heels muddied in the pursuit of wealth and fame
  Weather-beaten face revealing life's cataclysmus
  Thoughts of drifting fate brings pain
  Bubbles in the ocean of misery
  Duckweed at the edge of the dark shore
  The taste of life numbs the bitter tongue
  The journey through this life is bruising, full of obstacles
  Waves in the river mouth rise and fall
  The boat of illusion pitches and rolls at the edge of the waterfall
           Nguyen Gia Thieu

For most non-Vietnamese, Vietnam conjures images of war or, perhaps, 
an Asian country striving to become the latest economic dragon. Few 
recognize that despite centuries of war and economic hardship, the 
Vietnamese have one of the world�s oldest languages, most fertile 
cultures and richest national literature's.

As with many Eastern cultures, the development of Vietnamese literature 
has been profoundly shaped by the country�s proximity to China, and 
particularly by the Chinese writing system. While spoken Vietnamese has 
always remained a distinct language, the same is not true for the 
written language. Early Vietnamese official, diplomatic and educational 
writings used Chinese characters. But they were pronounced in a 
Vietnamese way. Sometime before the 8th century, a Vietnamese writing 
system was devised. Known as Nom or Southern Letters, it transformed or 
combined Chinese characters to render Vietnamese words.

Nom began to be used in serious literature only during the Tran Dynasty 
in the 1200s. At the end of the 1300s, the most important mandarin in 
the Tran court, Ho Qui Ly, attempted to promote the development and 
widespread use of Nom. Before his plans were realized, Vietnam was 
invaded and occupied by China�s Minh Dynasty and Nom fell into disuse.

Under the Le Dynasty, set up in the mid 1400s, Nom received royal 
support and was encouraged in literary works. The first major collection 
of Nom poetry was Nguyen Trai�s Quoc Am Thi Tap. It was followed by the 
Hong Duc Quoc Am Thi Tap, a collection of poetry written by King Le 
Thanh Tong, who was known to compose verse for pleasure in his free 
time. Following tradition, Nom poetry addressed such themes as the 
beauty of nature or moral relations between rulers and ruled. There was 
little of real artistic value.

In the 16th century two anonymous Nom narratives appeared, entitled 
Vuong Tuong and To Cong Phung Su. These new longer Nom stories borrowed 
their plots from Chinese history beginning what became a long literary 
fashion. In the following century a new work, Lam Truyen Van, marked a 
major development in the history of Vietnamese poetry.

Written by Phung Khac Khoan during a period of exile, it was set in the 
countryside and offered poetic depiction's of fruit and vegetables. Not 
only did it break with tradition in subject matter, but it used 
vernacular language within a new poetic form, comprised of alternating 
six and eight word lines.

The populist form and content caught on, reaching a peak in the 18th and 
19th centuries. The later period produced dozens of anonymous verse 
narratives, such as Hoa Tien, Phan Tran, Pham Ngoc Tai Hoa, Tong Tran 
Cuc Hoa; and substantial works by the luminaries of Vietnamese 
literature: Doan Thi Diem, Nguyen Gia Thieu, Ho Xuan Huong, Nguyen Cong 
Tru, and Nguyen Du.

Doan Thi Diem (1705-1748) was Vietnam�s first known female translator. 
She is believed to have translated Dang Tran Con�s poetic masterwork, 
Chinh Phu Ngam (The Song of a Soldier�s Wife), from Chinese into Nom. 
Her translation is simple, clear and beautiful:

  Your way leads you to lands of rain and wind
  mine takes me back to our old room, our bed
  We turn and look, but all has come between
  green mountains and blue clouds roll on and on

Another brilliant eighteenth century poet, Nguyen Gia Thieu expressed 
very personal feelings and sorrows in his work. Born into a high-
mandarin family and promoted to an important post at a young age, Nguyen 
Gia Thieu turned his hack on wealth and status to devote himself to 
writing. His main work, Cung Oan Ngam Khuc (The Lament of a Concubine), 
described the misery, loneliness and desire for love of a young and 
beautiful concubine abandoned in a forbidden palace. It is easy to 
recognize feelings the poet himself might have, not just those of an 
imaginary woman. In contrast to Chinh Phu Ngam, Cung Oan Ngam Khuc is a 
work of high culture. Each sentence, each polished word is testimony to 
the poet�s literary erudition and sophistication. It is not an easy poem 
for the casual reader to understand.

On the other hand, many of the works by Ho Xuan Huong: "The Queen of 
Nom" remain transparent to all:

  I'm like a jackfruit in a tree
  Whose skin is rough and flesh thick
  If you like it, then stake it,
  Don't finger it; you'll get sticky hands

Jackfruit is staked for ripening, which involves a drying-out process. A 
master at double meaning, Huong uses everyday objects to describe the 
predicament of women. Despite her popularity, little is known of her 

If Shakespeare's work represents the greatest literary achievement in 
the English language, then Nguyen Du's 3254 line masterpiece, "The Tale 
of Kieu", can be considered the pinnacle of classical Vietnamese 

Nguyen Du came from an aristocratic northern family with a long 
tradition of literary excellence. He based his story on the plot of a 
Chinese novel: "The Tale of Kim Van Kieu" by Thanh Tam. The narrative 
charts the ups and downs of Vuong Thuy Kieu (a real figure in 16th 
century Chinese history) a girl so beautiful that "flowers grudged her 
glamour" and so gifted that she "irked the jealous gods". When her 
family falls on hard times, Kieu must abandon the one she loves and 
sells herself to save them. From then on, her life is full of tears and 
misery; she must twice prostitute herself, twice serve as slave, and she 
twice attempts suicide. Finally, she is re-united with her family and 
marries her first love (who in then her younger sister's husband).

The Tale of Kieu presents a successful integration of fictional 
narrative convention with poetic form. Its subtle beauty recalls the 
best of Tang poetry as well as the simple lyricism of traditional folk 
songs. Written in alternating lines of six and eight words, the diverse 
images and multiple harmonies of its language suggest both music and 

The first lines, which most Vietnamese know by heart, set the theme of 
the tale: "talent and destiny are apt to feud" but a constant "heart" 
will save the day.

Thus on first meeting her true love, the youthful and handsome Kim 
Trong, Kieu's tragedy is foreshadowed in her innocent msings:

  Who is he? Why did we chance to meet?
  Does fate intend some ties between us two?

Kieu's feeling are lovingly revealed as they ebb and flow through her 
extraordinary life. In the midst of her troubles the inner turmoil she 
experiences is evoked:

  Oh, how she pined and mourned for her old love
  Cut from he mind, it clung to her heart.

After a shady businessman, Thuc Sinh, buys her out of prostitution and 
takes her as his clandestine concubine, Kieu expresses her anxiety and 
resignation to fate with a brilliant metaphor:

  A clinging ivy - that's my humble lot
  Will Heaven bless or curse this marriage knot?

In Vietnamese literature, few lines of verse about nature can be move 
people like Nguyen Du's

  Waters, all gleaming, mirrors for the sky
  Walls wreathed in sapphire mist, peaks gilt with sunlight

Characters in the Tale of Kieu are crafted so skillfully that they have 
become an integral part of everyday Vietnamese language. It is not 
unusual to hear people say someone is "as beautiful and gifted as Kieu"; 
"jealous as Hoan Thu", "dastardly as So Khanh", "henpecked like Thuc 
Sinh", or "as brave as Tu Hai". Artists paint Kieu, children recite 
Kieu, wits draw from Kieu for riddles and word-play, and women even 
consult her as method of fortune-telling. In the past when most of the 
country was illiterate, it was easy to find people who could recite Kieu 
by heart. Some could literally chant it from back to front. If you visit 
Hanoi's Hang Da market today, you may he lucky to meet an old merchant 
who will answer all of your questions by quoting directly from Kieu.

Writers too use lines from the Tale of Kieu, and its two concluding 
lines close this article:

  May these crude words, culled and strung one by one
  Beguile an hour or two of your long night.