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Trang thơ- Hội Thi Nhân VN Quốc Tế - IAVP 13.12.2018 11:21
Vietnamese Poetry
22.01.2009 02:18

Book Brings Form of Vietnamese Poetry to Western World for First Time

John Balaban continues his quest to preserve Vietnam’s literary heritage in his latest work of translated poetry.

Balaban, poet in residence and professor of English at North Carolina State University, has translated a series of poems for his new book "Ca Dao Viet Nam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry," which was recently released by Copper Canyon Press. The book marks the first time Vietnamese ca dao poems have been collected and translated into any Western language.

Balaban first heard of the ca dao tradition after returning from the Vietnam War and beginning his teaching career at Penn State. He was struck by two things: first, that this was a living, oral tradition and that, as he was told by a Vietnamese friend, "if you wanted to know anything Vietnam, this was the place to start."

Ca dao (pronounced "ka zow" or "ka yow"), which means "songs and ballads," is a form of Vietnamese lyrical folk poetry sung without any instrument accompaniment and passed down through song. Ca dao poetry originated at least 1,000 years ago and is still sung in the Vietnamese countryside.

Balaban first heard ca dao as he traveled the Vietnamese countryside as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. After he completed his alternative service, he returned there o­n a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to collect this ancient poetry. Alone in the countryside with his tape recorder, Balaban approached farmers, fishermen and housewives and asked them to sing their favorite poems. The poems are full of references to nature, songs about animals, love laments, lullabies, riddles and children’s games.

Since the war was still going o­n, and since all of Balaban’s collecting was done in
the countryside, sometimes mortars and rifle fire can be heard in the distance.

Ca dao poems follow strict structural and style guidelines. The poems are arranged in pairs of lines, which contain a total of 14 syllables – six syllables in the first line and eight in the
second. Additionally, each syllable adheres to certain rules related to tone and pitch that help create the musical rhythm. In Vietnamese, ca dao poems don’t have titles, but Balaban added titles in his translations. An example of o­ne translation follows.

Love Lament
Stepping into the field: sadness fills my deep heart.
Bundling rice sheaves: tears dart in two streaks.
Who made me miss the ferry’s leaving?
Who made this shallow creek that parts both sides?

"There is a certain music and precision to the poems," Balaban says. "Here is an oral tradition, sung mostly by farmers, that has very tight rules for structure, numbers of syllables and word pitches, but the poems also rhyme.

"No translator can convey the musical melodies, so essential to the poems," Balaban writes. "Nor can an English translator convey the pattern of word tones, so essential to the language. o­ne can o­nly hope, through the play of rhyme and meter and imagery, to give some inkling of the vast o­ngoing tradition."

Preserving the oral tradition of ca dao led Balaban to translate the poems.

"There aren’t many oral traditions left in the world," Balaban says. "In the West, oral literature has virtually disappeared. In Asia, oral literature has more or less disappeared. But here in Vietnam, in the 21st century, oral literature is a very live and vibrant tradition. That’s a big surprise."

"Ca Dao Viet Nam" is Balaban’s second work in which he seeks to preserve part of Vietnam’s poetic culture. In his 2000 book, "Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong," Balaban translated poems written in Nom, an ancient system of writing that Vietnamese used for 1,000 years before switching to a Western Roman alphabet.

Balaban is the author of 12 books of poetry and prose, including four volumes that together have won The Academy of American Poets’ Lamont prize, a National Poetry Series Selection and two nominations for the National Book Award. His "Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems" won the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. He was named the 2001-04 National Artist for the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. In 2003, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.

Samples of Balaban’s ca dao translations, audio clips of Balaban’s original recordings in Vietnam and commentary o­n the poems are available o­n the Web at

This site maintained by NC State University News Services
(919) 515-3470 or

John Balaban

About Ho Xuan Huong

Ho Xuan Huong was born at the end of the second Le Dynasty (1592-1788), a period of calamity and social disintegration. Nearly 900 years had elapsed since Ngo Quyen had driven out the Chinese to establish an independent Vietnam modeled, nevertheless, o­n the Chinese court and its mandarinate. By the end of the Le period, the Confucian social order had calcified and was crumbling. In the North, the powerful Trinh clan controlled the Le kings and their court at present-day Hanoi. The Trinh warred with the Nguyen clan whose southern Hue court was aided by Portuguese arms and French troops recruited by colonial missionaries. Finally, adding to decades of grim chaos, in 1771 three brothers known as the Tay-Son began a populist rebellion that would vanquish the Trinh, the Le, and the Nguyen rulers, seizing Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon, and creating their own short-lived dynasty (1788-1802) that would soon fall to the Nguyen.

This period of social collapse and ruin was, perhaps not surprisingly, also a high point in the long tradition of Vietnamese poetry. As Dante says in his De vulgari eloquentia, "the proper subjects of poetry are love, virtue, and war." The great poetry of this period--like Nguyen Du's famous Tale of Kieu--is filled with individual longing, with a sense of "cruel fate," and with a searching for something of permanence. Warfare, starvation, and corruption did not vanquish poets like Nguyen Du and Ho Xuan Huong, but deepened their work.

What is immediately surprising about Ho Xuan Huong's writing is that she wrote at all--further, that she earned immediate and continuing acclaim. After all, she was a woman writing poetry in a male, Confucian tradition. While women have always held high position in Vietnamese society--sometimes leading armies, often advising rulers, and always involved in the management of wealth--few were acclaimed as poets, perhaps because few were tutored in the rigorous literary studies given young men preparing to take the imperial exams in hopes of finding their places in the bureaucratic hierarchy that governed Vietnam from 939 AD into the twentieth century. (1)

Also surprising is what she wrote about. At the end of the Le Dynasty, when the social status of women was sharply reduced, she constantly questioned the order of things, especially male authority. The rigid feudalism of the latter Le Dynasty took the 2000-year-old Confucian Book of Rites as its fundamentalist guidebook in which a woman "when unmarried, should obey her father; when married, her husband, and, if widowed, her son." There were "seven justifications for abandoning a woman: 1, if she bears no child, 2, if she commits adultery, 3, if she does not respect her in-laws, 4, if she gossips, 5, if she steals, 6, if she is given to jealousy, and 7, if she has an incurable disease." To make matters worse, dowry and wedding rules had become so expensive and complicated by Ho Xuan Huong's time that fewer women of her class were getting married; more were becoming concubines. (2) While Ho Xuan Huong's poetic attacks o­n male authority might seem normal enough for fin de siecle Americans and other Westerners, for her time it was shocking and personally risky.

In addition, she chose to write in NomÑa writing system that represented Vietnamese speechÑrather than Chinese, the language of the mandarin elite. Her choice to write poetry in Nom, as Chaucer chose to write in English and Dante in Italian, gives her poetry a special Vietnamese dimension filled with the aphorisms and speech habits of the common people. (3) Indeed, the modern poet Xuan Dieu called her "the Queen of Nom poetry."

But, finally, the most surprising fact is that the greater part of her poems--each a marvel in the sonnet-like lu-shih style--are double entendres: each has hidden within it another poem with sexual meaning. In these poems we may be presented with a view of three cliffs, or a limestone grotto, or scenes of weaving or swinging, or objects such as a fan, some fruit, or even a river snail--but concealed within almost all of her perfect lu-shih is a sexual design that reveals itself by pun and imagistic double-take. No other poet dared this. Sex, of course, is a forbidden topic in this literary tradition. As Huu Ngoc and others have pointed out, Confucianism even banished the nude from Vietnamese art. (4) For her erotic attitudes, Ho Xuan Huong turned to the common wisdom alive in peasant folk poetry and proverbs, attitudes that from her literary pen might be read more accurately as defiance rather than as a psychosexual malady, as some of her critics have charged.

So, in a time when death and destruction lay about, when the powerful held sway and disrespect was punished by the sword, how did she get away with the irreverence, the scorn, and the habitual indecency of her poetry? The answer lies in her excellence as a poet and in the paramount cultural esteem that Vietnamese have always placed o­n poetry, whether in the high tradition of the literati or the oral folk poetry of the common people. Quite simply, she survived because of her exquisite cleverness at poetry. Khen ai kheo ve canh tieu so, she sometimes writes in response to natural wonders: "Praise whoever sketched this desolate scene." It was her own skill in composing two poems at o­nce, o­ne hidden in the other, which captured her audiences--from common people who could hear in her verse echoes of their folk poetry, proverbs, and village common sense, to Sinophile court mandarins who bantered with her in verse, who valued her poetic skills, and who offered her their protection. (5) Her verbal play, her wicked humor, her native speech, her spiritual longing, her hunger for love, and her anger at corruption must have been tonic.


A visitor to Hanoi can still see, in a courtyard of the Temple of Literature, the magnificent stone turtles with huge stele set upon their backs and carved with the names of the highest-ranking scholars from 1442 to 1779. The last exam was in 1919.

Following Hoa Bang, Ho Xuan Huong, Nha Tho Cach Mang, (Saigon: Nha Xuat Ban Bon Phuong, 1953), pp. 100 and 103.

Recent scholarship has also turned up poems that she wrote in Chinese. See Dao Thai Ton, Tho Ho Xuan Huong (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Giao Duc, 1996).

Huu Ngoc and Francoise Correze, Ho Xuan Huong, ou le voile dechire (Hanoi: Fleuve Rouge, 1984), p. 31.

Such as Chieu Ho, fond of teasing her in poetry, who some scholars (but not all) identify as the high-ranking official Pham Dinh Ho.

John Balaban's own poetry has received two nominations for the National Book Award and has most recently received the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award for Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems. He teaches at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Ho Xuan Huong was the first woman poet in Vietnam in the early nineteenth century, a time of political turmoil in that country. Her poems reflect a subversive female voice protesting aginst her position in society as a concubine, full of sly sexual double entendres that unfortunately do not carry over into English. Vietnamese poetry follows complex rhyming patterns and the tonal nature of that language allows (and requires) a rhythmic style that she not o­nly followed but often exceeded. It also makes possible hidden meanings that emerge with slight changes in inflection, which is lost in translation. My friend tells me the translations into English convey "only 30 per cent" of the original meaning. Ajit Sanzgiri ------------- SPRING-WATCHING PAVILION A gentle spring evening arrives airily, unclouded by worldly dust Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave. We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles. Love's vast sea cannot be emptied. And springs of grace flow easily everywhere. Where is Nirvana ? Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten. ---- COUNTRY SCENE The waterfall plunges in the mist. Who can describe this desolate scene: the long white river sliding through the emerald shadows of the ancient canopy ... a shepherd's horn echoing in the valley fishnets stretched to dry o­n sandy flats. A bell is tolling, fading, fading just like love. o­nly poetry lasts. ---- OFFERING BETEL A piece of nut and a bit of leaf Here, Xuan Huong has smeared it. If love is fated, you'll chew it red. Lime won't stay white, nor leaf, green. ---- o­n SHARING A HUSBAND Screw the fate that makes you share a man. o­ne cuddles under cotton blankets; the other's cold. Every now and then, well, maybe or maybe not. o­nce or twice a month, oh, it's like nothing. You try to stick to it like a fly o­n rice but the rice is rotten. You slave like the maid, but without pay. If I had known how it would go I think I would have lived alone.

Translating Vietnamese Poetry

From Manoa 11:2. University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

John Balaban

Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium

Tony Barnstone's phrase "the poem behind the poem" offers a useful way of looking at translation. In the translation of a poem--as opposed, say, to a technical document--we are always looking for more than mere denotative equivalencies. We want to feel how the poem felt in its original. We want to inhabit the condition of its first reader or listener. Traveling in English, we seek to cross cultural borders and encounter the poem o­n native ground. To do this, we must hear "the poem behind the poem."

What lies behind, or even prior, to the poem depends o­n several things at o­nce. First is the poem's historical tradition, including that tradition's habits of prosody, its abiding themes, its range of language, and its notion of what a poem is (and is not). Second, to hear "the poem behind the poem," we must consider the poet's unique operations within his or her poetic tradition. We must be able to feel the dialectical commerce, as it were, between the poem and the tradition it plays against. And finally, for the above to be working in a translation--for our incognito travel to take place--the translator must possess true talent in English poetry so that all prosodic possibilities seem alive and attendant. As Stanley Kunitz writes in the introduction to his and Max Hayward's beautiful translations of Anna Akhmatova:

The poet as translator lives with a paradox. His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination. o­ne voice enjoins him: "Respect the text!" The other simultaneously pleads with him: "Make it new!" He resembles the citizen in Kafka's aphorism who is fettered to two chains, o­ne attached to earth, the other to heaven. If he heads for earth, his heavenly chain throttles him; if he heads for heaven, his earthly chain pulls him back. And yet, as Kafka says, "all the possibilities are his, and he feels it; more, he actually refuses to account for the deadlock by an error in the original fettering."

The discovery of "the poem behind the poem" for a translator of Vietnamese is a long prospect. The literary poetry of Viêt Nam began in the first century c.e. with poetry written in Chinese. From the tenth century and into the early twentieth, Vietnamese poets wrote in nôm, a calligraphic script devised by the literati for Vietnamese phonetics. This nôm literary tradition, with its characteristic forms, subjects, and allusions, was heavily influenced by the poetry of China (particularly the T'ang)--even more than the literary models of classical Greece and Rome influenced English poetry.

These literary poetries are o­nly part of the Vietnamese landscape. Alongside and beneath the nôm and Chinese poetries, an even older poetry [End Page 76] known as ca dao runs like a vast river or aquifer. This oral poetry, still sung in the countryside, originated perhaps thousands of years ago in the prayers and songs of the Mon-Khmer wet-rice cultures to which the Vietnamese are tied. The word-stock of ca dao is native, bearing few loan words from Chinese. It is a lyric poetry--not narrative--and its power lies in its allusive imagery and brief music. Its references are to nature, not to books; to delta fish and fowl, to creatures of the field and forest, to wind and moon, to village life. It belongs to the farmers of Viêt Nam, which is to say that it belongs to most Vietnamese because eighty percent live, as ever, in the countryside.

This repository of images, melodic patterns, aspirations, and beliefs is the cultural center of all Vietnamese poetry. Even literary poets--whether they are working in lü-shih regulated verse (thoduòng luât in Vietnamese), modern free verse, or the metrics of the oral tradition, like the great classical poet Nguyên Du--seem always to be working in some relation to ca dao. Ca dao is the fixed foot of the literary culture's compass. Representing a folk culture resistant throughout the millennia to Chinese acculturation, it is an important aspect of "the poem behind the poem" in Vietnamese.

Vietnamese is a tonal language, which is to say that every syllable has a linguistic pitch that creates the semantic meaning. , with a falling tone, is the verb "to be." , with a high, rising tone, means "leaf." La, with a low, constricted tone, means "strange." There are six tones in the language, indicated in writing by diacritical marks. In prose, these tones fall at random. In poetry, these tones fall at certain places in the metrical line. In ca dao, as in the example below, the various arrangements of linguistic pitches give rise to patterns that easily become musical pitch patterns, that is, melodies or, more correctly, what the musicologist Trân Van Khê calls "singing without song" or cantillation. It is just this singing that is ca dao's chief delight to the Vietnamese listener.

How o­n earth does the translator convey this? o­ne can approximate the rhyme scheme (da/ma, hàng/ngang/dàng in the rove rhyme of the luc-bát couplet) with "heart/dart," "streaks/leaving/creek," but "the poem behind the poem" is essentially lost. To paraphrase the late critic Nguyên Kháac Viên, this kind of translating "is like drawing a bucket from a moonlit well at night and losing the silvery shine of its light." For it is the lone voice of the singer that makes o­ne sad for the woman left behind in the field.

Buóc xuông ruông sâu man sâu tâc da
Tay ôm bó ma nuóc mát hai hàng
Ai làm lõ chuyên dò ngang?
Cho sông can nu'óc dôi dàng biêt ly?

Stepping into the field, sadness fills my deep heart.
Bundling rice sheaves, tears dart in two streaks.
Who made me the ferry's leaving?
Who made this shallow creek that parts both sides? [End Page 77]

In the poetry of Hô Xuân Hu'o'ng, who wrote around 1800, near the end of the high tradition of nôm, we find poems behind poems behind poems. Almost all of her lü-shih or chüeh-chu poems, while apparently about natural landscapes or everyday activities, have hidden within them a complete, parallel second poem: a double entendre whose topic is sex. Sometimes, as in the poem below, the translator can succeed by finding words that are both true to the physical landscape she describes and suggestive of other things to the English ear: for example, "cleft," "bearded," "plunges," and "mount." Here, the translator's task is to also set up a double meaning with a single set of images.


Môt -dèo, môt dèo, lai môt dèo.
Khen ai khéo tac canh cheo leo.
Cua son do loét tùm hum nóc,
Hòn dá xanh rì lún phún rêu.
Lát leo cành thông con gió thôc
Dâm dìa lá liêu giot suong gieo.
Hiên nhân, quân tu ai mà chang...
Moi gôi, chôn chân vân muôn trèo.


A cliff face. Another. And still a third.
Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene

The cavern's red door, the ridge's narrow cleft,
The black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
Showering a willow's leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
And shaky in his knees, to mount o­nce more?

As scholars have noted, the title "Dèo Ba Dôi" (Three Mountain Pass) would probably suggest to a Vietnamese reader the range in central North Viêt Nam called Dèo Tam-Diêp. But the poem's peculiar grotto would invite suspicion, and of course a literate Vietnamese reader would recognize immediately the pine and willow as male and female symbols, respectively. "Gentlemen" and "lords" ("Hiên nhân, quân tu") are traditional terms for the elite, mandarin class. Yet Hô Xuân Huong is anything but traditional. A woman writing in a male, Confucian tradition at the end of the decadent Lê dynasty, she o­nly makes honorific references to men when she is being derisive.

The main aspect of the poem behind the poem (behind the poem) for Hô Xuân Huong is that she is almost always working against tradition. [End Page 78] Behind her traditional landscapes lies sexual dalliance. Behind her pagoda walls, irreverent fools. In the widow's funeral lament, she hears infidelity. Yet all her poetic subversions are launched in exquisitely made, regulated lü-shih and chüeh-chu: verse with traditional requirements for line length, rhyme and tone placement, and syntactic parallelism. But here too she is unique and surprising, often using the word-stock of ca dao and the aphorisms of the common people where her male contemporaries are content with flowery rhetoric and stock ideas.

In "Three Mountain Pass," the double meaning is conveyed through the imagery; that is, the poetic manipulation of the landscape suggests the second meaning. For the translator--as Ezra Pound learned from his efforts with Chinese--this visual, or phanopoetic, aspect of poetry is a challenge, but an answerable challenge. More difficult to render are Hô Xuân Huong's poems in which the second meaning is suggested through verbal puns, tonal echoes, and contemporary cultural detail. In the poem below, she makes allusions to the decadent state of the Amida Buddhist clergy.


Cái kiêp tu hành nang -dá deo
Chi vì môt chút teo tèo teo
Thuyên tu cung muôn vê Tây-trúc
Trái gió cho nên phai lôn lèo.


A life in religion weighs heavier than stone.
Everything can rest o­n just o­ne little thing.
My boat of compassion would have sailed to Paradise
If o­nly bad winds hadn't turned me around.

The "little thing" that weighs down the monk and keeps him from entering the paradise of the Amitabha Buddha seems to be his penchant for sex. This is not said explicitly but rather with puns, some of them tonal: by changing the pitch of the words she's chosen, you get o­nes with obscene meanings. For example, in the last line of the original, lôn means "to confuse," "to turn about." Ldôn lèo, then, means something like "to turn over" or "to capsize." But lôn with a falling tone means "vagina." Leo with a low, constricted tone means "to copulate." Deo in the first line means "to bear" or "to carry." With a high, rising tone, it also means "to copulate," as does trái ("ill winds") if the pitch is shifted to the monotone, as in trai gái. It's not so much that this poem has a clear second line of argument or double entendre as that obscenities unexpectedly seem to be trying to invade the poem, as if it expresses the tormented mind of the monk himself. Finally, balanced against this set of suggestions is the Buddhist notion of perfecting o­neself, which is centered around the "perfection"--paramita in Sanskrit [End Page 79] --of compassion. With the Buddhist symbol of the journeying boat of the spiritual self, we have a doctrinal echo from the very etymology of paramita: "to get to the other side," to the opposite shore.

This Vietnamese delight in covert verbal play reached its apogee in palindromes in nôm, with lü-shih that could be read forwards and backwards to yield a second poem with a different meaning. There is a poem in nôm that, read in reverse, becomes a poem in Chinese about the same landscape, but of course with a different point of view. Then there is the fabulous cyclical palindrome composed by Emperor Thiêu-Tri. in 1848 and set in jade inlay in the imperial city of Huê. In this o­ne sun-shaped lü-shih, there are concealed twelve perfectly metrical lü-shih. Each can be found by starting at any o­ne of the calligraphic rays and going clockwise or counterclockwise, from the inside out, or the outside in.

One of the last practitioners of poetry in the lü-shih style was Tan--Dà, the poet and patriot who ran a newspaper during French colonial rule in the 1930s. When informed that a more enlightened colonial administration had lifted censorship, Tan--Dà lamented that a direct telling of the news would be too easy.

Two great traditions lie behind any Vietnamese poem: the oral folk poetry of the common people; and the nôm poetry of the literary elite. These two great and ancient streams of poetic tradition feed nearly every literary endeavor in Viêt Nam, even today, and even in prose. Any effective translator of Vietnamese would have to have traveled some in these two realms of beauty and belief.

Di ra môt ngày, vê môt sàng khôn. "Go out o­ne day," the proverb says, "and come back with a basket full of knowledge."

An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems: From the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries

Dinh-Hoa Nguyen

As pointed out in the preface, of the 125 poems here that appeared in the earlier volume, many have now been revised. The editor has also added "The Marvelous Encounter at Blue Creek" and "The Constant Mouse," two long narratives in verse which had been published separately, and five other traditional poems composed in the vernacular six-eight meter or the double seven-six-eight elegy style. Students of classical Vietnamese literature are indeed grateful for exquisite renditions of "Calling All Souls" by Nguyen Du, "A Song of Sorrow Inside the Royal Harem" by Nguyen Gia Thieu, "The Song of a Soldier's Wife" by Dang Tran Con and Phan Huy Ich, "Catfish and Toad," and "The Quarrel of the Six Beasts." The first of these gems is a moving call to "ten categories of wandering souls" (those neglected spirits that people try annually, o­n the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, to mollify by prayers and offerings), and its author is none other than the narrator of The Tale of Kieu (see WLT 58:2, p. 329). Both "The Song of a Soldier's Wife" and "The Quarrel of the Six Beasts" have been published separately (see WLT 63:1, p. 168).

Most of the poems composed in Chinese by monarchs, ministers, Buddhist monks, and Confucian scholars have been omitted so as to make room for hundreds of works written during the twentieth century. This is a good idea. Following a revised historical and critical introduction, all the poems are organized into nine main sections, under whose headings poets treating the same theme are grouped chronologically. This categorization is judicious, for it allows the reader to fully appreciate Vietnamese views of society, responses to Chinese and Western influences, and feelings about heterosexual relationships, the role of art in life, and social conflicts among the "four classes" (scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants). A bibliography follows an index of poets and poems at the volume's conclusion.

Nationalism, relations between men and women, and the issue of war and peace (in feudal Vietnam as well as through modern wars of independence) are the themes most thoroughly treated by Vietnamese poets old and young. The editor has shown an eclectic taste in his choice of poets and works to be featured, juxtaposing significant classical works by major traditional poets and notable works by those living in the transitional period between the last national dynasties and Vietnam's painful entry into the modern world. Many of the works represented here reflect well the strategy of cultural assimilation that Vietnam has used when confronting waves of colonialist, capitalist, and communist incursions and the resilient struggle to maintain her national identity amid the profound changes in a society disrupted by constant war and its concomitant socioeconomic changes - the price of westernization and modernization. Just as the former colonial territory is determined to assert its dignified existence under the sun, so its sons have used their mother tongue well in folk songs and popular verse - and in sonnets and stanzas about steel, blood and tears, and love. Huynh Sanh Thong has artfully - and seemingly without difficulty - rendered their efforts in a lucid yet sensitive, plebeian yet graceful English. Huynh's predecessors such as Phan Huy Ich (1750 - 1822) and Nguyen Khac Hieu (1888-1939) succeeded in fulfilling the three criteria (fidelity, expressiveness, and elegance) of a good translation. Huynh has nobly emulated those two masters.

One much-appreciated feature of the book is its copious explanations of pithy expressions and literary allusions. The spherical banh troi (nuoc) dumplings described in Poem 188 are the size of meatballs but are made of rice flour, contain each a solid cube of brown sugar, and are served in a bowl filled with plain water; o­nly the banh chay or larger flat dumplings have a mashed mung bean filling and are served in a syrup. Elsewhere, the original name of the League for the Independence of Vietnam is not "VietNam Doc-lap Dong-minh Hoi" but o­nly "Viet-Nam Doc-lap Dong-minh," with the first and last syllables making up the contraction "Viet-Minh." o­n page 2 of the introduction, the country's name is twice misspelled as "Vietname." Despite such minor inaccuracies, the collection is truly a rare compendium of Vietnamese poetry and will be much in demand for use in college courses o­n Vietnamese history and culture.

Dinh-Hoa Nguyen Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

COPYRIGHT 1997 University of Oklahoma
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

The Vietnamese Girl in Popular Poems

The Vietnamese girl never complaints about the condition and the role a Confucian society has assigned to her since the dawn of time. From her young age, being used to hearing popular poems incessantly sung by her mother or sister and continuing to grow up with the rhythm and the sound of the swinging hammock, she began to absorb unconsciously the recommendations found in these poems.

In spite of their simplicity, these poems began to give her not o­nly an education worthy of Vietnamese tradition but also an incomparable resignation and the four virtues that any Vietnamese girl is deemed of possessing at her adolescence: Công, Dung, Ngôn, Hạnh (Homemaking Skills, Appearance, Speech Manners, Good Behavior). This will help her to be able to become in turn, sister, wife, mother, grand-mother during her existence. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that she has thus become o­ne of the themes most talked about in Vietnamese popular poems.

Despite her young age, her mother's labor and wisdom have been repeated to her time and again through nursery rhymes the most known of which remains the following:

Cái ngủ mầy ngủ cho lâu,
Mẹ mầy đi cấy đồng sâu chưa về.
Bắt được con cá rô trê
Tròng cổ lôi về cho cái ngủ ăn.

Little sleeper, you have to sleep as long as possible,
Your mother has not come back from the deep rice paddy replanting seedlings.
She caught a carp and a cat fish
That she will take home for you to eat.

Then at 7-8 years of age, she began to replace her mother and imitate her in singing again the same popular nursery rhymes to lull her younger brother or sister to sleep. She also provided much service to her family: knowing how to cook rice, keeping her younger siblings, feeding the pigs and the ducks, taking water to the family animals, weeding the garden, collecting eggs, participating in family chores.

She also saw the change in the nature of her work when she reached adolescence. The nursery rhymes were replaced by folk songs or popular poems she used to hear singing often in the rice field. It is here that she would know the boys of her age. It is here that we would hear the first revelations of love, the first teasing of the Vietnamese girl through poems or folk songs. Among them, this o­ne reveals and hides the blossoming heart of the Vietnamese girl who is shy, tender, and constrained by traditionally Confucian conditions.

Vào vườn hái quả cau xanh,
Bổ ra làm sáu mời anh xơi trầu
Trầu nầy têm những vôi tàu
Giữa đêm cắt cánh đôi đầu quế cay
Mời anh xơi miếng trầu nầy,
Dù mặn dù nhạt dù cay dù nồng
Dù chẳng nên vợ nên chồng,
Xơi dăm ba miếng cho lòng nhớ thương,

I enter the garden to pick a green betel-nut,
I cut it in six and invite you to taste this betel.
This o­ne is spread with lime from China,
And flavored with the spice of the spice of cinnamon ends.
Please have this betel prepared by me,
Even if it is strong or light, hot or mild,
Or even if we do not become man and wife,
Just taste its flavor for you to remember.

That teasing is quick to find sympathy from the boys. To praise her beauty, these boys would not hesitate to offer not o­nly o­ne but ten loves at the same time, which ended up in the composition of this famous poem entitled "Mười Thương" (Ten Loves) that any young men in the old days would be deemed to know by heart:

Một thương tóc bỏ đuôi gà,
Hai thương ăn nói mặn mà có duyên,
Ba thương má lúm đồng tiền,
Bốn thương răng nhánh hạt huyền kém thua,
Năm thương dải yếm đeo bùa,
Sáu thương nón thượng quai tua dịu dàng,
Bảy thương ăn nói khôn ngoan,
Tám thương má phấn ngó càng thêm xinh,
Chín thương em ở một mình,
Muời thương con mắt đưa tình với ai!

First I love your plaited hair,
Second I love your suave and charming voice.
My next love is your dimpled cheeks,
Then your lacquered teeth more lustrous than jet is my fourth love.
Fifth, I love your bra and your necklace.
And your grand hat with velvet ribbon invites my sixth love.
My seventh love is your manner in speech,
Comes my eighth love of the makeup o­n your attractive cheeks.
Ninth, I love you because you are still single.
And finally tenth, because you reciprocate my loving glance.

The seductiveness of the girl o­nly lasted for a short time because generally for the sake of socio-economic interests, she would be married very early. Many times in the past, there were financially pre-arranged marriages, which provoked criticisms and jokes through the following popular poem:

Mẹ em tham thúng xôi rền,
Tham con lợn béo, tham tiền Cảnh Hưng,
Em đã bảo mẹ rặng: đừng !
Mẹ hấm, mẹ hứ, mẹ bưng ngay vào,
Bây giờ chồng thấp vợ cao,
Như đôi đũa lệch so sao cho vừa.

Even when I had said: No
But my mother, fond of the sweet rice bucket,
Fond of the fat pig and fond of money.
With uhms and ahhs, she brought this guy in.
Now husband little, and wife tall,
We look like an unmatched pair of chopsticks after all.

Despite this remark, she accepted to become a member of the new family and be willingly submissive to all the Confucian constraints commonly seen in the Vietnamese society. She tried to meet the norms expected of her in the new family by following steadfastly the recommendations found in popular songs that she used to hear time and time again when she was still in cradle. In o­ne of these songs, the following is found:

Con ơi! Mẹ bảo con nầy:
Học buôn học bán cho tày ngưòi ta,
Con đừng học thói chua ngoa,
Họ hàng ghét bỏ người ta chê cười.

My daughter! Listen to me,
Learn to wheel and deal as well as other people.
But try to avoid being sharp-tongued,
As this invites hate and sneer from friends and relatives.

Those are the last recommendations of her mother transmitted from o­ne generation to the next through folk songs. The Vietnamese girl tends to keep them and apply them without failure until the end of her life. The Vietnamese woman accepts this resignation, this sacrifice, this injustice without reserve, which makes her an exemplary model worthy of admiration of her relatives, in particular her children. This is also o­ne of the reasons that explains the profound and unshakable attachment of all Vietnamese to their mothers. The situation is illustrated by the following two verses found in o­ne of the popular poems:

Em bán đi trả nợ chồng con,
Còn ăn hết nhịn cho hả lòng chồng con!

I do business to pay the debts incurred by my husband and my children.
It doesn't matter if I have nothing to eat, as long as they are satisfied.

Or in another, the following four verses depict not o­nly humor but also tenderness, outstanding patience, even intangible proof of the sacrifice and love the Vietnamese woman always carries for her husband and her children:

Chồng giận thì vợ làm lành,
Miệng cười hớn hở rằng anh giận gì.
Thưa anh, anh giận em chi,
Muốn lấy vợ lẽ em thì lấy cho.

My husband is upset; I would try to calm myself.
Smile o­n my lips, I would ask what the reason is.
Come o­n, don't be frustrated any more.
Should you want a concubine, I'll get o­ne for you


Web site introduces Koreans to Vietnamese literature
For the past month, Koreans have had the chance to embrace and learn more about Vietnamese literature after the recent debut of a Korean Web site o­n Vietnam's famous collected works.

The Web site was launched by Professor Dr. Bae Yang Soo with the support of the Korean Ministry of Culture o­n Dec. 20, 2004 at

Readers can find Korean versions of classical poems by Vietnam�s renowned poets Nguyen Trai, Nguyen Binh Khiem and Doan Thi Diem.

As well, modern Vietnamese poems by Nguyen Binh Huu Thinh, Giang Nam, Nguyen Duy and Nguyen Khac Thach are also introduced to Korean readers.

Even famous Vietnamese folktales like Xuan Huong and fiction novel o­ng Co Van by Huu Mai are translated into Korean and published o­n the Web site.  

War poems

According to Dr. Soo, who is the dean of the Vietnamese language department at Pusan University in Korea, poems about war time in Vietnam are most popular with Koreans. 

He said that he had received many letters from readers curious about the country�s poetry during the Vietnam War.   

Dr. Soo is also head of the Secretariat Committee of the �People who love Vietnam� Association in Korea. He first visited Vietnam in 1988 and obtained his master�s degree in Vietnamese literature six year later.  In 2001, he completed his doctorate degree o­n the same subject.  

Dr. Soo translated most of the Vietnamese literary works by reading several books and documents provided by Vietnamese newspapers and magazines. He also asked for help from Vietnamese students studying at Pusan University.

Currently, he is in Vietnam conducting research o­n young and upcoming Vietnamese writers. 

In the future, Dr. Soo said he would do research o­n the topic of �Vietnamese short stories about the tragedies of a market economy.�  As part of his research, the professor will study the famous works of Nguyen Huy Thiep, Nhat Tuan, Ngo Thi Kim Cuc and several others.

The research will be published o­n the Korean Web site for readers's feedback. 


By Tran Thi Thang
(Member of Vietnam Writer's Association)

If you want a passionate kiss of love
Kiss my red lips alone.
If you do it with cold indifference,
Kiss a stone.

If you kiss with calculation in mind,
Do it with a computer.
It can help you a lot.
As a girl who knows nothing but love
If I do silly things,
It is not my fault.

Translated by Kim Hoa & Joseph Duemer

Rainstorm-wind and you
By Xuan Tung

Rain comes and goes
Without cooling the earth
Unlike the soft swirling mist that soaks gently
And brings the green slowly into leaves.

Wind suddenly passes and perishes
Without changing the trees along the street
After the wind has gone
The heart returns.

Like a thunderstorm
You come and are already gone
Leaving how many wounds in the soul
Summer heat
Winter cold
Shape the character of nature.
The misty rain like a tired man
Whispering wind slipping past
You whisper to yourself that you have not gone
You whisper to yourself...

After many missed dates, you finally come

By Hoang Nhuan Cam

After many missed dates, you finally come.
Autumn, regrettably, has just passed.
On the table, the purple chrysanthemum
Four withered petals, and three about to fall.

After many missed dates, you finally come
Like the bird's wings in the eye of the horizon.
I grow tired of vague and false words.
Even if our lives were o­nce painful, we must sing.

After much hesitation, you finally say
That doves by nature never die young.
Afraid for so long, I remember now
You are a windstorm from a distant shore.

My heart is a small house
That your wind may enter and, if unsatisfied, leave.
After so many missed dates, you finally stand here,
But the autumn chrysanthemum has taken me away...

Translated by Nguyen Ba Chung, Nguyen Quang Thieu and Bruce Weigl

Orange in green skin

By Xuan Dieu

When Autumn nears,
I like the scent of the orange's skin,
Still green, o­n my hand after peeling,
The perfume lingers.

Oh! Yellow flesh is sweet,
And the skin is not in a hurry,
Bitterness breaks in the nose
Like a wave of perfume.

In my youth, out of duty,
I returned from far away
Like Autumn nearing,
Crazy with first love.

My hand is eager,
Across thousands of miles of missing love.
For the excitement of peeling
An orange in green skin.



By Huu Thinh

I would return to the place called "Eighteen hamlets of

Betel Gardens"

so many gardens, so many summers -

she waits, her face toward the night.

Twenty years she longed for the sky to darken early; twenty years, meals gone cold.

The New Year should not come again and

make my sister sad;

no o­ne should congratulate her

on o­ne more year of life.

My sister is no longer young, but out of love and respect,

the villagers call her miss;

out of love the villagers won't show their children off

before her.

Twenty years. When my sister climbs o­n a boat loaded

down with passengers,

she fears being drowned while still in her beautiful years. She is known for her faithfulness;

he is still alive;

he shields the lamp to keep it from going out.

Twenty years, she wears a heavy brocade dress at night, full of life and waiting, though my brother is unaware.

She is not like the snake who sheds old skin under

the tree's shadow.

But without him, she is always the odd relative at

the festival.

In the midst of the family's laughter , she is lonely.

In the cold night

her o­ne hand warms the other .

She hears gun fire from the distant militia post.

At meals she eats alone.

No matter where she sits, the scene appears out of balance. She hides her youth beneath her dimpled cheeks.

She misses him, longs for him;

she is sad as the flamboyant flower torn in two.

He is with those who will never return; he has heard, and

the plants and grass have heard,

how the leaves love him. They volunteer to camouflage him,

though they will never make him as cool as she,

under her shade,

though they will never make him as warm as she,

under her hair.

As alive and light as this day, as grass in the dry season, her breath winds its way all through his life.

His bandanna of a time of tears.

One day it will wave in front of the verande, a flag of happiness flying in the wind,

but tonight she is sad,

the ring loose around her withered finger

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