Legends of Vietnam: An Analysis and Retelling of 88 Tales

By Nghia M. Vo
267 pages
McFarland & Company, Inc.
Reviewed by Tom Glenn.

Legends are mirrors. They tell us about the mores, biases, beliefs, and weltanschauung of a people. When viewed over time, they show us how a culture has evolved.

Legends of Vietnam offers the reader masterfully crafted reflections of Vietnam, from its ancient roots up to and including the modern period under Communist domination. The author starts with a primer on the Vietnamese cosmos, shaped by three forces. First was the continuous division of Vietnam into northern and southern segments on and off for some four hundred years. Second and equally potent was China, Vietnam’s northern neighbor, which influenced and threatened and even ruled Vietnam for almost a thousand years. But in equal measure the legends mirror the fierce independence of the Vietnamese who so irritated the Chinese that they named the Vietnamese the Yüèh Nán, “troublemakers in the south.” That name stuck. Transliterated into Vietnamese, it becomes Viet Nam.

The third force, as Nghia makes clear, was the characteristic syncretism of Vietnamese religious practice that melds together dogmas from animism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism so that varying views are not seen as conflicting but merely different ways to think about the world. The emphasis, in other words, is less on truth or correctness than on seeing existence, both material and spiritual, from all available perspectives. And the mythology of Vietnam shows the ebb and flow of different religious viewpoints over the centuries.

Nghia’s source material for the 486 tales he reviews (he brings the number down to 88 by amalgamating similar tales) is both ancient texts and modern treatises. Most intriguing to me are the Viet Dien U Linh Tap, “Compilation of Potent Sprits in the Viet Realm,” written in 1329, and Linh Nam Chich Quai, “Wonderful Stories of Linh Nam,” probably composed between 1370 and 1400. The archaic logic and syntax of both shine through Nghia’s work.

One of the pleasures of the book is the appearance of so many names familiar to me from my years in Vietnam—Le Loi, Gia Long, Le Thai To, Le Thanh Tong, Minh Mang, Nguyen Du, Thieu Tri, among others. Legends of Vietnam tells me for the first time their place in history. I had long known the story of the Trung sisters who drove out the Chinese in 39 CE and later gave up their lives defending against a new Chinese invasion, but Nghia provides detail new to me and recounts the many legends about them. Le Van Duyet is another figure I know—I lived on the street named after him and visited his tomb. His mausoleum, as I learned from Nghia, was as important to the mythology of Vietnam as was the man himself. It was razed and rebuilt, enlarged, and refurbished over the years until the Communists shut it down after 1975. Later, locals and Viet Kieu (Vietnamese abroad) worked to restore the tomb. Today, according to Nghia, it is considered the most auspicious site in Saigon.
                                                                                                                                   
Nghia divides his retelling of the tales into northern and southern legends, the latter getting the lion’s share of attention. We are treated to stories drawn from history and embroidered into folk tales, myths about supernatural animals, and classic sagas that most reflect the Vietnamese culture. Nghia then turns his attention to stories that “paint Vietnamese society as it is,” and finally to legends originating among Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Perhaps the greatest treasures in this book are Nghia’s appended “Comments,” a sort of running meditation on meaning. Besides limning the religious underpinning in the stories, Nghia’s interpretations occasionally rise to the level of classic philosophy.

The legends themselves are as variegated as they are entertaining. They never fail to intimate a moral or lesson for living, nearly always stressing virtue, courage, and ingenuity. Among my favorites are “The Celestial Emperor and the Poor Man,” a tale of unselfishness rewarded. “The Fairy’s Portrait” tells of a sprite’s wish to marry a scholar rather than a prince or commoner because scholars have inquisitive minds, try to understand the land of bliss, and know poetry. “The Magic Crossbow,” based partly on real history, recounts the trials and triumphs of the first historically documented Vietnamese king, An Duong. The story includes the intervention of Kim Quy (the genie sea turtle), a magic crossbow that defeats the invading Chinese, and a magic claw. In the end An Duong is defeated because he disregards the warning of the turtle: “[N]ever forget that the ultimate safety of your realm depends on your vigilance.”

The author includes at the end of his book nine war and postwar tales, all originating after the 1975 conquest of Vietnam by the Communists. The stories recount misery and suffering, yet a silver lining of hope is hinted at here and there. These legends, like those from the distant past, suggest that hope never dies in the indomitable Vietnamese soul.

Nghia is not a native speaker of English, but he is a scholar to be reckoned with. More than once he sent me to the dictionary to learn the meaning of unfamiliar English words. Yet his narration is often couched in language that surprises because of unexpected connotation. In “Tien Dung and the Marsh Boy,” the Marsh Boy offers to show the princess the marshlands and the sea. The princess responds, “That would be great.” In “The Lake and the Sword,” a wealthy landowner, Le Loi, asks a militiaman where he got a sword. When the militiaman says, “out of the river,” Le Loi responds, “You must be kidding.” Later a hut is described as “not in great shape;” a toad is characterized as an “alpha toad;” a group goes to a man’s house “to check it out;” and a man is too frightened “to show up.” Modern colloquial English in this context at first felt out of place to me, but as I proceeded, its incongruous charm grew on me. More serious are the half dozen or so textual errors that a thorough editing by the publisher should have corrected.

The use of Vietnamese orthography, complete with diacritics, is one of the great virtues of the book for anyone interested in the language. The reader is able to distinguish Vietnamese words and names that vary only in their diacritical marks, indicating tone and pronunciation differences. Because Vietnamese is a tonal language, the presence or absence of tone indicators completely changes the meaning of a word. My only criticism is the occasional equation of the dau nga and the dau hoi in words like thuy (water), hai (sea), and cha (pie or roll). Nghia is presumably a southerner. In the southern dialect these two tones are interchangeable, but in the northern dialect, which I learned, they are distinct.

Vo M. Nghia (his name is often rendered as Nghia M. Vo to correspond to the American practice of putting the surname last), is well-endowed to write about Vietnam for American readers. He was one of the founders of the Saigon Arts, Culture, and Education Institute (SACEI; web site www.sacei07.org) and has written many books on Vietnamese culture, among them Saigon: A History, The Vietnamese Boat People, The Viet Kieu in America, and The Bamboo Gulag. His work in the U.S., following the fall of Vietnam, has stressed documenting Vietnamese-American culture through conferences and publications.

Legends of Vietnam, in sum, is a rewarding volume. I found it most valuable because of my intense interest in Vietnam, but any reader fascinated by the human psyche will discover many rewards in its pages. It is a welcome complement to the tradition of comparative mythology begun in 1949 by Joseph Campbell’s iconic The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

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Writer Tom Glenn spent many years in Vietnam before being evacuated under fire when Saigon fell. Many of his prize-winning stories deal with Vietnam. His web sites are http://tom-tell-tales.org and http://vietnam-tragedy.org.