Overview of Vietnamese proverbs and idioms
By Nguyen Kim Hang
The repertoire of folk songs, proverbs and idioms in Vietnamese language is unique and diverse. They are life experiences, observations of natural phenomenon, or moral lessons which Vietnamese ancestors synthesized and used to describe our customs and traditions truthfully.
If Vietnamese folk songs are discussed in part 1, this article will differentiate two terms ‘’idioms’’ (Thành ngữ) and ‘’proverbs’’ (Tục ngữ) in our linguistic repertoire.
Usually, idioms and proverbs appear together, so we often mistakenly think they share the same meaning. Surprisingly, they’re not. ‘’Thành ngữ’’ and ‘’tục ngữ’’ are completely different, similar to idioms and proverbs in English respectively. Let’s see how they’re different
Book cover ‘’Thành ngữ tục ngữ Việt Nam’’. Trần Quang Đức – Nguyễn Giang Linh – Đặng Hồng Quân. (2019). NXB Nhã Nam.
I) Vietnamese Idioms (‘’Thành ngữ’’)
Let’s read the following sentences:
Do you recognise the similarity? Above are examples of idioms. According to the Vietnamese Dictionary by Hoang Phe, ‘’thành ngữ’’ (idioms) are ‘’a set of fixed, and widely used words whose meaning is not simply explained by each word forming that idiom’’ [4, tr.882]. To put it simply, an idiom is not a complete sentence, but it’d rather be a phrase or a set of words. Furthermore, idioms do not present verbal messages, life experience, a moral lesson or any criticism. Instead, idioms accentuate the literary feature in a sentence.
For instance, instead of saying ‘’Wish you two eternal happiness’’, Vietnamese people can say ‘’Wish you two a hundred years of happiness’’ in the wedding. Another example is commenting on one’s life as ‘’lên thác xuống ghềnh’’, literally meaning that ‘’His life is up the falls, down the rapids’’, instead of saying ‘’His life is full of trials and tribulations’’.
So, that’s it for idioms. Let’s check out the proverbs now!
II) Vietnamese Proverbs ("Tục ngữ")
Unlike idioms, ‘’tục ngữ’’ (proverbs) is a short and complete sentence, compiling all knowledge about life experience and morality by Vietnamese ancestors [4, tr.1026].
- Có công mài sắt, có ngày nên kim
(A lump of iron, after sharpening, will become a needle)
- Đói cho sạch, rách cho thơm
(A clean fast is better than a dirty breakfast)
Basically, proverbs are divided into two big groups
a. Proverbs about natural phenomenon and work experience
- Nắng tốt dưa, mưa tốt lúa
(Literally: Watermelon likes the sun, rice plants rain).
People in the past already noticed that watermelons and rice plants will grow in different situations.
- Nhất nước, nhì phân, tam cần, tứ giống
(Literally: Water comes first, fertilizer second, diligence third, breeds fourth)
Vietnamese people worked really hard on the field to produce the best quality and amount of rice for many countries. In the past, they summarised the top 4 things to get a productive crop as listed above.
- Ráng mỡ gà, có nhà thì giữ.
(Literally: Yellow clouds, save your house).
This is how Vietnamese ancestors predicted the weather by telling from the colour in the sky. If it turns yellow as chicken’s fat, it means a heavy rain is coming and you’d better cover your house.
Image from book: ‘’Thành ngữ Việt Nam bằng tranh’’. Mai Huong(2020). NXB Phụ Nữ.
b. Proverbs about human and society
This group includes numerous proverbs about life style, manners, morals, which shape Vietnamese moral behaviour and judgement. Additionally, our ancestors, by virtue of proverbs, expressed their perspective on moral concepts or virtue ethics.
- Có công mài sắt, có ngày nên kim.
(Literally: A lump of iron, after sharpening, will become a needle.)
It implies that hard work will pay off; you will succeed if you put effort into doing something.
- Thất bại là mẹ thành công.
(Literally: Failure is the mother of success.)
Similarly, our ancestors understood the value of failure and encouraged those experiencing failures to remain their grit and effort.
- Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây
(Literally: When you eat fruit, remember who planted the tree.)
This proverb reminds all generations of gratitude, one of our Vietnamese core values. We must be grateful to those working hard to who have done something kind for you.
- Đói cho sạch, rách cho thơm.
(Literally: Be clean despite hunger and scented despite poverty)
This is another reminder of integrity, honesty, and self-esteem that must be kept under any (difficult) circumstances. Despite poverty or hardship, a person can’t lose their value and dignified manner.
- Gần mực thì đen, gần đèn thì sáng.
(What is in close contact with ink will be black, what is near light will be illuminating.)
This proverb shows how to choose a friend. Today, you have probably heard of a saying ‘’You are the average of 5 people you spend the most time with. Choose wisely’’. Likewise, our ancestors noticed that if you are surrounded with bad friends (ink), you will be affected by their bad behaviours. In contrast, if you are near good friends, you will learn good things from them.
Image from book: ‘’Tục ngữ Việt Nam bằng tranh’’. Mai Huong(2020). NXB Phụ Nữ.
- Không thầy đố mày làm nên.
(Literally: No one can accomplish great things without teachers.)
Gratitude to teachers is one of Vietnamese core traditions and values. We even have a holiday dedicated to teachers, called ‘’Vietnamese Teachers’ Day’’, celebrating annually on 20.11. This holiday allows students to show respect, gratitude and appreciation to their teachers and all teachers in Vietnam. In this era of technology, knowledge can be acquired from many resources; however, teachers still play a significant role in a student’s learning development. It is irreplaceable.
Above is a brief summary of Vietnamese idioms and proverbs. If you know any other idioms or proverbs, share with us. Let’s look forward to upcoming blogs about interesting facts in Vietnamese language.
 Bộ Giáo dục và Đào tạo (2007), Ngữ văn 7, Tập 1, NXB Giáo Dục.
 Bộ Giáo dục và Đào tạo (2007), Ngữ văn 7, Tập 2, NXB Giáo Dục.
 Hoàng Phê chủ biên (1995), Từ điển Tiếng Việt, NXB Đà Nẵng.
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