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.
We often use ‘’ca dao tuc ngu’’ (folk songs and proverbs) together, but do you know there is a significant difference among them? In this issue, we’d like to share with you some information about Vietnamese folk songs.
‘’Ca dao’’ is a Han-Viet word in which ‘’ca’’ means songs with verses, and ‘’dao’’ means short songs without verses. ‘’Ca dao’’ (Folk songs) are short ballads, written in rhythm or iambic pentameter in stanzas (vietnam-culture.com). Thanks to a light touch of melody, folk songs are easy to remember and spread among common people, from one generation to the next. The following four topics are the most common ones in Vietnamese folk song.
A typical countryside village in Vietnam – Image: internet
Folk songs describe history
Legend has it that Vietnamese first parents are Lac Long Quan (a dragon lord) and Au Co (a fairy). Lac Long Quan married Au Co, then she gave birth to a sac containing 100 eggs from which 100 children were born; this is the origin of the Vietnamese peoples. That’s why Vietnamese people believe that we are the descendants of Dragon and Fairy. Therefore, through some folk songs, we express our national pride and identity.
Trứng rồng lại nở ra rồng,
Liu điu lại nở ra dòng liu điu
(Dragons are borned dragons,
and lizards forever lizards)
Ai về Phú Thọ cùng ta
Vui ngày giổ Tổ tháng ba mùng mười
Dù ai đi ngược về xuôi
Nhớ ngày giỗ Tổ mùng mười tháng ba
(Who would like to visit Phu Tho with me
On the 10th of March, it’s King Hung’s day
Those who live at different places
Don’t forget March 10th to commemorate King Hungs)
Nguyen Hue Statue – Image: internet
Lac Long Quan and Au Co – the Vietnamese ancient legend – Image: internet
Hung Kinh’s Commemoration Day – Image: internet
Tay Son Dynasty, one of the most powerful ruling dynasty of Vietnam (1778 – 1802), ended the attack by Qing Dynasty (China), and united the country for for the first time in 200 years. Under the most prominent of the Tây Sơn brothers, Nguyễn Huệ (regnal title Quang Trung), Vietnam experienced an age of relative peace and prosperity. The folk song described An Khe (Gia Lai Province now), where Nguyen Hue resided and initiated the resistance against the Qing dynasty.
An Khê nổi tiếng Hòn Bình,
Khi xưa Nguyễn Huệ ẩn danh nơi này.
(An Khe was famous for Hon Binh,
where Nguyen Hue, a hidden dragon, resided)
Folk songs describe life experiences, traditions and customs
Folk songs and life experiences
For a long time ago, our ancestors used fire to test the quality of gold. Similarly, a wise man is evaluated through his expressions and word usage. For example:
Vàng thì thử lửa, thử than,
Chuông kêu thử tiếng, người ngoan thử lời.
(High-quality gold is tested through fire.
Good bell through striking, and wise men through words)
Folk songs and customs
Pho, a Vietnamese beef noodles soup, is now widely known in the world. However, there are many more delicious (like heaven!) dishes in every region and provinces in Vietnam. In Quang Nam, a province in the Central region of Vietnam, the people there are very proud of their signature noodles soup, called ‘’mỳ Quảng’’ (Quảng-styled noodles). If you happen to visit there, you are offered a bowl of mỳ Quảng, it means they want to welcome you with their love and warmth.
Ai đi cách trở sơn khê
Nhớ tô mỳ Quảng, tình quê mặn nồng.
(Who has gone through ups and downs
will miss a bowl of my Quang, a strong bond of the hometown)
Folk songs and relationships
There are many ballads about relationships in the family, brotherhood, as well as love. For example, a folk song reminds parents of the way they live a moral life will influence their children’s future. Leaving children a large inheritance is not as important as how they live and treat others.
Cha mẹ để của bằng non,
Không bằng để đức cho con ở đời.
(Despite treasure as high as mountain,
Merits and grace from parents are the best inheritance)
Or folk songs about parents’ sacrifice and as a child, we have to respect and be grateful for what they have done for us.
Công cha như núi Thái Sơn
Nghĩa mẹ như nước trong nguồn chảy ra.
Một lòng thờ mẹ kính cha,
Cho tròn chữ hiếu mới là đạo con.
(The fatherly immense toil is as big as Thai Son mountain
The constant motherly devotion is similar to the stream of water flowing out from spring,
You ought to honor your parents with all your heart
In order to decently fulfill the solemn precept of filial piety)
There are also folk songs about fraternity and kinship. Vietnamese people highly value the brotherhood/sisterhood and family relationship. The folk song above reminds brothers and sisters of taking care of each other.
Anh em nào phải người xa,
Cùng chung bác mẹ, một nhà cùng thân.
Anh em như thể tay chân,
Anh em hoà thuận, hai thân vui vầy.
(Brothers/sisters are your next of kin
From same parents and under a roof
Brothers/sisters are as close as hands and feet
Parents’ happiness lies at your good relationship with siblings).
Besides, Vietnamese people, for a long time ago, also consider beauty from the soul more important than appearance.
Anh thương em bất luận xấu xinh,
Lá giang nấu với cua kình cũng ngon.
(I love you for who you are, not how you look
like soursop creeper cooked with the crab, not compatible, but still delicious)
Folk songs with satire
Vietnamese people also used folk songs to mock and laugh at bad behaviours and manners.
Giàu đâu đến kẻ ngủ trưa,
Sang đâu đến kẻ say sưa tối ngày
(The lazy never get rich,
neither do the drunk )
Or it can be an advice that you have to take responsibility for your own choice. Therefore, you should think carefully before making any decision.
Cây cao bóng mát không ngồi,
Ra ngồi chỗ nắng, trách trời không râm/mây.
(Why don’t you stay in the shade,
But get in the sun and and bear the resentment)
Folk songs, sometimes children’s songs, describe traditional games for kids
Chi chi chành chành
Cái đanh thổi lửa
Con ngựa đứt cương
Ba vương ngũ đế
Chấp chế đi tìm
Ù à ù ập
In this game, a main player opens a hand, either left or right, and other players put one finger in the middle of the palm. They will chant together the song above until the last word, then the main player will quickly get the palm closed. Those who got their fingers grab stuck in the palm will lose and they will be asked to do something as requested. Have you ever tried this game with your friends or kids?
Well, above are only a few examples in thousands of our Vietnamese folk songs. If you remember any other folk songs, share with us. Finally, keep updated with ‘’Part 2 – Vietnamese proverbs’’ in our next issue!
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