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Vietnamese Fold Tales: The Peasant, the Buffalo and the Tiger

If you want to learn about the Vietnamese, it seems to me that there's no better way to do it than through the stories they tell. After all, the people of every culture create myths, legends and folk tales to help explain the world around them, and the Vietnamese are no exception to this tradition. In fact, learning the stories opens up a window into that country, allowing the outsider to understand and appreciate it in greater depth. That's the value of two new paperbacks from The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi, both of which offer a representative sample of Vietnamese folk tales and legends.

The Peasant, the Buffalo and the Tiger

The first book, The Peasant, the Buffalo, and the Tiger: Vietnamese Legends and Tales (1997), is a collection of folk tales reminiscent of Grimm's Fairy Tales. Edited by Huu Ngoc and Hoa Mai, these age-old traditional stories star a fantastic cast of characters, ranging from evil genies to poor woodcutters, and explain how certain things came to be in the world. Consider the title story of the book, "The Peasant, the Buffalo, and the Tiger," which is also my personal favorite in this collection. In brief, the story goes as follows:

Once upon a time, a peasant was working in his rice field with his water buffalo, at a time when buffalo had sharp teeth like all the other beasts of the world. A tiger crept up to the water buffalo and said: "I don't come as an enemy. I just want to ask you something. I have seen you every day without your seeing me. Hidden in the bushes, I have watched the curious spectacle of your toil. How does it come about that Man, this little and upright being without great strength, with no piercing sight and no sense of smell, manages to lead you and make you work for him, you who are ten times bigger and much more powerful than he?" The water buffalo replied: "To tell you the truth, I don't know. Yet I can never free myself from his mastery. I know only that he is in possession of a talisman called intelligence." So the tiger resolved to ask the peasant for some of his intelligence. But when the tiger asked, the peasant told him: "Excuse me, sir. I've left it at home. Nobody ever brings it along with him when working in the field. Besides, I have so little of it for myself that I can not impart any of it to you."

When the tiger insisted, the peasant relented and said he would get his intelligence from the village, but that he would have to tie up the tiger as insurance against him eating his water buffalo. The tiger agreed to this, and the peasant bound the tiger to a tree. The peasant went to the village and returned with bundles of straw, which he piled around the tiger and set ablaze. "There it is, my intelligence," shouted the peasant as the tiger roared in pain and rage. The water buffalo laughed so hard at the sight of this spectacle that he whacked his head against a rock and broke out all of his teeth. Water buffalo have never had upper teeth since that day. Eventually the ropes holding the tiger burned up, and the cat leapt free and dashed into the jungle. Bits of burning straw stuck to his skin and left long black scorch marks. This is how the tiger got his stripes. (The tiger regains his dignity in a subsequent story titled "The Toad and the Rain," in which the cat takes part in a toad-led expedition to convince the Emperor of Heaven to end a punishing drought.)

Vietnamese Folk Tales

The second book, Vietnamese Folk Tales: Satire and Humor (1990), also edited by Huu Ngoc, concerns itself with humorous folk tales. These amusing short stories often have a moral, though I suspect some were written for plain old fun. After all, the Vietnamese possess a rich and varied sense of humor. In fact, as the essayist Nguyen Tuan notes in the introduction to the book, there are 105 Vietnamese expressions to describe the nuances of laughter. Nguyen even claims that the Vietnamese ability to laugh and joke represents an important survival tool, allowing them to endure invasion, despotism, famine, pestilence, typhoon, drought, and all the other disasters large and small to strike Vietnam over the ages. The Western proverb "laughter is the best medicine" certainly translates into Vietnamese culture.

Many of the stories, however, are uniquely Vietnamese. This is what makes them so fascinating to a Western reader like myself. For example, consider "Soya Pies that Bark and Fight," which is short enough for me to quote here in its entirety: Buddhist ethics forbid monks to eat meat. The superior of a village pagoda was, however, so overwhelmed by his love of dog meat that once in a while he would forget the Lord Buddha's commandments and indulge his vice on the sly. One day, having shut himself up in an inner room, he was enjoying his favorite delicacy when a novice popped his head in and asked: "What are you eating, Master, at this time of day?" "Oh," said the superior casually," just having a snack of soya pies." The novice said nothing and withdrew.

A few moments later, echoes of an uproar came from the courtyard. The superior angrily called the novice and asked, "What's the matter? Can't one have a moment of peace for meditation?" "That's really nothing, Master," said the young monk. "Just the neighbor's soya pies fighting with ours."

If this story doesn't tickle your dog bone, er, funny bone, consider some of these intriguing titles from the same book: "A Buffalo is Bigger than a Mouse," "The Mad Tailor," "The Square Snake," and "The Gods Hoodwinked by Trang Quynh." This last story is one of several that recounts the exploits of Trang Quynh (Dr. Quynh), a folk hero based on a real-life seventeenth-century Confucian scholar from Thanh Hoa Province. He lived in a time of upheaval, and his sharp-witted stories attacked the corrupt Le Dynasty and defended the common man. Quynh's stories became popularized, and he has been a hero of the people ever since.

Combine these with stories like "The Toad and the Rain" from The Peasant, the Buffalo, and the Tiger, and you risk laughing so hard you might bash your head into something and lose your teeth. But the value of these two books is not merely laughter'it is also the insight into Vietnamese culture they can provide the Western reader. Take it from me, if you read these books you will truly laugh and learn.

Published on 6/1/97

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