What folk tales tell us about culture
Who doesn’t love a good bedtime story? Folk stories in particular are a fascinating look into the values and history of a culture, passed down orally from one generation to the next. Part of what UNESCO defines as “cultural heritage,” folk tales have the ability to “create a certain emotion within us, to make us feel as if we belong to something ― a country, a tradition, a way of life. They are part of living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed down to our descendants.”
With a literacy rate above 90 percent, Vietnam has a long history of reading and storytelling. The story of Tam and Cam, better known to some as the Vietnamese Cinderella story, is one such living expression.
Once upon a time, there were two stepsisters, Tam and Cam. When Tam’s father died, Tam lived with her sister and stepmother, an evil woman who made Tam do all the housework while Cam enjoyed a life of leisure.
One day, Tam and Cam were sent to the paddy fields to catch fish and crab. Industrious Tam set right to work, filling her basket while lazy Cam did nothing. On the way home, Cam saw an opportunity to trick Tam. “There’s a pond over there. You’d better wash the mud out of your hair or Mother will be angry.”
Ever trusting, Tam set her basket down and washed herself in the pond. Cam quickly emptied Tam’s basket into hers and ran home. Realizing what happened, Tam sat crying on the side of the road. Suddenly, a genie appeared and told Tam to take the one remaining carp from her basket and release it into the family well, taking care to feed it rice every day.
Tam took care of the carp, setting aside a portion of her own rice to feed it. Cam began to notice and one day followed Tam out to the well. She told her mother about Tam’s beloved carp and not long after, the stepmother sent Tam out to let the buffalo graze, instructing her to take him far away in search of greener pastures. Once she was gone, the evil stepmother and daughter went out to the well and called out to the carp the same way Tam did. With a net, they caught the fish and added it to their rice porridge.
Upon returning home that evening, Tam went out to feed her fish but it was nowhere to be found. Through her tears, she saw the genie appear once more, telling her to take the bones of the fish, place them in four jars and bury them under the four corners of her bed.
Though Tam searched high and low for the bones, she couldn’t find them. A chicken appeared and offered to dig up the bones in return for a handful of rice. Tam complied and buried the bones, just as the genie told her.
Soon, the King announced a festival for the people. All the village girls were excited to go. But the evil stepmother mixed a pile of rice with a pile of chaff and told Tam to sort out the two before she could go. As Tam was working, a flock of swallows flew past and helped her finish her work. But then Tam realized she had nothing to wear to the festival. Again, the genie appeared and told her to dig up the four jars under her bed. He added a stern warning for her to come home before the cock crowed the next morning.
When unearthing the jars, Tam found that the first jar contained clothing, a scarf and a hat; from the second a pair of embroidered slippers; from the third, four tiny horses that turned into big ones as soon as she set them on the ground; from the fourth, a carriage.
At the festival, Tam met the Prince who was disguised as a commoner and the two fell into easy conversation. As the night wore on, though, Tam suddenly remembered the genie’s warning and rushed home, leaving behind an embroidered shoe which the Prince’s servant brought to him.
The next day, the King sent his servants to comb the country looking for the maiden who could fit the shoe. When they got to Tam’s house, her stepmother called Cam out to try on the shoe to no avail. Tam recognized the shoe and after putting it on, produced the other shoe as well. The servants rejoiced, bringing Tam back to the palace in a palanquin, much to the chagrin of Cam and her mother.
When the death anniversary of Tam’s father came around, Tam arranged to come back home. But her stepmother devised a plan to kill Tam. “Climb up to the betel nut tree and bring down a bunch for the altar for your father,” she said. As Tam climbed up the tree, the stepmother took an ax and chopped it down. Tam fell into a pond and drowned. The stepmother sent Cam back to the palace to take Tam’s place as the Prince’s wife.
When Tam died, though, she became a nightingale and one day flew back to the palace as Cam was doing laundry. “You’d better wash my husband’s clothes clean,” sang the nightingale. “And be careful when you hang them up so they don’t rip.” Cam felt weak, realizing the nightingale was Tam reincarnated.
In the days that followed, the nightingale stayed near the palace, following the Prince wherever he went and singing sweetly to him. Realizing the nightingale was special, the Prince said: “If you are the spirit of my wife, fly into the sleeves of my royal robe.” The nightingale obliged and from that day forward, the two were inseparable, with Cam largely ignored by the Prince.
Cam asked her mother what to do and was told to catch the nightingale and eat it. The feathers were scattered in the garden and turned into two apricot trees. Whenever the Prince would go out to the garden, the trees bent their branches to shade the Prince. Seeing this, Cam sent a servant to cut down the trees and burn them, discarding the ashes in a faraway field. The ashes grew into a golden apple tree, but the luxuriant tree bore only one perfect fruit. One day, an old beggar woman saw the fruit and asked for it to fall into her hands, promising that she would cherish it and not eat it. The woman brought the fruit home where its scent filled her room.
Every day, as the woman left home to beg, from the fruit emerged a woman. It was Tam. While the woman was away, Tam would clean the house and cook food for the old woman. One day, the old woman pretended to go to the market but quickly hid behind a door to see what would happen. Just as she did every day, Tam emerged to help the woman with her chores. Overjoyed, the woman ran over to hug Tam and destroyed the rind of the fruit so that Tam would remain with her forever. With Tam’s help, the old woman saved up and opened a small drink shop by the road with Tam helping to prepare betel nut for the customers.
One day, the Prince passed by the little stall and saw a plate of betel nut decorated with leaves like the wings of a phoenix, exactly as Tam used to do. He asked who had prepared the dish. “My daughter,” replied the old woman. “Bring her out so I can see her,” commanded the Prince. When Tam emerged, the Prince recognized his late wife and had her brought back to the palace in a palanquin.
The King handed over the throne to the Prince and made Tam his Queen. The newly installed King wanted to put Cam and her evil mother to death, but Tam convinced him to pardon them, expelling them from the palace back to the countryside.
However, Cam just couldn’t leave things alone. She wondered how her stepsister, even after going through all she did, remained so beautiful. “Bathing every day in boiling water helps me stay beautiful,” Tam answered. “I’d be happy to help you if you want.” So Tam prepared a bath of boiling water and poured it all over Cam who was promptly scalded to death.
She then called her servants to take Cam’s flesh and pickle it in a jar to send to the evil stepmother who was completely unaware of everything that had happened. Thinking that the pickled meat was a present from her daughter, the woman ate it with relish.
As she was eating it, however, a crow landed on a branch beside her window. “What a tasty dish! Mother eating daughter. If you have any left, please give me some,” said the crow. “You stupid bird,” replied the stepmother. “This pickle is from my daughter, sent straight from the palace. It’s delicious!” And she kept on eating until she got to the bottom of the jar where she discovered a skull. Realizing that the crow spoke the truth, the evil stepmother fell dead from grief.
Variations of the Cinderella story are found in numerous cultures, spanning millennia. The oldest version of the story is considered to be from the first century BC about a Greek courtesan who marries the king of Egypt in an age-old story of Good versus Evil.
The Vietnamese version touches upon many facets of traditional life ― from catching shrimp and crab in the paddy fields and taking the buffalo out to graze to celebrating death anniversaries and offering a plate of betel nut to guests as a form of hospitality.
There are a few religious elements in the story as well including the belief in karma, that those who do good will eventually be rewarded while those who do bad will be punished, expressed through the common Vietnamese phrase “Ở hiền gặp lành” (similar to “One good turn deserves another”) or the alternative “Gieo gió, gặp bão” (“Sow wind, reap storm”). Being scalded to death by boiling water is reminiscent of scenes from Buddhist Hell, where people being dipped in hot oil are common, perhaps a not-so-subtle reminder for children to always be on their best behavior.
“I remember feeling frightened when my mom used to tell me that story as a child,” remembers Oanh, a third-grade teacher. “And I’ve always wondered why Tam is considered the good one because she did kill her stepsister in the end. Why didn’t she help Cam become a better person? But I guess she had had enough. My mom always told me that if Tam had allowed Cam to live, Cam would’ve continued doing bad things to Tam. Still, when I tell the story to my own children, I keep those same gruesome details. After all, it’s a story for the generations.”
In this ongoing series, Oi will explore Vietnamese culture, traditions and beliefs and at times, compare them to Western ones to see where our cultures intersect and diverge. In the end, despite barriers of language, customs and beliefs, we will likely find that we’re more similar than we realize. If you have a topic you’d like to see explored or have ever wondered why Vietnamese do / say / think a certain way, email us at: email@example.com
Illustrations by Kevin Nguyen