Culture Maketh a Proverb

A benevolent-looking person who is actually evil inside may remind a non-Vietnamese of the saying “A fair face may hide a foul heart”. But to a Vietnamese it’s a case of “Mieng nam mo bung day dao gam” (The mouth prays to the Buddha while the belly is full of swords).
Playing music in a buffalo's ear. Kid? Nay, it's water off a duck's back

Thus, while in many cultures the heart is the metaphor for inner beauty, the Vietnamese link good attributes to the belly. If someone is virtuous, they say he is “tot bung” or “good of belly”.

You don’t need a rocket scientist to figure out the connection here -- the Vietnamese have faced so many famines in their history that the stomach is first among equals when it comes to body parts. 

Most of the proverbs and folk sayings that have stood the test of time are profound statements rooted in traditional wisdom and practical knowledge and reflect the culture and customs passed from generation to generation.

In the case of Viet Nam, dominated for so long by China -- a 1,000 years of colonization and strongly influenced by Buddhism -- its proverbs are, inevitably, tinged with Confucian teachings too.

The Confucius effect

Thus Viet Nam has proverbs maintaining a distinction between male and female and acquiescing in, if not actually promoting, male domination of society – for instance, “Con khong cha nhu nha khong noc” (Children without fathers are like a house without a roof). Just like the Chinese.

As a result, women had to be “lucky” to find good husbands: “phan gai muoi hai ben nuoc, trong nho, duc chiu” (Girls are like 12 ferry-landings -- if the water at her ferry-landing is clean, she is lucky, if it is not, she has to accept it) and “Than em nhu ngon lieu dao, phat pho truoc gio biet vao tay ai” (A girl's life is like a willow branch; it is blown away by the wind and does not know where it will land).

Then there are folk poems such as these that reinforced polygamy and women’s obedience:

“Day con tu thuo con tho,
day vo tu thuo bo vo moi ve”
(Train your children when they are very young,
Train your wife when she first comes to live with the husband’s family and is still very innocent)


“Dan ong nam the bay thiep,
con gai chinh chuyen mot chong”
(A man can have five wives and seven mistresses
A virtuous girl has only one husband)
There are many sayings capturing the essence of Confucianism including love and respect for one’s parents.

“Cong cha nhu nui Thai Son
Nghia me nhu nuoc trong nguon chay ra
Mot long tho me kinh cha
Cho tron chu hieu moi la dao con”

(The credits of a father [to his children] are as great as Mount Thai Son
The contribution of a mother [to her children] is as bountiful as spring water
gushing from its source
Mother and Father must be revered
So that the child’s way may be accomplished)

But reinforcing such virtues occasionally went to extremes during former feudal times: “Quan xu than tu than bat tu bat trung, phu xu tu vong tu bat vong bat hieu” (If a king punishes a subject to death, he/she must die or else he/she is disloyal, if a father punishes his child to death, that person must die or else he/she will be filially impious).

In a country where farming, the main source of living, depends on the caprices of nature, and where endless wars have been fought against foreign invaders, the Vietnamese have always been aware that only looking out for each other can help them survive famines and disasters.

This tradition is reflected in many proverbs like “Nhieu dieu phu lay gia guong, nguoi trong mot nuoc thi thuong nhau cung” (Red crepe cloth covers the glass, People in the same country should love each other), “La lam dum la rach” (The healthy leaf covers the torn leaf), and “Mot con ngua dau ca tau bo co” (when one horse is sick, the remaining horses in the stock refuse to eat).

Notice how the ancients use “horse” -- horses and buffalos were common animals in Viet Nam and gave rise to “Dan gay tai trau” (“[It’s like playing] a musical instrument in a buffalo’s ears”, or displaying skills to people who cannot recognize them) and “An ky no lau, cay sau tot lua” (You eat slowly, it’s good for the stomach; you plough deeply, it’s good for the field – an exhortation to do things thoroughly). 

Food and its influence

As we have seen, the belly is very important and the Vietnamese have many sayings that employ food to teach people about manners and life.

Thus we have “Troi danh con tranh bua an” (Heaven rewards and reprimands but never reprimands someone who is eating), “Con sau lam rau noi canh” (One worm may damage the whole pot of soup, equivalent to the English saying “One scabby sheep is enough to spoil the whole flock”), “Ong dua chan gio, ba tho chai ruou” (The man fishes out a pig leg, the woman has to present a bottle of wine - scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours).

Proverbs also reflect the discreet and courteous nature of the Vietnamese: “An trong noi, ngoi trong huong” (When you eat, check the pots and pans; When you sit, check the direction). It means guests should make sure they don't embarrass their hosts by, for instance, asking for another serving when there is barely enough food for all. Then, they should check the direction in which they sit.

This refers to a traditional belief that the seat facing south should be reserved for the guest of honor, and tells guests they should not sit with their backs to the house’s ancestral altar or in better seats than their elders.

Many proverbs describe greed and selfishness – like “duoc voi doi tien” (If he has an elephant, he will want a fairy, equivalent to “Give him an inch, he’ll take a mile”).

“Dung nui nay trong nui no” (standing on one mountain but always looking at other mountains) is the equivalent of “The grass is always greener on the other side”.

“Cua minh thi giu bo bo, cua nguoi thi tha cho bo no an” translates as “One tries to safeguard one’s belongings but throws away others’ to be eaten by the buffaloes”.

Again, notice the appearance of the buffalo.

Living in a Confucian society, Vietnamese are advised to be content with their fate: “Lanh lam gao, vo lam moi (If it [coconut shell] is whole, it can be made into a bucket, if it is broken, it can be made into a spoon).

They are also gently advised to shun aggressiveness: “Tranh voi chang xau mat nao” (Trying to hide from an elephant will not make you look ugly) and “Di hoa vi qui” (peace is the best - A bad compromise is better than a good lawsuit).

Hoang Bao

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