Vietnamese Folktales

Welcome to a vibrant collection of tales that weave through the heart of Vietnamese culture, echoing the soul of its people and the lush landscapes of this beautiful country. Here, we embark on a journey through time, exploring stories passed down from generation to generation, tales that have been the lifeblood of Vietnamese heritage, shaping its values, traditions, and worldview.

Vietnam, a land of staggering natural beauty and complex histories, offers a rich tapestry of narratives – from the high mountains shrouded in mist to the fertile plains cradled by the undulating rivers. Each story in this collection is a thread in the fabric of Vietnamese life, reflecting the spirit of its people: resilient, warm-hearted, and profoundly connected to the earth and their ancestors.

These tales are more than just entertainment. They are lessons in virtue, courage, and wisdom. They speak of love, loyalty, and the eternal struggle between good and evil. They bring to life mythical creatures, heroic deeds, and magical landscapes, opening a window to the Vietnamese imagination and its deep-rooted beliefs in harmony and balance.

“Short Stories of Vietnam” is not just a compilation; it’s an invitation. An invitation to explore the depths of human emotion, to marvel at the power of nature, and to ponder the complexities of life and destiny. Each story, whether it be a legend of ancient gods and mythical lands or a simple fable of village life, carries with it a piece of Vietnam’s soul.

As you turn these pages, allow yourself to be transported to the bustling streets of Hanoi, the serene rice paddies of the countryside, the mysterious depths of the forests, and the calm shores of the South China Sea. Experience the joy, sorrow, humor, and wisdom of the Vietnamese people.

May these stories inspire you, move you, and above all, connect you to the rich tapestry of human experience shared by the Vietnamese people.

The Legend of the Watermelon (Truyện Cây Dưa Hấu): King An Dương Vương’s daughter falls in love with a poor, humble man who is actually the God of Watermelon. This tale explains the origins of watermelon in Vietnam and highlights themes of love, sacrifice, and the connection to nature.

The Tale of Tấm Cám: Often compared to Cinderella, this story follows Tấm, a kind-hearted girl who is mistreated by her stepmother and stepsister, Cám. With the help of magical beings, Tấm overcomes adversity, eventually marrying the king. The story is filled with motifs of reincarnation, justice, and the triumph of good over evil.

The Starfruit Tree (Cây Khế): A tale about generosity and kindness, it tells the story of a poor, but generous, man who is rewarded by a heavenly figure disguised as a beggar. The man receives a starfruit tree that produces gold, which brings both fortune and trouble.

The Legend of Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày: This tale explains the origins of these traditional rice cakes, which are essential during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tết). It tells the story of Lang Liêu, a poor prince who creates these cakes and offers them to the king, his father, symbolizing the earth (Bánh Dày) and the sky (Bánh Chưng).

Son Tinh, Thuy Tinh – The Mountain God and the Water God: This story explains the natural phenomena of floods and storms in Vietnam. It tells of the competition between Son Tinh, the Mountain God, and Thuy Tinh, the Water God, for the hand of a beautiful princess. Son Tinh’s victory and Thuy Tinh’s rage are said to be the reason for Vietnam’s annual floods.

The Legend of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ: Central to Vietnamese mythology, this story tells of the marriage between Lạc Long Quân, the Dragon Lord of the sea, and Âu Cơ, a mountain fairy. Their union produced a sac of 100 eggs, from which 100 children were born, believed to be the ancestors of the Vietnamese people.

The Legend of Ba Na Mountain: This story tells of a battle between gods and demons that shaped the Ba Na Mountain. The tale is often used to explain the rugged terrain and the unique climate of the region.

The Legend of Ban Gioc Waterfall: According to legend, the waterfall was created by a beautiful fairy who used a sword to cut through the landscape, helping to water the fields of her beloved people. This story explains the origin of the waterfall and its significance to the local people.

The Creation of the Mekong River: A legend tells of a giant snake that moved through the land, its body carving out the river’s path. This tale attempts to explain the origin of the Mekong River, one of the most important rivers in Vietnam, vital for its agriculture and way of life.

Why the Sea Is Salty: A folk tale describes how the sea became salty due to a magical salt mill. While not unique to Vietnam, the Vietnamese version often involves local characters and settings, explaining why the ocean’s water is undrinkable.

The Legend of the Hoan Kiem Lake (The Returned Sword Lake): Though primarily a story about Emperor Le Loi returning a magical sword to the Golden Turtle God in the lake after defeating the Ming China, it also touches upon the lake’s mysterious nature and significance to Hanoi.

The Tale of Chu Dong Tu and Princess Tien Dung: This legend tells of the marriage between a poor, virtuous man and a princess who descends from the heavens, guided by magical birds. Their love story leads to the establishment of a prosperous region, blessed by the heavens. This tale can be seen as an allegory for the harmonious relationship between the earth (represented by Chu Dong Tu) and the sky (represented by Princess Tien Dung), reflecting on the agricultural cycle and the dependency of human prosperity on natural blessings and celestial phenomena.

The Story of the Betel Nut: A tragic love story explains the origin of the betel nut as a symbol of love and marriage in Vietnamese culture. According to legend, a young couple deeply in love were separated by death, and from their graves grew a betel vine and an areca tree, which intertwined. This tale reflects on the cycle of life and death, the interconnectedness of all living things, and the belief that love transcends the physical world, symbolized by the natural phenomenon of plant symbiosis.

The Phoenix’s Feather: In this story, a poor scholar comes into possession of a phoenix feather, which has the power to bring rain to his drought-stricken village. The tale explores themes of sacrifice, the power of purity and virtue, and the human capacity to affect the natural world through moral conduct, touching upon the phenomena of rain and drought and their critical impact on agricultural societies.

The Story of Tểu: Tểu is a beloved character in Vietnamese folklore, known for his wit and humor. In one famous tale, he enters a poetry contest at the king’s palace. When it’s his turn, he presents a seemingly nonsensical poem that baffles everyone. However, upon closer inspection, the poem cleverly insults the judges without them realizing it at first, showcasing Tểu’s cleverness and ability to outsmart others in a humorous way.

The Clever Man and the Thief: This story tells of a clever man who outsmarts a thief trying to rob his house. The man invites the thief in, pretending not to recognize his intentions, and then tricks the thief into doing household chores for him. The story ends with the thief being caught by the authorities, having been outwitted and inadvertently helping the very person he intended to rob.

The Golden Axe: A tale of a woodcutter who accidentally drops his axe into a river. A god appears, offering him a golden axe and a silver axe, asking which one is his. The woodcutter honestly says neither, and for his honesty, he is rewarded with both precious axes in addition to his old one. The humorous twist comes when a greedy neighbor tries the same trick, pretending to lose his axe in hopes of receiving golden and silver axes. Instead, he loses his axe altogether when the god, seeing through his deceit, gives him nothing.

The Man Who Saved His Nose: This folktale involves a man so terrified of losing his long nose (which he is very proud of) to a kitchen knife accident, that he goes to great lengths to protect it, including wearing a metal guard. The story takes a humorous turn with the various inconveniences and ridiculous situations he finds himself in, all because of his obsession with protecting his nose. In the end, his paranoia causes him more trouble than if he had simply been careful around knives.

The Jade Rabbit: In this folktale, a rabbit is sent to Earth by the Moon Goddess to see how humans live. The rabbit encounters various characters and gets into amusing situations due to his naivety and the misunderstandings between animals and humans. The humor in this tale comes from the rabbit’s innocent perspective on human customs and his clever solutions to get out of tricky situations.

Why the Moon Waxes and Wanes: This folktale tells of a toad that lives in the moon. According to the story, the toad eats the moon, causing it to disappear bit by bit until it’s all gone, explaining the lunar phases. When the toad is full, it stops eating, and the moon starts to grow back, or wax again. This story is a way to explain the changing phases of the moon and is also found in other Southeast Asian cultures with variations.

The Origin of the Rooster’s Crow at Dawn: This story tells of a time when night and day were indistinguishable, causing confusion and disorder among people. The Jade Emperor decreed that the day must begin when a certain animal makes its call. Many animals tried and failed, but the rooster succeeded by using its loud, clear crow to separate night from day. This explains why roosters crow at dawn, marking the beginning of a new day.

Why Cats Chase Rats: Once, the cat and the rat were friends. When the Jade Emperor organized a race to determine the order of the zodiac animals, the cat and the rat decided to participate together. However, the rat betrayed the cat by not waking it up on the day of the race, securing its own place in the zodiac and leaving the cat out. This is why cats chase rats, seeking revenge for the rat’s betrayal.

The Tale of the Pineapple: This story explains the origin of the pineapple’s prickly exterior. A beautiful girl, blessed by a fairy to grow more beautiful every day, becomes vain and rude. To teach her humility, the fairy transforms her into a fruit that reflects her prickly personality on the outside, while retaining her sweetness inside. This tale teaches the value of humility and inner beauty.

How the Tiger Got Its Roar: In this story, the tiger was once a quiet creature without fear, silently prowling the jungle. Wishing to become the king of all animals, the tiger sought the help of a powerful deity, who granted it a fearsome roar. The roar not only solidified the tiger’s position as the king of the jungle but also served as a reminder of the power bestowed upon it and the respect it must show to the other animals and the deity.

The Farmer and the Tiger: In this story, a farmer frees a tiger from a trap, and the tiger promises not to harm him in gratitude. However, as the tiger contemplates breaking its promise due to hunger, the farmer reminds it of its vow. Reflecting on the value of gratitude and promise-keeping, the tiger spares the farmer and disappears into the forest, illustrating the importance of honor and kindness.