Đàm Trung Pháp
“THE VOW BETWEEN MOUNTAIN AND RIVER”
A POEM BY TẢN ĐÀ NGUYỄN KHẮC HIẾU
Tản Đà is the pen name of the poet Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu (1889-1939). It combines the name of a mountain, “Tản” and that of a river, “Đà” which are the two famous landmarks of his birthplace in North Vietnam. Born into a family of literati and mandarins, Tản Đà was a link between two important eras of Vietnamese literature – the writings of Confucian tradition of the nineteenth century and the writings under western influence in the early part of the twentieth century. A lifelong journalist, poet and writer, Tản Đà was the publisher of “Hữu Thanh Tạp Chí” and “An Nam Tạp Chí.” In addition, the two prestigious magazines of that time, “Đông Dương Tạp Chí” (edited by Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh) and “Nam Phong Tạp Chí” (edited by Phạm Quỳnh), sought his collaboration because of his great fame. As a poet, he was the author of such collections as “Khối Tình Con I, II, III” and “Tản Đà Xuân Sắc”; and as a prose writer, he published “Giấc Mộng Con I, II” and “Tản Đà Văn Tập.” Whether he worked for himself or for others, he remained faithful to his own philosophy of life, especially his theory of “thiên lương” (tentatively translated as “conscience” for lack of a better word). He urged people to nurture and develop this innate quality in order to serve life better. Such heartwarming aspirations pervade the poem “Thề Non Nước” (Vow between Mountain and River) . An English translation of the poem appears below, alongside its original in Vietnamese, and annotations.
The mountain and the river had a solemn vow  – Nước non nặng một lời thề
Yet the river kept flowing away without returning – Nước đi, đi mãi, không về cùng non
Recalling their eternal pledge – Nhớ lời nguyện nước thề non
Standing tall, it just watches and waits with impatience  – Non cao những ngóng cùng trông
The extended wait has dried up its spring of tears – Suối tuôn dòng lệ chờ mong tháng ngày
Its smattering of frail bones has worn out – Xương mai một nắm hao gầy
Its cloud of hair is covered with snow and frost – Tóc mây một mái đã đầy tuyết sương
The sun is setting in the west  – Trời tây ngã bóng tà dương
Revealing the mountain’s fading jade and gold – Càng phơi vẻ ngọc nét vàng phôi pha
Tall mountain is still young – Non cao tuổi vẫn chưa già
It misses the river, which may have forgotten it – Non thời nhớ nước, nước mà quên non
Even though stone may wear down and water may dry up  – Dù cho sông cạn đá mòn
As mountain and river exist, their vow should endure – Còn non, còn nước, hãy còn thề xưa
Carried to the sea, water now returns to its source as rain – Nước đi ra bể lại mưa về nguồn
Mountain and river shall oftentimes meet again  – Nước non hội ngộ còn luôn
Thus, there is no reason for mountain to be so sad – Bảo cho non chớ có buồn làm chi
Although river is still gone – Nước kia dù hãy còn đi
Since they have pledged eternal vow to each other  – Nghìn năm giao ước kết đôi
The bond between them shall never break – Non non nước nước không nguôi lời thề
 “Mountain and river” (poetically rendered as “non nước”) also means “country” in Vietnamese. This poetic gem is cherished by the people, for it showed the poet’s extraordinary devotion to his native land, a theme he also expounded in other poems. In his “Vịnh bức dư đồ rách” (Ode to a torn map) he bitterly deplored the transformation of his once-splendid homeland into a “tattered and torn” country, symbolized by a map of a same condition: “Sao đến bây giờ rách tả tơi” (Why is it now tattered and torn). In his “Đêm tối”(Dark night), he asked himself, “Kiếm đâu cho thấy mặt anh hùng”(Where on earth will we find a hero) who would emancipate the country under the French yoke. “Thề non nước” (The vow between mountain and river) was not published separately; it was instead part of a story bearing the same title which related the poet’s romance with a songstress. The poet, like water in the river, kept flowing away while his lover was pining for his return. However, the poet never forgot the vow between them and indicated that he would come back. This pledge also implied the poet’s vow to his homeland – that he will return to “restore a torn map” and save a country fading under the sun.
 The poem has a clear and tight “structure.” Presenting a sentimental drama, this opening stanza sets the “tone” for the poem. The remaining stanzas expound the pain of waiting by the mountain for the river, the explanation for the absence and the eventual return of the river, and the renewal of the vow between the mountain and the river.
,  These two stanzas depict the pining of the mountain as it hopelessly awaits the river’s return. Tản Đà uses conventional, yet refined, terms to describe the lonesome mountain as well as the moral and physical deterioration of a woman gnawed by an extended wait. The terms “xương mai, hao gầy, tóc mây,” and the phrase “đã đầy tuyết sương,” albeit trite, elegantly describe her frail beauty. At the same time, the terms “mây, sương, tuyết” are all apt for describing a mountain landscape. The terms “vẻ ngọc” and “nét vàng” in the third stanza suggest that the woman’s good looks stay on despite the passing of time. The last verse of this stanza, “Non thời nhớ nước, nước mà quên non” is a passionate appeal from the mountain to the river. This heartfelt appeal will be matched by a categorically reassuring response from the river (please see also annotation ).
,  These two stanzas cover the river’s reiteration of the vow and the sharing of some uplifting news, based on a scientific explanation of the water cycle in nature – the eventual return of water in the form of rain is a certainty. Along with the uplifting news is the river’s calm consolation for the mountain and urging it to cheer up because they will meet again.
 This couplet clinches the poem with a heartening renewal of the eternal vow between the mountain and the river. Many readers understand this vow as a sworn determination by Vietnamese patriots who fought to regain their country’s sovereignty. Thus, while the mountain symbolizes those who remained at home, the river stands for those who had to go far away to achieve this common goal.