Văn Ngưu Nguyễn

Rice has been the principal/main food of Vietnamese since the creation of the first state of Vietnam or Văn Lang State in 2,000 BCE or more than 4,000 years ago. Through the popular story Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày we know that during his reign, King Hùng VI selected Lang Liêu Prince as heir to the throne. The King also to his citizen to prepare these two cakes to honor their parents and ancestors. Rice production activities created jobs and employments for a large number of Vietnamese and therefore rice cultivation activities have generated money and wealth for the population to pay for expenses in life. In the past, the ploughing of rice fields, rice seedling pulling, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, threshing and drying rice need substantial labor force and therefore create opportunities for young men to meet young ladies and from meetings while cultivating rice, young men and ladies had become husband and wife and create new lives. The following pages introduce the different roles of rice in the daily life of Vietnamese.


In addition to hunted animals and other plant organs, prehistoric people in Vietnam gathered the grains of wild rice plants for consumption to keep them from hunger, especially during drought periods and consequently they domesticated and cultivated rice for food. Rice plants produce rough rice grains or hạt lúa. After milling and cleaning rough rice grain become milled rice grain or hạt gạo, which is the staple food of Vietnamese. With time gradually rice had increasingly become more and more dominant in Vietnamese food baskets and Vietnamese today usually greet each other “ăn cơm chưa?” or “Have you eaten rice yet?” when they meet each other.

Boiled/steamed milled rice is cơm, which is Vietnamese popular rice dish and for Vietnamese, the verb “to eat” is often the same as the verb “to eat rice” or “ăn cơm. In general, rice is the staple food of Vietnamese as it is the main provider of energy and protein for life. In the recent past, data from the national survey on living condition of the people in 1992-1993 show that rice was the staple food of 99% of Vietnamese families and the food calories from rice provided ¾ of the food energy to the Vietnamese (GSO, 1995).

Due to difficulties in rice cultivation and production, the average quantity of rice consumed by Vietnamese in general decreased substantially from 1975 to 1978. However, after 1978, Vietnamese rice consumption increased gradually to reach about 155 kg per person per year in early period of 1990s (Table 1)

Table 1 Vietnamese rice consumption in early period of 1990s (Minot and Goletti, 2000)

Percentage of population (%)

Quantity of rice consumed (kg/person/year)

Vietnam Total



Northern Mountainous



Red River Delta



North Central Coastal



South Central Coastal



Central Highland



South Eastern



Mekong Delta



In 2002, on the average, a Vietnamese consumed 169 kg milled rice/year, which was the second highest in the world, after only that, which was consumed by a person in Myanmar (Table 2). The rice consumed in 2002 provided 1662.50 calories and 33.9 grams protein/person/day.

Table 2 Rice consumption in top 15 countries in 2002 (FAOSTAT)

Rice consumption (kg/person/year)

Population (1000 persons)

Rough rice

Milled rice





Việt Nam




































Sri Lanka








China, Mainland
















For many of you perhaps boiled/steamed milled rice or cơm is one food among the foods to select. However, for poor families, rice food or cơm is difficult to have. In 1995, millions of poor people in Vietnam spent more than 50% of their earning to buy rice for daily consumption (Thống Kê Nông Nghiệp, 1995). During the 1960s, having two full meals of rice daily was lucky for majority of the population in South Vietnam and this was expressed by a musician in the following lines:

Ngày hai bửa cơm no. Đời vui như thế đó”


Two rice meals a day. That is my happiness”.

Similarly, the two following lines describe the difficulties of poor people in finding enough rice to consume daily for life:

Cơm dưa muối, khó khăn mới có

Của không ngon, nhà khó cũng ngon


Rice with fermented vegetable, are difficult to obtain

They are not tasty, but in our poor home they are great

Lack of food pulls poor people down and denies them the opportunity to develop. Therefore, having something to eat is sometime too important for poor people. It is sometime more important than having gold. The folksong “Thằng Bờm” was very popular in Thừa Thiên-Huế during the 1950s; it tells how a “hungry and stupid guy” valued xôi or steamed/boiled glutinous rice.

Thằng Bờm có cái quạt mo

Phú ông xin đổi ba bò chín trâu

Bờm rằng, Bờm chẳng lấy trâu

Phú ông xin đổi chín xâu cá mè

Bờm rằng, Bờm chẳng lấy mè

Phú ông xin đổi ba bè gỗ lim

Bờm rằng, Bờm chẳng lấy lim

Phú ông xin đổi con chim cu mồi

Bờm rằng, Bờm chẳng lấy mồi

Phú ông xin đổi nắm xôi

Bờm cười


Mr. Bom has a special fan

A rich man proposed to exchange it with a herd of nine cows

Bom said, “No I am not interested in cows”

The rich man proposed, How about nine chains of “ca me” (a sea fish)?

Bom said “No I am not interested in ca me”

How about three trunks of precious wood? Proposed the rich man

No I am not interested in wood, Bom said

How about an excellent fighting pigeon? Proposed the rich man

Oh, no! I am not interested in fighting pigeon

How about a hand of glutinous rice? The rich man offered

Oh yes sure! Bom smiles

History of Vietnam has thriving period and difficult period. Vietnamese judge their kings and administrators based on their ability to assure rice food security. Vietnam has favorable conditions for producing adequate rice for food security of its population. However, during World War II especially when Vietnam was under Japanese occupation, the country faced great difficulties in rice production activities. In addition, Vietnam had to supply rice for Japanese Army. Consequently Vietnamese population suffered a great famine in 1945 and 1946, which killed about 2 million people (Vien, 1993). Recently in 1995, millions of poor families in both urban and rural areas had to spend about 50% of their daily earning to buy rice for food (GSO, 1995)


For thousand of years, rice production is the main agricultural activities of Vietnamese. Rice production has occupied a great part of agricultural land. Therefore, through the 4,000 year of their history, Vietnamese always prayed for good weather for rice plants to favorably develop. When the weather is good, Vietnamese in all villages would exert their maximum effort in rice production in order to create wealth for their families and villages as it is described in the following ca dao.

Nhờ trời mưa thuận gió hoà

Nào cày, nào cấy, trẻ già đua nhau

Chim, gà, cá, lợn, cánh câu

Mùa nào, thức ấy giữ màu nhà quê


Thank God, the season was good

People, young and old to plough, transplant

Birds, chicken, fish, pig, and the areca-nut tree

Each season, each special food, to sustain the village

A good rice season produces good rice harvest and thus provides food and wealth and money to families of farmers to pay tax. A good harvest also provide materials for raising chickens, pigs as well as for producing fertilizer for next rice crop.

Nhờ trời một mẫu (mẫu ta = 3.600 mét vuông), năm nong thóc đầy

Năm nong đầy, em xay, em giã

Trấu ủ phân, cám bả nuôi heo

Sang năm lúa tốt tiền nhiều

Em đong đóng thuế, đóng sưu cho chồng


Thank God, a “mau” (3,600 m2) produced five full nong of paddy

Five “nong” of paddy, I mill, I polish

Husks to make manure; bran to feed the pigs

Next year, the rice crop will be good, more money

I measure the paddy to pay tax, to pay duties for my husband

When the weather is not favorable, rice plants develop poorly and low yield leading to many difficulties for farmers and their families and many rice farmers go to debt.

Bây giờ gặp phải hồi này

Khi trời hạn hán, khi hay mưa dầm

Khi trời gió bão ầm ầm

Đồng điền lúa thóc mười phần được ba

Lấy chi đăng nạp nữa mà?

Lấy chi công việc nước nhà cho đang?


Now it is a difficult time

Today it is drought, tomorrow continuous rains

Another day, storms

Rice yield is only a third of that in the normal year

What could I use to pay tax and duty?

What could I use to pay for other expenses?

In Vietnam, marrying is building family and building society. Rice production activities create suitable conditions for girls and boys, men and women to meet and consequently to marriage. In villages in the past, people gave importance to rice production activities. To be able to produce a good rice crop is to obtain a respect of families, neighbors and society. Therefore, young ladies and young men at about marrying age always tried their best in rice production activities so that their rice crop is healthily green and producing many panicles.

Ruộng nhà em lúa xanh xanh ngát

Ruộng nhà anh lúa dạt ngàn bông

Lúa xanh đẹp xóm, đẹp đồng

Cho mình sớm họp thành đôi vợ chồng


In the field of my family, rice crop is healthily green

In the field of your family, rice crop has thousand panicles

The green rice plants make the fields, the hamlet beautiful

Therefore, let’s become husband and wife soon

The following ca dao describes the wish of young lady who tries to perform well in rice production in order to convince the young man whom she wants to marry.

Người ta rượu sớm trà trưa

Em nay đi nắng về mưa đã nhiều

Lạy trời mưa thuận gió đều

Cho đồng lúa tốt, cho vừa lòng anh

Lòng em đã quyết thi hành

Đi cấy đi gặt cùng anh một mùa


Others enjoy wine in the morning, tea at noon

But I left home when it was sun rising and returned only when it was raining

I pray that the weather will be good

So that the crop is healthy, so that you are happy

I decided, I will do

Ploughing to harvesting with you one whole cropping season

Weeding, irrigating, fertilizing and caring for rice plants and fields also create opportunities for young men to meet young ladies. The following popular poem describing the expression of love between a young man and a young lady in a Vietnamese village in the past

Hỡi cô tát nước lên đồng

Sao cô múc ánh trăng vàng đổ đi


My beloved, you are lifting water to the field

Why do you scoop the beautiful moon and throw it away?

Ánh trăng em chẳng thiếu chi

Anh có lúa giống, em thì đổi cho


Oh, the moon! I always have it

If you have good seeds, I would be pleased to trade

In recent times, most of rice milling operations in the region is done with milling machines. But in the old day, Vietnamese used pestles and mortars to produce brown rice and milled rice from rough rice. The process was called giã gạo, which turned rough rice (or lúa) to milled rice (or gạo). This job was generally done by ladies of farmers’ household who usually sing songs (or hò, hát) while performing the tasks. The singing during the pilling of rough rice spread all over Vietnamese villages in the old times. Young ladies usually invited young men to join them in the task and this created lively situation and lovely scenes in villages. Musician Hoàng Thi Thơ wrote the following lines.

Đêm trăng trong, tiếng chày quanh

Có tiếng ca theo tiếng hò thanh thanh

Vô đây anh!

Đừng sợ trời khuya không có ai đưa anh về


In the night under the clear moon,

We are pounding the rice singing song after song

Come on, come in, my dear!

Please do not worry that no one would take you back home

A scene of giã gạo in a Vietnamese village in the past (Photo taken by Nguyễn Văn Ngưu from a picture sold in Saigon in 2000)

After the young men joining them in rice milling, young ladies offered invitation and they sang:

Đến đây chẳng những ngồi không?

Nhờ chàng giã gạo, cho đông tiếng hò


You are here, do not just sit

Please join us and sing with us

Young men in turn challenged young ladies and sang

Đố ai biết lúa mấy cây?

Biết sông mấy khúc, biết mây mấy tầng?


Do you know; how many plants are there in a rice field?

How many turns does a river have, how many folds would cloud have?

After exchanging songs and knowing better, young men became more daring and proposed the following to young ladies.

Nàng về giã gạo ba trăng

Để anh gánh nước Cao Bằng về ngâm

Nước Cao Bằng ngâm thì trắng gạo

Không biết em có liệu được chăng ?

Trần trần Cuội ngủ cùng trăng

Biết chăng cha mẹ vừa lòng hay không?


If you would polish the three-moon rice

I will fetch the water from Cao Bằng[1] to soak them

Rice will be white if soaked with water from Cao Bằng

Please let me know, if you agree

I am poor as Mr. Cuội[2] sleeping in the Moon

Let me know, please, would your parents accept?

In the past, there was the tradition for man to perform in the family of young lady for sometime before their wedding or làm rễ tradition. Contribution to rice production activities of the family of the young lady was the best way for the young man to convince the family of the young lady. This work, however, was not easy as it was described in the following popular song:

Công anh làm rễ đã hai năm ròng

Nhà em làm ruộng, làm đồng

Bắt anh tát nước, cực lòng anh thay

Tháng Chín mưa bụi gió bay

Cất đi gầu nước, hai tay rụng rời


I have been working as a son in law for almost two years

Your family has so many rice fields

I have to water them, it is so hard

October, there are light rains and winds

I could keep the water cans away, my arms are so tired

After two years of làm rễ and was approved by the family of the young lady, the young man prepare the following gifts for the wedding.

Giúp em một thùng xôi vò

Một con lớn béo, một vò rượu tăm* (* Nếp cũng là nguyên liệu chính để làm rượu tăm)

Giúp em đôi chiếu em nằm

Đôi chăn em đắp, đôi tằm em đeo

Giúp em quan tám tiền cheo

Quan năm tiền cưới, lại đèo buồng cau


I will help you with a full basket of xôi vò (or delicious glutinous rice)

A big and fat pig

A drum of good rice wine (rượu tăm)

Bed, bed sheet and blanket

A pair of earrings

The fee for marriage certification

And a branch of best areca nuts

After marriage, husband and wife joined force to build up the family. Rice production activities required the contribution of every members of the family. Husband and wife encouraged each other in their effort on rice production and this was expressed in the following ca dao.

Mặt trời tang tảng rạng đông

Mình ơi! Thức dậy ra đồng kéo trưa

Phận hèn bao quản nắng mưa

Cày sâu bừa kỹ, được mùa có khi


The sun is rising

My dear, wake up, go to work if not we will be late

Being poor, please do not be afraid of rain or sun

Plough deep, harrow carefully, we might have a good harvest

In general, a farmer has small rice land, but in some cases, the farmers’ small rice land may include several small pieces of land at different location which may be at different elevations. When there was no irrigation facility as in the past, the land in low elevation (đồng sâu) has water earlier than the land in higher elevation area (đồng cạn) and farmer would do land preparation in dong sau and when there was rain to bring water to the land in dong can his wife would do rice transplanting in dong sau and he would do land preparation on dong can.

Trên đồng cạn, dưới đồng sâu

Chồng cày, vợ cấy, con trâu đi bừa

Ai ai cũng vợ cũng chồng

Chồng cày, vợ cấy trong lòng vui thay


In the upper field, in the lower field,

The husband is ploughing, the wife transplanting, the buffalo harrowing

In every family, husband and wife are together

The husband is ploughing, the wife transplanting, it is so happy

Drought damage rice crops. During drought periods, farmers would feel the pain and husband and wife cooperate in watering/irrigating their rice crop, as expressed in the following popular poem.

Nắng chiều, lúa nghẹn, anh ơi

Mình lấy sức người chống lại thiên tai

Mấy anh tát một gàu giai

Chúng em hai đứa tát hai gàu sòng

Đêm ngày đem nước vào đồng

Lúa mình lại đẹp, thì lòng lại vui


The panicles are choking under the evening sun, dear!

Let us use our strength to fight the disaster

You men, use a “gau giai”

We women, will use the “gau song”

Let us water the rice fields day and night

The rice crops will be healthy, our hearts will be happy


Vietnamese value rice grains greatly. For them a rice grain, is a gold grain or “hạt gạo, là hạt vàng”. In the past, Vietnamese gave highest respect to scholars and second respect to rice farmers. However, when rice is scarce, Vietnamese gave highest respect to rice farmers and second respect to scholars.

Nhất sĩ, nhì nông.

Hết gạo chạy rông.

Nhất nông, nhì sĩ”.


First is scholar, second is farmer

No more rice, one has to search

Therefore First is farmer, second is scholar

Similarly, the minor ethnic group in Tuyên Quang Province, Sán Chay people has a proverb which says “Rice is the most precious, the grain feeds human. Literature is the second most precious, it teaches human knowledge for safe purpose”.

Vietnam has favorable conditions to produce adequate rice for feeding its population and for export. However, when rice crops failed due to a combination of poor policy or bad weather, people suffer from hunger and famine. The bad policies of occupying French and Japanese Armies and the failure of rice crops during the World War II had caused a widespread famine in northern half of the country that killed more than half of million people died between 1945 and 1946 (Vien, 1993). Therefore, Vietnamese evaluated their kings and rulers based on their policy to support rice production for adequate food security.

Ai ơi bưng bát cơm đầy

Dẻo, thơm một hạt đắng cay muôn phần


Holding a bowl of steamed/boiled rice

Please remember that every soft grain contains thousand of hardship

Cơm dưa muối khó khăn mới có

Của không ngon nhà khó cũng ngon


Cooked rice and salted-fermented vegetable are difficult to have

They are not tasty, but they are really good in poor households

Cơm sống là cơm thảo,

cơm nhão là cơm hà tiện


Uncooked rice is rice of good willingness,

Water-soaked cooked rice is rice of selfishness

Vietnamese also appreciated the contribution of the buffalo – the animal used in land preparation and they treated their buffaloes as friends or relatives as expressed in the following ca dao:

Trâu ơi ta bảo trâu này

Trâu ra ngoài ruộng, trâu cày với ta

Cấy cày vốn nghiệp nông gia,

Ta đây trâu đấy, ai mà quản công

Bao giờ lúa chín đầy đồng

Thì còn ngọn cỏ ngoài đồng trâu ăn


Dear buffalo, listen to me

Let us go to the field, you and I would plow

Ploughing, transplanting are the jobs of farmers

You and I together, no one should wait for the other

When rice crop is harvested

There will be plenty of grasses for you to eat

Vietnamese farmers also appreciate the contribution of the mortars and pestles as expressed in the following ca dao:

Trả ơn cái cối cái chày

Nữa đêm gà gáy, có mày có tao


I thank you, mortar and pestle

You and I are always together, late into night

Vietnamese considers a rice grain is a grain of gold. This is because of not only rice is food but also because of the fact that it is difficult to produce rice. Vietnamese therefore highly appreciate and thank full to rice farmers.

Cày đồng vào buổi ban trưa

Mồ hôi thánh thót như mưa ruộng cày

Ai ơi bưng bát cơm đầy

Dẻo thơm một hạt đắng cay trăm phần


Ploughing the field at noon

Sweats drop to the field as rain drops

He who holds a bowl full of rice

Should remember, each of the tasty grain contains hundreds of pains and hardships.


Both non-glutinous and glutinous rice crops have been cultivated in Vietnam for several thousands of years. The ripen rice grains or rough rice grains are called luá or thóc in Vietnamese. The first milling step of rough rice is de-hulling. From 100 kg of rough rice, de-hulling process produces normally about 80 kg of brown rice and 20 kg of hulls and husks. Brown rice is edible, while hulls and husks are inedible. However, brown rice usually has poor shelf life, long cooking times, and rougher texture when cooked. Therefore, today, most of brown rice is subjected to further milling to produce milled rice, and broken rice, and bran. In Vietnamese, brown rice is called gạo lức, while milled rice or white rice is called gạo trắng. Similarly brown glutinous rice is called nếp lức, while milled glutinous rice is called nếp trắng.

E:\Photo Rice is Life\Rice is Life 4.jpg

Figure 1 From left to right: rough rice or luá, brown rice or gạo lức, and milled rice or gạo trắng

Vietnamese produce rice flour from both gạo and gạo nếp and Vietnamese used rice flour to different products such as rice wrapper (or banh trang) and rice noodles. Along their long history, Vietnamese have developed a large number of dishes from milled rice, rice wrapper and rice noodles. The most popular rice dishes are:

1. Cơm or Steamed Rice

Milled rice or gạo is washed then boiled/steamed to cook with water in a cooking pot. During cooking, the milled rice absorbs the water, increasing in volume and mass. The rice is considered cooked when it has absorbed all the water and the dish is cơm in Vietnamese. Vietnamese usually greet each others ăn cơm chua? or have you eaten? when they first meet in the day. At their home, inviting relatives and eat, the lady of the house would say ăn cơm or let us eat. Plain rice is served daily for lunch and dinner with just a few protein (meat or fish) and vegetable dishes as side dishes.

Cooked rice or cơm is sometimes fried to make fried rice or cơm rang/cơm chiên. Milled rice is also used to prepare rice porridge/congee or cháo. There are a large number of dishes of cơm rang and cháo and the names of the dishes vary with the added ingredients used in their preparation. For example cháo gà is chicken rice porridge and cơm rang trứng is fried rice with egg.

2. Xôi or Steamed Milled Glutinous Rice – In the very old days, probably xôi was the main rice dish of Vietnamese, but it was replaced by cơm probably at some time during the Văn Lang State or before. Nevertheless, xôi has remained as one of the dishes that Vietnamese offer to their ancestors during festivals and special occasions. Senior Vietnamese citizens prefer to consume xôi as it is expressed as following:

Mẹ già ăn chuối bà hương,

An xôi nếp một, ăn đường mía lau


Old mother eats bà hương banana

She eats also fine cooked glutinous rice, smooth sugarcane

3. Bánh Chưng: Bánh chưng is a traditional and popular rice cake in North Vietnam. Milled glutinous rice with filling of mung bean, pork and other ingredients are wrapped in dong (Maranta leuconeura ) leaves into a square shape and boiled to cook. It is an essential element of the family altar on the occasion of Tết or Vietnamese New Year in Northern Vietnam.

4. Bánh Tét: Bánh tét is a traditional and popular rice cake in South Vietnam. Milled glutinous rice with filling of mung bean, pork and other ingredients are wrapped in banana leaves into a long-cylindrical shape and boiled to cook. It is an essential element of the family altar on the occasion of Tết or Vietnamese New Year in Southern Vietnam.

4. Phở: Phở is a dish of flat rice noodle, which is popular throughout the country, perhaps as popular as cơm. It is also widely appreciated worldwide. Vietnamese eat phở at anytime during the day long, as breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack. There are two types of phở: phở bò or beef noodle soup and phở gà or chicken noodle soup. In both dishes, steamed/boiled bánh phở are served in a bowl with a broth and choice meat. The broth of phở bò is generally made by simmering beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, charred ginger and spices such as cinnamon, star anise, black cardamom, coriander seed, fennel seed, clove, salt and black pepper seed. On the other hand, the broth of phở gà is made by simmering chicken bones, onion, ginger and spices such as star anise, coriander seed, fennel seed, clove, salt and black pepper. The choice meat of phở bò are slices of beef tenderloin, while that of phở gà are choiced pieces of chiken meat.Both phở are consumed with ingredients such as green onions, basil, fresh chili pepper, lemon, mungbean sprouts, coriander leaves, and ngo gai or saw tooth herb. Additionally fish sauce, hoisin sauce and chili sauce may be added to taste as accompaniments.

6. Spring Roll: Spring roll is a traditional and popular dish of Vietnamese. It is made of rice wrapper or bánh tráng rolled with stuffing of ground pork and fried in oil. The spring rolls are served with sauce, which is a mixture of fish sauce, lemon, garlic, onion, and sugar.


  • GSO, 1995 National survey on living condition of the people in 1992-1993. Vietnam Government Stastical Office, 1995
  • FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation Statistic
  • Minot N.and Goletti F., 2000 Rice market liberalization and poverty in Vietnam. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, USA, 2000
  • Vien, N. K. 1993 Vietnam: a long history. The Gioi publishers. Ha Noi, Vietnam
  • Various sites in the Internet
  1. the northernmost province

  2. the man shape in the Moon