RICE IN THE LIFE OF VIETNAMESE
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.
I. RICE IS THE STAPLE FOOD 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)
Red River Delta
North Central Coastal
South Central Coastal
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)
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
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)
II. OTHER ASPECTS OF RICE IN DAILY LIFE OF VIETNAMESE
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.
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 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
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?
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?
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 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 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
Phận hèn bao quản nắng mưa
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
III. APPRECIATION OF VIETNAMESE TO RICE AND PARTICIPANTS IN RICE PRODUCTION ACTIVITIES
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
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
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.
IV. SOME POPULAR VIETNAMESE RICE DISHES
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.
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.