Lesson 2B

Skirt of Hùng Vương era

According to the legend as well as the engraving details on the bronze drums and the bronze jars, in the Hùng Vương era, men wore khố (loin clothes) and women wore “váy” (skirts). The skirt had the shape of the “cái quần không đáy = the trousers without the bottom.”

Cái trống mà thủng hai đầu,

(The drum without the top and the bottom,)

Bên ta thì có, bên Tàu thì không .

(It exists in our country, but does not exist in China.)

Also called “xống” or “mấn,” the váy had several different kinds: váy kín (closed skirt), váy mở (open skirt), váy đùm (skirt tightened in the back for work), váy cạp điều (skirt with the waistline made of red fabric), váy kép (skirt with lining, the outer made of thin fabric, the inner made of rough fabric), váy cửa võng (skirt with its front having curved folds), váy quai cồng (skirt with the two sides tightened while working in bending position to catch crabs or snails, or crossing a shallow river, depending on its depth). For rich women or women living in cities or towns, their skirts are long, reaching their heels.

In our history, the skirt was related to several important events.

The anti-assimilation skirt

During the 1000-year Chinese domination and the Ming occupation, the skirt was the weapon used in our resistance against the Chinese assimilation in clothing.

During the Ming occupation (1414-1427), Hoàng Phúc (the Chinese governor) ordered women to wear short blouses and trousers like Chinese women.

During the independence period, in the year of Ất Tỵ, 3rd Year of Cảnh Trị (1665), King Lê Huyền Tôn ordered women to go back to the tradition of wearing skirts, and long robes, with a penalty of 5 quan (ancient Vietnamese currency unit) for violation.

The anti-unification skirt

From the XVI century, the Nguyễn Lords, with their intention to create a separate kingdom in the South, have institutionalized a number of changes of the Đàng Ngoài (the Northern part of the country during that period of time) custom. In terms of clothes, Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, in 1744, ordered women to wear trousers. After having re-unified the whole country, everything has been unified; Emperor Minh Mạng noticed that from Quảng Bình province up North women still wore skirts. To achieve the unified clothing, in 1828, the Nguyễn Emperor ordered that women in the North must wear trousers, no more skirts. At the beginning of 9-1837, the Emperor re-issued the order, resulting in the following folk poems complaining against that order:

Lệnh từ trong Huế ban ra,

(The order was issued from Huế,)

Cấm quấn không đáy đàn bà phải tuân.

(Forbidding trousers without bottom, and women must obey.)

Chiếu vua mùng tám tháng ba,

(The decree was dated the 8th day of the 3rd month,)

Cấm quần không đáy người ta hãi hùng.

(Forbidding trousers without bottom and people were terrified.)

Không đi thì chợ không đông,

(If I stay home the market is deserted,)

Nếu đi thì lấy quần chồng sao đang.

(If I go to the market, how could I take away my husband’s trousers?)

Có quần ra quán bán hàng,

(With trousers I can go to my stall and do my business,)

Không quần ra đứng đầu làng trông quan.

(Without trousers, I can only go the village gate and watch out for the mandarin.)

Đi chợ mượn đỡ cái quần,

(Going to the market, the wife has to temporarily borrow his trousers,)

Chồng đành mặc váy che thân ngồi nhà.

(Resiliently, the husband has to stay home, covering his body with the skirt.)

Bỗng nghe mõ gọi đằng xa,

(Suddenly, he hears the sound of the gong from far away,)

Vội vàng đóng khố chạy ra ngoài đình.

(He hurriedly puts on his loin cloth and runs to the community hall.)

The skirt of diplomacy: a horizontal look reveals a foot of earth

A girl wearing a short skirt, in squatting position to blow air into the furnace in her rice cooking was the image of poetess Đoàn Thị Điểm, who wore an open skirt, sitting near the Đoan Môn Gate, when the Chinese Ambassador visited to crown our king. Wearing an open skirt, Mrs. Đoàn Thị Điểm intentionally exposed her genital to tease the Ambassador. To retaliate, the Ambassador stated the following riddle:

An Nam nhất thốn thổ, bất tri kỷ nhân canh (In Annam, for only one foot of earth, innumerable men cultivate)

Mrs. Điểm shot back:

Bắc quốc chư đại phu, giai do thử đồ xuất (In Northern country, most grand mandarins come out from that)

The skirt in the parallel sentences

One day, Mrs. Đoàn Thị Điểm was washing her skirt when a mandarin passed by in his hammock. She made the following parallel sentences instantly:

Võng đào quan lớn đi trên ấy,

(The grand mandarin’s peach silk hammock passed by up there,)

Váy rách bà con vỗ dưới này.

(People’s torn skirts are washed down here.)

Moonlight in the skirt

In one moonlighted evening, watching a girl wearing skirt and in squatting position to knit a bamboo tray, a young man asked:

Đêm trăng thanh anh mới hỏi nàng,

(The moon is shining and I’d like to ask you)

Tre non đủ lá đan sàng nên chăng?

(Do you have enough young bamboo leaves to knit the tray?)

Đan sàng thiếp cũng xin vâng,

(I accept to knit the tray,)

Tre non đủ lá non chăng hởi chàng

(But are there enough young bamboo leaves for my knitting?)

For a guy who likes the dog, he sees the banian tree leaf in the moonlight.

Sáng trăng em tưởng tối trời,

(Despite the moonlight you still pretend a dark night,)

Em ngồi em để cái sự đời em ra;

(You sit there exposing your thing;)

Sự đời như cái lá đa,

(Your thing looks like a banian tree leaf,)

Đen như mõm chó chém cha sự đời.

(Like the dog’s black mouth tip your damn thing.)

The skirt seen by night-blind eyes

Reading Chinese classics all day often results in headache and nyctalopia (night-blindness). That was the case of the old-school (studying Chinese classics in Chinese characters) teacher, who became nyctalopic after intensely watching a girl with a rolled-up skirt cut lotus in a lake. Coming back home, he became sick and had illusions.

Nhân lúc đồ ngồi nhàn hạ

(Having some leisure time, the old-school teacher)

Ra hồ sen xem ả hái hoa

(He goes to the lotus lake and watches a girl cutting the flowers)

Ả hớ hênh ả để đồ[1] ra

(Uncautiously, she exposes her genital)

Đồ trông thấy ngắm ngay tức khắc

(Seizing the opportunity, the old-school teacher immediately takes a look)

Đêm năm canh đồ nằm khôn nhắp

(He cannot sleep throughout the night)

Những mơ màng đồ nọ tưởng đồ kia.

(And intermittently had illusions about the “thing”)

The Diety’s eyes looking down: con cúi (straw-knitted lighter)

At the location called “Chỗ lội làng Ngang = The river crossing in Ngang village” there was a shrine for Ông Cuội. Arriving there, women had to roll their skirt up to their groin in order to cross the river. The Poet Tam Nguyên Yên Đổ described the scene in which Ông Cuội looked down and saw something whitish like the con cúi.

Đầu làng Ngang có một chỗ lội[2]

(At the entrance of Ngang village there is a river crossing)

Có đền Ông Cuội cao vòi vọi

(The shrine for Ông Cuội is way up there)

Đàn bà đến đấy vén quần[3]lên

(Arriving there women have to roll up their skirts)

Chỗ thì đến háng, chỗ đến gối

(Some place up to the groin, other places up to the knee)

Ông Cuội ngồi trên (đền) mĩm mép cười

(Ông Cuội sitting up there (in the shrine) keeps smiling)

Cái gì trăng trắng như con cúi[4]

(He said: “I see something whitish like con cúi”)

Đàn bà khép nép đứng liền thưa

(Cringing, the women respectfully answer)

Con trót hớ hênh ông xá tôi.

(We were careless, please forgive us.)

Looking up the deity does not know what it is

At the same time, the Gravel God, who was lying down at the bottom of the river crossing, looked up but did not know what it was; therefore he asked: “What is that thing that appeared and disappeared alternately?

Làng bên phụ nữ lắm khi

(Women from the nearby village sometimes)

Váy đùa tới háng lầm lì bước qua

(Cross the river with their skirt rolled up to the groin)

Ông Cuội thấy cười xoa thích chí

(Ông Cuội watches and keeps smiling pleasingly)

Váy giấu chi “lấp ló bên trong?”

(You hide something in your skirt “that appears and disappears alternately?”

Mấy bà xanh mặt vái van

(Terribly scared, the women say the prayer)

“Vô tình sơ sẩy, mong Thần bỏ qua.”

(We were intentionally careless, please forgive us.)

Váy quai cồng

When working in the field, crossing the river or bathing by the river side the women roll up their skirt to the groin as described by poet Nguyễn Khuyến:

Con gái nhà ai tắm vệ song?

(Whose daughter is bathing by the river side?)

Vú vế để hở váy quai cồng

(Wearing váy quai cồng with breast and thigh exposed)

Ước gì ta được mà ta để,

(I wish I could have in order to,)

Ta để mà ta lại … để chung.

(In order to … to put together.)

The skirt of the Buddhist in the eyes of the monk

While repeating the Buddha’s teachings of Emptiness Emptiness, Form Form, Form Itself Is Emptiness, Emptiness Itself Is Form, since he is not yet enlightened, it is easy for him to fall into the violation of abstention from sexual desires when he sees a girl with an exposing skirt while bending to catch crabs.

Sư đang tụng niệm nam mô,

(In namaskar, a monk is reciting prayers)

Thấy cô xách giỏ mò cua bên chùa.

(He sees a girl with a basket catching crabs beside the pagoda.)

Lòng sư luống những mơ hồ,

(His mind wanders and his heart pounds vaguely,)

Bỏ cả kinh kệ tìm cô hỏi chào.

(He stops reciting his prayers and goes greeting the girl.)

The mercy door opens wide in the skirt

In the skirt-related literature, the great poet Tam Nguyên Yên Đổ was the only one who used the philosophy on mercy and charity to describe what was inside the skirt. Inspired by the scene of a young bonze in her day sleep with an exposing skirt, the poet instantly wrote the following poem “Cô Tiểu ngủ ngày = The young bonze in her day sleep,” using the Buddhist philiosophy to describe the scene:

Then cửa từ bi cài lỏng chốt

(từ = loving; bi = merciful, cửa, ie. cửa nhà Phật = door of the Buddha’s house; the whole sentence is used to describe an exposing skirt) (The door to love and mercy is loosely latched)

Nén hương tế độ đốt đầy lò

(tế = help to cross the river, i.e. aid; độ = assist, help; the whole sentence is used to describe what is inside the skirt) (The incense for helping is all burned in the furnace)

Cá khe lắng kệ đầu ngơ ngác,

(kệ = a short prayer; describing the fish in the brook) (The fish in the brook listens to the prayers in bewilderment,)

Chim núi nghe kinh cổ gật gù.

(kinh = the prayer, the teachings; describing the aroused body as the mountain bird) (The mountain bird listens to the prayers in nodding.)

Where to find paradise on earth?

The place for the immortal fairies practicing Taoism to live is the squah-shaped island called Bồng đảo or Bồng lai in the sea of Bột Hà. On the island there is a creek flowing among the peach trees called Đào nguyên. The poetess Hồ Xuân Hương has used her poetry to describe that fairyland having these bồng đảo hills and Đào nguyên creek on the body of a virgin girl.

Lược trúc lỏng cài trên mái tóc,

(The young bamboo comb loosely attached on her hair,)

Yếm đào trễ xuống dưới lưng ong.

(The red silk brassiere fallen on her back.)

Đôi gò bồng đảo sương còn ngậm,

(Her two Bổng đảo hills are still young and fresh)

Một lạch Đào Nguyên suối chửa thông.

(A Đào Nguyên creek still not flowing through.)

Having reached the end of our South East Asian field trip, we now have seen the original characteristics of the Vietnamese culture within the South East Asian background:

– Life of the ancient Vietnamese people depicted on Đông Sơn bronze drums and bronze jars;

– Regilion, custom, clothing of the Hùng Vương era that have survived up to the present time: Worshipping of Deities, Mẫu Cult, betel-areca, bánh chưng bánh dầy rice cakes, the skirt …

In our next filed trip, we will study the culture during the 1000-year Chinese domination era by observing the transitional period between the Vietnamese culture within the Southeast Asian background and the Greater Viet culture within the Far East background.


  1. The word “đồ” has 2 meanings: i) old-school teacher; and ii) the female genital.

  2. This was the road from the National Route to the homeland of the poet (Vị Hạ, Vị Thương village), in order to take a short cut, women had to roll up their skirt to cross a body of water, along the road across the open field of Phù Đa village where the tomb and the shrine of Ông Cuội were located.

  3. The poet used the word “quần” (in Chinese character) for the skirt. So did poetess when she wrote “Bốn mảnh quần hồng bay phấp phới.” The same was with this sentence: “Hồng quần nhẹ bước chinh yên.”

  4. In the old Vietnamese language, the word “cúi” means “the pig”; rural people called the tightened bunch of straw used to make fire “con cúi.” Another example of this term can be found in the eulogy for Cần Giuôc warriors by poet Nguyễn Đình Chiểu: “Hỏa mai đánh bằng rơm con cúi, Cũng đốt xong nhà dạy đạo kia.” (Using the fire made with the straw from con cúi, People could also burn down that house used for the religious teaching).