Nguyễn Văn Ngưu

Rice is the staple food of Vietnamese and it has become a subject of many folklores, legends and literary articles. The following pages present three articles about rice in the life of Vietnamese – two folklores or legends and a literary article – that the author would like to share with readers of the Tap San Viet Hoc. The first article is the folklore or legend about Saint Gióng, who after eating steamed rice or cơm and eggplant, became powerful and chased away the invading Ân Army from Văn Lang State during the reign of King Hùng VI. The second article is the folklore about how a prince of King Hùng VI used glutinous rice to make Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày – two popular rice cakes during Vietnamese New Year or Tết – from glutinous rice. Finally, the third article is a recent literacy article about how a Vietnamese family used rice as input in family’s effort to earn a living income.

I. THE LEGEND OF SAINT GIÓNG OR KING PHÙ ĐỔNG (Adapted from Trần Hồng Đức và Hà Anh Thu, 2000 A brief chronology of Vietnam’s history. Thế giới publisher. Hà Nội, Việt Nam)

During the reign of King Hùng VI, Ân Army in the north attacked Văn Lang State. As the royal army could not stop the invading Ân Army, the King dispatched an emissary to visit all places and regions of the country to call on talented heroes to rescue the nation. In Phù Đổng village there was a 62-year-old mother who nursed a three-year-old son, Gióng, who could not sit up and talk since his birth.

Miraculously, when the emissary came, he sat up, stood up and requested his mother to invite the emissary in. Surprises to see her son could suddenly sit up, walk, talk. The mother of Gióng agreed to his request and invited the emissary. Gióng then requested the emissary to convey to the King his willingness to join the battle to chase away the Ân Army. He also requested for an iron horse, an iron sword, and an iron hat.

After the emissary left the house, Gióng requested his mother to cook a large meal of rice and eggplant. He ate seven round of boiled rice and 3 rounds of eggplant. He then went to the river to drink water. He drained off a river as he was drinking and then he became a giant. This phenomenon is narrated in a folk song.

Seven rounds of rice and 3 rounds of eggplant

In one drink, he drained the whole river

When the invading Ân army reached the foot of Châu Sơn Mountain (in Bắc Ninh Province today), Gióng received his requested armors from the emissary. He put the iron hat on his head, mounted to the iron horse, and with the iron sword he surged to the battle fields and defeated the enemy.

After defeating the Ân, Gióng made his way to Sóc Sơn Mountain and then he vanished into the sky with his iron hat, iron horse and iron sword. The King ordered the construction of a temple in Phù Đổng village in Gia Lâm, Hà Nội today and conferred Gióng the title “Heavenly King Phù Đổng” to show the country’s gratitude to Gióng.

II. THE FOLKLORE OF BÁNH CHƯNG AND BÁNH DÀY – Adapted from (1) Thái Văn Kiểm 1997 Việt Nam Tinh Hoa. Nhà Xuất Bản Mộ Làng. San Francisco, CA, USA 9, and (2) Anonymous, 2002 Viet Nam Legends and Folk Tales. Thế giới publishers, Thừa Thiên-Huế

According to legend, after he defeated the Ân invaders and restored peace to the country, King Hùng VI wanted to select an heir to the throne. He had 21 sons and they were all good and talented princes. It was difficult for the King then to select the heir. He thought about the qualities of a future sovereign for a considerable period and finally arrived at a novel solution. He believed that there is much to be learned from travel and he decided to send his sons on journeys. He called his 21 sons and daughters told them:

I am selecting the heir to the throne. I had thought for sometimes and I decided that anyone among you who could find a recipe or a foodstuff that I have not tasted, but which I could greatly enjoy during this Tet will be selected as the heir to the throne. So please go out, search and return here when the apricot trees bloom to submit your find.

Except Prince Liêu (or Lang Liêu), all princes and princesses spent time, effort and labor to search for special ingredients regardless of the high mountains and the deep seas. Prince Liêu’s mother died early. He had no one to help in searching for special items. He was very worried. One night, in his dream, an angel appeared and said:

Nếp (glutinous rice) nourishes people, makes them healthy and people never get tired in eating it. Therefore, nothing could be more precious than nếp. Now you get nếp to make a round cake and a square cake. Call the round cake Bánh Dày, which represents the Sky. The square cake is to call Bánh Chưng, which represents the Earth. Sky has positive charge or male character. Thus, Bánh Dày is for your father. The Earth has negative charge or female character and square shape. Thus, Bánh Chưng is for your mother.

The angel also told Prince Liêu:

Together, Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày represent the harmony and the union of people and nature. Growth and creation happen when positive force unites with negative force, as you were born when your father united with your mother. Offering Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày to your ancestors and parents is a way to show your love and respect to them. The thickness of Bánh Dày shows the depth of love that your father gave to you, while the long time to cook the Bánh Chưng shows the patience and endurance of your mother’s love in raising you. Therefore, offering Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày is also a way to thank your parents for their efforts and sacrifices in raising you up.

Prince Liêu was very happy and did as he was told. On the date that the apricot trees bloomed the princes brought their food to present to the King. They prepared their food with special ingredients from seas, mountains and faraway places, while prince Liêu brought only a Bánh Chưng and a Bánh Dày.

The King tasted all the foodstuffs and he found that the Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày were the most delicious. When asked, prince Lieu told King Hung VI of his dream. The King realized that the ingredients for making the Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày were very practical, simple and within the reach of his people. The King then declared prince Lieu as heir to the throne and told his people to prepare Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày to offer to their ancestors during Tết or Vietnamese New Year.

The tradition of preparing and offering Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày during Tết is still practiced up to the present, especially in Northern Vietnam. In Southern Vietnam, Bánh Chưng has been replaced by Bánh Tét.

III. THE WRAPPER OF LIFE (by Nguyễn Văn Ngưu)

Rice is popular as the staple food of Vietnamese and more than half of the world population. People often associated rice with the steamed rice that is consumed daily by billions of poor people in developing countries around the globe.  However, rice products have several forms and many of them are used in the preparation of delicious dishes at home and in restaurants – famous and ordinary – worldwide.  Although it is not commonly known, the transformation of rice grains into noodles, wrappers and other products has created additional employment opportunities for many millions of people; including disabled war veterans in many countries.

San pushes the plate of fried spring rolls or chả giò toward Hổ, asking him to take a bite, while boasting that they are the best chả giò in town.  Yesterday after learning of Hổ’s visit, San’s wife went to the local food market to buy things to prepare for their visitor. She bought pieces of best pork tender loin and, as soon as she got home, she chopped the meat, seasoned it with salt, freshly ground black pepper; and mixed it with chopped shrimps, and transparent bean noodles. She then added two well-beaten eggs that she has collected just that morning their laying hens. She kept the pork tender loin over night to “ripen” it.

Upon Hổ’s arrival, she wrapped the marinated meat with the rice wrappers that had been made at home and fried them to serve the meal for her husband’s best and highly esteem friend. The two friends went back almost 40 years. In 1967, San was a rice farmer and Hổ was a university student, and they had met in one afternoon when Hổ was on a mission to help farmers in San’s village to grow better rice.  The war came to the region and intensified, and San had to join the army. Hổ went abroad to continue his studies.

Later that afternoon, San and Hổ sat in the tiny living/dining room of San’s small house on the bank of the river after enjoying the tasty chả giò with fresh locally-grown-spicy herbs and nước mắm or fish sauce. They savoured the atmosphere of the river and their friendship and sipped aromatic rice whiskey as their memories remained unsaid. The river in front of San’s living/dining room ebbs and flows under the influence of the tide, and there are two tides each day.  When the tide in the East Sea is rising, sea water pushes back along the river, and causes it to swell and flow close to the house; when the tide is falling the river empties into the sea and it shrinks back to its normal channel.

The river is noisy at high tide, with the traffic and people that come to shop in the busy market, just down from the house. The market is part on land and part out over the river, with trader plying their catch and their crops to both foot people and those on boats. The River is full of noise, people shouting, engines humming or honking with the discourse typical of the market. Small electric generators provide lighting on the boats. Boats of all sizes move back and forth on the river, with little river boats skirting those that have ventured into the open sea.  People are bargaining, trading food (and news), buying and selling, discussing prices, and the 101 other issues that dominate small-town in this Southeast Asian country. Among the goods sold each day are rice wrappers that San and his wife produce.

            After a few glasses of rice whiskey, San relaxes his one good leg on a stool in front of his chair. He tells his friend that the rice wrappers that his wife used for making the chả giò are the “wrappers of life” for him and his family.  When San left the army, he had only one good leg – the other was lost during the war.  San was jobless when he returned home to the small town and it was clear that he could no longer continue to cultivate the land and grow rice as before.  His time in the army had changed his life for ever. Depression set in, for the safety-net of the family and community was overwhelmed with the large numbers of returnee soldiers – many of them also disabled from war. A single good leg and a crutch meant that a normal job would no longer be practical.

San become more depressed from his fruitless search for employment. Like many others, he turned to small-scale trading, selling lottery tickets or bartering cigarettes, candies, and other small goods along the major roads in cities. Earnings were strictly limited given the large numbers of people involved. Day after day, the tension increased inside San and his family as the money saved during earlier years diminished. The family was reaching the dead-end and poverty beckoned.

Lifestyle changes came unexpectedly and with the assistance of an old friend. Talking with this friend one day, San was encouraged to think beyond rice production and to explore what could be done with rice – what could be manufactured and, importantly, what could be sold. Rice remained central to the future of his family, but rice production clearly remained the responsibility of others. San and his wife could use their knowledge of the crop, however, to work in the post-production sector.  Before leaving San’s house that day, the old friend left a note containing instructions on how to make rice wrappers.

San discussed the issues and advantages of starting a small venture with his wife and they decided there-and-then to take the advice of their friend.  With limited resources, they bought some simple kitchen tools and equipment, some extra rice, and started to make rice wrappers in the family kitchen following the instructions of their old friend.  Their first efforts were not successful given the limited experience of the couple, but friends within the small community watched their efforts to improve their skills, noted their willingness to make changes, and extended their support to San and his wife by buying these first rather low-quality rice wrappers. This was the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the family. Although, the making and selling rice wrappers did not significantly boost the income of San and his family, in reality, it did much more – it provided them with hope.  Even though they could not earn enough money to buy food and clothes for their family, the rice wrappers showed them the way to survive.

One day when San was visiting the old village where he had been born and raised, he was struck by the beauty of the rice fields – the brilliant green that reflected in the light of the sun far to the distant horizon. He saw the healthy crops of waving plants bending in the morning breeze and it brought him back to the old days of his childhood. He remembered the lessons learned from his parents, of numerous rice varieties that the family and other rice farmers in the villages had grown during those years.  In particular, he remembered the taste and texture of these varieties on the palate. Perhaps this was a distorted memory of youth, but San did not think so – for what they were then eating in the towns was bland and lacking in taste.

During a meal in the village, he discussed his thought with his friends about the old, tasty and scented glutinous rice varieties, which were popular in the village before the war. There were fears that these varieties had become extinct.  In effort to boost yields, farmers had long ago adopted newer varieties. Advantages of early maturing and high yielding varieties for intensifying rice production enabled people to boost food supplies and to make more money, and this had marginalized the older and treasured glutinous varieties. They still existed – fortunately – but had been relegated to low-lying land on the edge of the village where the water supply was not controlled.

Before leaving his village, San was able to buy a sack of milled rice of an earlier glutinous variety from the village mill and take it home.  He and his wife used it to make the wrappers and, much to their pleasure and surprise, found that the quality of their wrappers improved considerably.  People liked the taste of the wrappers and asked for more, and the small business prospered.  More and more customers in the town ordered their rice wrappers from San, for making chả giò during special occasions or to sell through restaurants.

The economy of the small town improved with the economic revival of the region and, with more income, people diversified their diet and making changes to their ways of eating rice. They shift from eating steamed rice two to three times a day to eating steamed rice during dinner only, while for breakfast and lunch, they would choose rice-noodle soup, rice cakes, freshly-steamed chả giò and many other rice-based foods.  The demand for the rice wrappers made by San’s family consequently increased, and the family began to produce not only the dried rice wrappers, but also fresh ones.

San sent messages back to his village to request for more of this rice variety, and the village began to increase the area planted to this variety to meet the demand. With the increasing demand for his wrappers, San made arrangement with his friends in the home village to produce more of their traditional glutinous variety especially for him.  San offered a higher price to compensate for the low yield of this variety.

Making and selling of the rice wrappers have enabled San and his family to attain a better life. San was able to take the advantage of his higher income and to send his children back to school. Sitting in mutual quietness over a glass or two (or three) of their aromatic rice whisky overlooking the river and enjoying the chả giò still fresh on their palates, Hổ agreed silently with his friend that:

The rice wrappers are the wrappers of life.