Last week, we shared a little rumination on the life and words of Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong, and what her works mean to the identity of Vietnam’s literary tradition. Today, we continue our journey through this nation’s heritage, to the scribbles of one of Huong’s contemporaries, and one of those responsible for making Chữ Nôm, the ancient writing script of Vietnam, into the accepted pen it is today: Nguyen Du.
Unlike Huong, Du was, perhaps, more typical of what one might expect in the writers of his time and area. He was a politician, and a diplomat, a man who made words his life even outside the creative fence. He was the seventh son of a former prime minister that would die by the time he reached thirteen years, and to a dynasty that would also fall within his lifetime. He himself would one day serve as his nation’s ambassador to China, a position that would seal his place in history, as it was during this time that he wrote his most famous work: The Tale of Kieu.
Though today regarded as the finest sampling of Vietnamese creative capabilities, The Tale of Kieu was not, in its day, written under Du’s own name. This is due to the fact that it, like those works of his contemporary, —, was at its heart quite critical of the social tenets governing the society of their time–Confucianism. A staggering 3,254-verse epic written in 6/8 meter, the poem recounted the life and struggles of a certain beautiful maiden by the name of Thúy Kiều, who would go on to sacrifice herself to save her family–forced through prostitution, and unwilling marriage, and all the horrors one can imagine accompanying such. It prodded the culture’s distaste for romance, and broached the notion of falling in love multiple times–under Confucian morals, you were supposed to be devoted to one person your whole life (as chosen by your parents, no less). It was actually based on an even earlier tale–Kim Vân Kiều, by Qing Xin Cai Ren, a Chinese writer.
And now, a taste of what’s is perhaps Vietnam’s most significant literary work, through one of its many translations…
The Tale of Kieu
Within the span of hundred years of human existence,
what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny!
How many harrowing events have occurred while mulberries cover the conquered sea!
Rich in beauty, unlucky in life!
Strange indeed, but little wonder,
since casting hatred upon rosy cheeks is a habit of the Blue Sky.
By lamplight turn these scented leaves and read
a tale of love recorded in old books.
Under the Chia-ching reign when Ming held sway
all lived at peace—both capitals stood strong.
There was a burgher in the clan of Vuong,
a man of modest wealth and middle rank.
He had a last‑born son, Vuong Quan—his hope
to carry on a line of learned folk.
Two daughters, beauties both, had come before:
Thuy Kieu was oldest, younger was Thuy Van.
Bodies like slim plum branches, snow‑pure souls,
each her own self, each perfect in her way.
In quiet grace Van was beyond compare:
her face a moon, her eyebrows two full curves;
her smile a flower, her voice the song of jade;
her hair the sheen of clouds, her skin white snow.
Yet Kieu possessed a keener, deeper charm,
surpassing Van in talents and in looks.
Her eyes were autumn streams, her brows spring hills.
Flowers grudged her glamour, willows her fresh hue.
A glance or two from her, and kingdoms rocked!
Supreme in looks, she had few peers in gifts.
By Heaven blessed with wit, she knew all skills:
she could write verse and paint, could sing and chant.
Of music she had mastered all five tones
and played the lute far better than Ai Chang.
She had composed a song called Cruel Fate
to mourn all women in soul‑rending strains.
A paragon of grace for womanhood,
she neared that time when maidens pinned their hair.
She calmly lived behind drawn shades and drapes,
as wooers swarmed, unheeded, by the wall…