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Grace and Flair


Three Vietnamese Poetesses

Translated by Khoa Ngo

Translated and published by Khoa Ngo at Smashwords

English Translations Copyright © 2017 by Khoa Ngo

All rights reserved.

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A Brief History of Vietnam in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries


Đoàn Thị Điểm

Song Thất Lục Bát (7-7-6-8)

Chinh Phụ Ngâm Khúc – Lament of a Soldier’s Wife

Hồ Xuân Hương

Translation Notes

Bánh Trôi Nước – A Cake Afloat in Water

Quả Mít – The Jackfruit

Con Cua – The Crab

Ốc Nhồi – The Snail

Mời Ăn Trầu – Offering Betel

Đồng Tiền Hoẻn – A Dented Coin

Dỗ Bạn Khóc Chồng – Soothing a Friend Crying for her Spouse

Vịnh Dương Vật – The Male Member

Trào Tăng – Mocking a Monk

Vịnh Sư Hoạch Dâm – The Lustful Monk

Vịnh Ni Sư – The Buddhist Nun

Chơi Hoa – Playing with Blooms

Đền Thái Thú – At a Tai-shou’s Shrine

Khóc Tổng Cóc – Mourning for Commissioner Cóc

Khóc Ông Phủ Vĩnh Tường – Mourning the Prefect of Vĩnh Tường

Vịnh Khách Đáo Gia – The Unwelcome Houseguest

Vịnh Miêu – The Cats

Phận Đàn Bà – A Woman’s Fate

Thương Thay Phận Gái – Pity a Woman’s Fate

Chửa Hoang – A Husbandless Pregnancy

Lấy Chồng Chung – Sharing a Husband

Thương – Love

Vô Âm Nữ - A Girl without Sex

Dệt Cửi – Weaving

Vịnh Quạt – The Folding Fan

Đánh Đu – Swinging

Giếng Nước – The Well

Đèo Ba Dội – Ba Dội Gorge

Hang Cắc Cớ - Cắc Cớ Cave

Vịnh Hàng ở Thanh – A Tavern in Thanh

Đề Tranh Tố Nữ - On a Painting of Beautiful Women

Cảnh Thu – Autumnal Scenery

Tự Tình (I) – Sharing One’s Thoughts with Oneself (I)

Tự Tình (II) – Sharing One’s Thoughts with Oneself (II)

Tự Tình (III) – Sharing One’s Thoughts with Oneself (III)

Trách Chiêu Hổ (I) – Chiding Chiêu Hổ (I)

Chiêu Hổ họa lại (I) – Chiêu Hổ’s Reply (I)

Trách Chiêu Hổ (II) – Chiding Chiêu Hổ (II)

Chiêu Hổ họa lại (II) –Chiêu Hổ’s Reply (II)

Trách Chiêu Hổ (III) – Chiding Chiêu Hổ (III)

Chiêu Hổ họa lại (III) – Chiêu Hổ’s Reply (III)

Tặng Tình Nhân – For the Lover

Núi Kẽm Trống – Mount Kẽm Trống

Nước Đằng – The Kingdom of Teng

Vịnh Y Lão Nhàn Cư – The Retired Doctor

Vịnh Dạy Trẻ Con – On Teaching Children

Bỡn Học Trò – Scolding Students

Tiễn Người Làm Thơ – Farewell to a Poet

Bùn Bắn Lên Đồ - Mud on One’s Clothes

Đi Đái Bùn Nảy – Mud Springs up when Peeing

Vịnh Quả Chuông – The Bell

Vịnh Chùa Quán Sứ - Quán Sứ Pagoda

Cổ Tự - An Old Shrine

Vịnh Chợ Trời – The Sun Market

Vịnh Vấn Nguyệt – Questioning the Moon

Đài Khán Xuân – Spring-viewing Pavilion

Tát Nước – Bailing Water

Thiếu Nữ Ngủ Ngày – A Girl Sleeping in Daylight

Cái Cắng Đánh Nhau – Pigeons Fighting

Vịnh Đấu Kỳ - Playing Chess

Người Bồ Nhìn – The Scarecrow

Hạ Nhật Tầm Phu – Looking for One’s Husband in the Summer

Vịnh Đời Người – A Human’s Life

Tình Có Theo Ai – If Love Tails One

Duyên Kỳ Ngộ – Destined to Meet

Ngại Ngùng – Reluctant

Thị Đểu Thi – A Poem for a Cad

Vịnh Hoa Cúc – The Chrysanthemum

Trúc Bạch Hồ - Trúc Bạch Lake

Vọng Tây Hồ Hoài Hữu – Missing One’s Friend when Viewing Tây Hồ’s Scenery

Bà Huyện Thanh Quan

Qua Đèo Ngang – Crossing the Ngang Pass

Chiều Hôm Nhớ Nhà – Homesick at Eve

Thăng Long Thành Hoài Cổ - Lament on the Old Capital Thăng Long

Chùa Trấn Bắc – Trấn Bắc Temple

Cảnh Hương Sơn – The Sights of Hương Sơn

Cảnh Chiều Hôm - Sunset


About the Translator

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A Brief History of Vietnam in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries


The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Vietnam were marked with a multitude of significant unrests, both inside and outside the country. Feudalism in Vietnam, having reached its prime back in the fifteenth century, began to show obvious signs of weakening throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the feudal systems of the country gradually and steadily descended into a state of complete chaos and turmoil, with multiple political powers, both domestic and foreign, fighting against one another in order to achieve dominance over the entire nation. Their seemingly endless fightings were further accompanied by a number of rebellions led by the angry people of the working class, the farmers who had long grown weary of how corrupted the central government had become, as well as of all the injustice and heavily imposed taxes they had been forced to endure.

The Later Lê Dynasty (1428 – 1788):

Nhà Hậu Lê (The Later Lê Dynasty) was recorded as the longest-lasting dynasty of feudal Vietnam, whose reign spanned more than three centuries, from 1428 up to 1788. The dynasty was given the name Hậu Lê in order to distinguish itself from the first Lê Dyansty, commonly referred to as the the Tiền Lê (The Earlier Lê), which had been founded by Lê Hoàn (later known as Lê Đại Hành) in 980 and which had lasted until the year 1009.

The Later Lê Dynasty was originally established when its founder, Lê Lợi, began a resistance movement against the Ming armies occupying the country at the time. Beginning from the year 1416, Lê Lợi along with the aid of his fellow Lam Sơn warriors and the brilliant tactician Nguyễn Trãi, with all of whom he had exchanged oaths of brotherhood, employed a variety of well coordinated surprise and guerrilla attacks against the Ming armies, effectively reaping multiple successes. By 1428, the Lam Sơn army had successfully liberated the entire country and chased the invading Ming armies out. Lê Lợi would then ascend the throne and proclaim himself Emperor Lê Thái Tổ, the first ruler of the long-lasting Later Lê Dynasty. Under his rule, as well as the subsequent reigns of his descendants, the country would flourish in every way. The people enjoyed the long years of peace and prosperity.

In 1471, Lê Thái Tổ’s descendant Lê Thánh Tông, considered to be the greatest of all the rulers of the Later Lê Dynasty, permanently subjugated Champa and carried out several significant reforms within the country.

He divided the nation into 13 provinces, an administrative model which was fashioned after that of China. Additionally, he established a tradition of the triennial Confucian civil service examination to recruit talented men from all over the nation to serve the court and, most importantly, the people. Lê Thánh Tông was also credited with the establishment of the Hồng Đức legal code, further changing the law of the country for the better. Despite being based on the Chinese law, the Hồng Đức legal code officially recognized and elevated the position of women in society. No longer was parental consent mandatory for marriage, and under the new law, daughters could enjoy the same inheritance rights as sons. The law represented a progressive and fair mindset. During his reign, Lê Thánh Tông continued to follow the teachings of Confucianism, maintaining a good central government as well as his personal morality.

The administrative system under Lê Thánh Tông’s reign, though influenced and inspired by the Chinese counterpart, included distinctly Vietnamese elements, further reinforcing the country’s independence from China. Under Lê Thánh Tông’s rule, the Later Lê Dynasty continued to prosper, ushering a golden age in feudal Vietnam. After his passing in 1497, his son Lê Hiến Tông continued to preserve his legacy throughout his reign, which ended with his own passing in 1504. The death of Lê Hiến Tông marked the beginning of turmoil in the sixteenth century.

In 1527, the throne of the Lê Dynasty was eventually usurped by Mạc Đăng Dung, a member of the powerful and influential Mạc family. Although a new Lê emperor would be crowned in 1533 with the help of the opposing Nguyễn family, the subsequent Lê rulers were reduced to nothing more than figureheads for manipulation. Real power at the time was divided between two families, the Trịnh clan in the north (based in Hà Nội) and the Nguyễn clan in the south (based in Huế). The two clans would inevitably wage a series of fierce and bloody civil wars for dominance over the country.

In the end, the seemingly endless fighting would ultimately leave the country divided into two regions when a truce was formed in 1673. During the peaceful time, the Nguyễn lords would mobilize their troops and wage wars with the weakened Khmer Empire and the state of Siam.

These wars, along with corruption and heavy taxes imposed upon the poor commoners, would further jeopardize their already declining popularity with the people under their rule. Among those who had grown to disdain the Nguyễn’s rule were the Tây Sơn brothers: Nguyễn Nhạc, Nguyễn Huệ and Nguyễn Lữ, who would eventually rise up, name themselves the champions of the people and stage one of the most famous rebellions in Vietnamese history.

The Tây Sơn Dynasty (1778 – 1802):

The Tây Sơn brothers, having won over the hearts and respect of the people, led the revolt. Under their leadership, the people won some battles against the Nguyễn. The Tây Sơn army, having grown in size and power, continued to enjoy a great deal of support not only from the poor farmers but also from some of the indigenous highland tribes. The second-oldest of the three brothers, Nguyễn Huệ, was renowned for being a skilled and charismatic military leader whose leadership proved pivotal in the later victories against the opposing forces.

In 1773, the Tây Sơn was able to capture the port of Qui Nhơn, where the merchants, who had grown dissatisfied of the Nguyễn’s reign due to the restrictive laws put in place, funded their army and cause with handsome financial support, which allowed the Tây Sơn army to expand their influence and a great threat.

The Nguyễn, finally recognizing the danger posted by the Tây Sơn rebels, formed a truce with the Siamese, giving up some of the lands they had conquered in the previous decades, in order to focus their efforts on quelling the rebellions. Unfortunately for the Nguyễn, their situation deteriorated when Trịnh Sâm, the active ruler of the Trịnh clan at the time, took advantage of the chaos in the south and deployed his army to the Nguyễn Lords’ capital, Phú Xuân (now Huế). The Trịnh army captured the city and forced the Nguyễn to escape to Gia Định.

The Trịnh army continued heading south while the Tây Sơn army proceeded with their conquest of other southern cities. In 1776, the Tây Sơn army finally captured the last Nguyễn stronghold in Gia Định. The entire Nguyễn family was killed at the end of the siege, except for one nephew, Nguyễn Ánh, who managed to escape to Siam. After defeating the Nguyễn, the oldest Tây Sơn brother, Nguyễn Nhạc, proclaimed himself Emperor in 1778. This declaration effectively led the newly established Tây Sơn dynasty to an inevitable confrontation with the Trịnh.

The Tây Sơn dynasty spent the next years consolidating their rule over the former Nguyễn territory, but their path to peace and stability was constantly challenged. The surviving Nguyễn Ánh managed to convince the King of Siam to support him and send his men to invade Vietnam. The Siamese army attacked the country in 1780, yet they were unable to completely subdue the Tây Sơn. In 1782, the Siamese king was slain in a revolt. As a result, Nguyễn Ánh's weakened and divided forces were beaten and driven out of Vietnam’s soil. In 1785, Siam launched yet another invasion, which would eventually end in defeat at the hands of Nguyễn Huệ in the Battle of Rạch Gầm-Xoài Mút.

Having vanquished the Nguyễn clan, Nguyễn Huệ decided to get rid of the Trịnh in the north as well. He led his men northward in 1786 and, after a short campaign, succeeded in defeating the Trịnh army. The Trịnh clan at the time was also unpopular with the people. Taking advantage of this as well as the support they enjoyed, the Tây Sơn army seemed invincible.

A few months later, realising that his hope of retaining power had gone, Emperor Lê Chiêu Thống fled north to the Qing Empire of China, where he formally petition the Emperor for aid. The Emperor agreed to restore Lê Chiêu Thống to power as a puppet ruler, and in 1788, a large Qing army marched south into Vietnam and captured the capital Thăng Long. Their victory was doomed to end. In a surprise attack, while the Qing army was celebrating the Lunar New Year, Nguyễn Huệ's army defeated them at the Battle of Ngọc Hồi-Đống Đa and forced them, along with Lê Chiêu Thống, to flee back to China.

Nguyễn Huệ’s success at defeating both the Trịnh and the Nguyễn Lords as well as the Qing effectively ended the division of the country after a hundred years of separation.

In 1788, Nguyễn Huệ officially became the Emperor of the new Tây Sơn dynasty, proclaiming himself Emperor Quang Trung, recognized by China as An Nam Quốc Vương. Emperor Quang Trung would rule the country until his early death in 1792.

One of the most significant changes implemented under the rule of Emperor Quang Trung’s reign was that Chữ Nôm (The Southern Scripts) was made the official language of business in the nation, replacing the traditional Chinese characters. This change was not only politically noteworthy, but it was also important for the culture and literature of the country during the Tây Sơn’s reign. Multiple timeless Nôm works of literary values were produced, with the most prominent example of the Nôm poetess Hồ Xuân Hương.

After Emperor Quang Trung's death, his son Nguyễn Quang Toản was crowned as Emperor Cảnh Thịnh when he was only ten years old. Due to his young age, real political power was centralized in the hands of his uncle Bùi Đắc Tuyền, who enacted a massive political purge, executing many subjects who had served and sworn loyalty to the late Quang Trung. The Tây Sơn’s dynasty began to weaken.

The Nguyễn Dynasty:

The death of Emperor Quang Trung and the subsequent rift in the Tây Sơn’s inner circle effectively paved the way for Nguyễn Ánh to capture the entire country within 10 years, aided by the French military adventurers enlisted by bishop Pigneau de Behaine. In 1800, Nguyễn Ánh occupied Quy Nhơn citadel. In 1801, he occupied Phú Xuân, forcing Nguyễn Quang Toản to flee to Thăng Long. In 1802, Nguyễn Ánh launched an attack on Thăng Long. Nguyễn Quang Toản was captured soon afterwards and executed, thus ending the Tây Sơn dynasty after only 24 years.

Nguyễn Ánh took the throne for himself and became the Emperor Gia Long. He established the Nguyễn Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of Vietnam, in 1802. Emperor Gia Long repealed the reforms implemented by the Tây Sơn dynasty and rigidly reinstated the classical Confucian education and civil service system. He moved the capital from Ha Nội to Huế and built up fortresses and a palace in his new capital. Using the French’s expertise and knowledge, Gia Long modernized Vietnam's defensive capabilities, turning the country into a major military power in the region. However, Gia Long was not fond of the westerners. In deference to the assistance of his French allies, Gia Long simply tolerated the activities of Roman Catholic missionaries. Such tolerance would become increasingly restricted under the reigns of his successors.

In 1820, Gia Long’s fourth son, Nguyễn Phúc Đảm, became the second Emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty after the former had passed away. Nguyễn Phúc Đảm proclaimed himself Emperor Minh Mạng, and with his power, he continued on his predecessor’s legacy by reinforcing the strict Confucian orthodoxy. He would vehemently oppose to the westerners’ involvements in the country, banning western missionaries from entering or preaching.

His firmness in dealing with missionaries and Christianity resulted in the deaths of multiple followers and preachers. Additionally, with his isolationist and conservative policies, Minh Mạng intensified his efforts to prevent Europeans from entering the country, refusing several attempts at starting commercial deals from various countries throughout his rule until his eventual passing in 1841.

His death would soon usher the way for the French to colonize the country, starting in 1858 with an attack on the port of Đà Nẵng by French Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly under the orders of Napoleon III. Hence, a new chapter in Vietnam’s history would begin, one in which the nation would fall into the clutch of the French and one in which the existence of the Nguyễn Dynasty was reduced to nothing more than an empty, valueless title.



In Response to the Northerners’ Query Regarding An Nam’s Customs

(Đáp Bắc Nhân Vấn An Nam Phong Tục)

By Hồ Quý Ly (1336 – 1407)

You wish to know the state of An Nam, yes?

An Nam’s customs are, in essence, refined.

Headwears and robes are not unlike the Tang’s,

Rites and music are the same as the Han’s.

Jade bottles pour just-distilled, fragrant wine,

Gold knives dissect exquisite smallscale carps.

Each year, when February or March comes,

Peaches and plums alike share the same spring.

The Vietnamese society, culture and literature, prior to the 20th century, had been largely influenced by the Chinese ever since Ngô Quyền successfully won the nation’s independence from the Northern power back in 938. After becoming a free country, however, the Vietnamese rulers at the time would impose upon themselves and their subjects the structures of political and social control fashioned after that of China in order to protect the nation from being forcefully taken by the Northerners, who had, for more than a thousand years, ruled over them. Instead of allowing the country to be sinicized completely and against their will, the Vietnamese leaders at the time willingly imposed sinicization upon themselves and established themselves as a subvervient country, all for the sake of peace.

The Vietnamese rulers adopted the rigid Confucian hierarchy and ideology from China as a result. Due to such implementations, the literary customs of the nation were heavily influenced by that of China in many ways: classical Chinese became the official language, the civil service examination systems were adopted and, as a result, literature rose to prominence to become one of the most important criteria for scholars aiming to become mandarins and serve the state.

Poetry, as a result, also rose to a paramount status. It was thus compulsory or scholars to be able to compose poems in any given situation and on any circumstance of life; scholars were expected to be able to produce works of great literary values in classical Chinese when the moment demanded, even for simple occasions such as a friendly reunion, a parting of friends or a social gathering. Poetry was the measure of a scholar’s, and by extension, a mandarin’s competence, used to evaluate whether or not he could be of service to the state and to the king. For centuries, the practice of poetry composition, along with the system of social service examination, would continue to persist until it would at last lose its prominence in the late 19th century, when the French invaded and eventually colonized Vietnam.

Unlike modern poets, who are given various choices and freedom regarding what types of poems they can compose, scholars who were considered qualified for bureaucratic positions at the time could only write verses in accordance to all of the strict and sophisticated rules of Chinese poetry, especially the Tang poetry known as Lüshi (an eight-line regulated verse). Lüshi became prominent as, in many ways, it rigidly embraced every virtue expected of a scholar wishing to join the governmental power: an absolute adherence, or submission, to higher authority and rules and a complete disdain for that which was not considered orthodox.

As time passed, the Vietnamese, using the classical Chinese script along with its semantic and phonemic similarities to Vietnamese words, developed their own writing, which they dubbed Chữ Nôm (The Southern Script). Believed to have originated in as early as the tenth century, Chữ Nôm eventually rose in popularity and importance, as it at long last allowed the Vietnamese people a means to record their sounds and speeches, one which they could proudly call their own. With its introduction, more and more poets would employ the Nôm script for their essays and literary works, finally breathing their own life and using their own voice instead of a borrowed one. However, Chữ Nôm, despite being created by and for the Vietnamese people, was in reality much more difficult than the classical Chinese characters on which the writing system was based. In terms of linguistics features, Chữ Nôm directly borrowed certain elements of the already complex Chinese characters and further added some new Vietnamese phonemic features to the characters. The resulting number of characters for an expression consequently became twice as much and twice as tricky to master in the end, rendering the reading and writing of the Nôm scripts inaccessible to the illiterate mass.

Still, it is undeniable that Chữ Nôm was a significant invention of the Vietnamese people, and it would continue to become more popular with the scholarly and the learned. While the traditionalists aiming for bureaucratic positions continued to compose verses in classical Chinese, those interested in the reading and writing poetry simply for the sake of doing so would produce verses and works written in the Southern script on topics of their own personal passions rather than purely for the service of the state or for the sake of attaining fame and fortune.

Along with the domestication of the classical Chinese to create Chữ Nôm, the Vietnamese poets would proceed to do the same with the regulated Tang poetry which had for so long been ingrained into their culture: the Lüshi. More and more works following the Lüshi’s rules were published, but the language was distinctly that of the Vietnamese. That transitional process from Chinese to Nôm in composition was not at all difficult, for Chữ Nôm and the classical Chinese script shared certain linguistic similarities.

Both the Nôm and Chinese are, in nature, monosyllabic languages, meaning each utterance in Vietnamese can indeed stand alone as a separate word. Additionally, in both languages, sentences need not contain purely functional words, allowing them brevity and vagueness of expressions, allowing for multiple interpretations at the same time – a feature which poets of the feudal eras took advantage of and utilized in the most masterful manners. Yet the most important feature which the Nôm and Chinese share is the presence of tones – bằng (flat) and trắc (sharp) – which make them sound pleasantly melodious to the ears when the poems are recited aloud, effectively enabling them to be memorized more easily and to be popularized more widely.

Following the gradual domestication of the Lüshi, the literature of Vietnam began to head towards a different direction. From works written soley for literary values or for sevice to the authority, Vietnamese poets began to compose works which diverted from the norms and from the Confucian ideology. Humor, wits, puns, satire and even delicate topics such as sex – elements which were avoided by the traditionalists – were incorporated into the compositions and popularized to the people through the purely Vietnamese poetic forms known as the Song thất lục bát (Double seven, six, eight) and Lục bát (Six-eight), both of which were commonly employed in folk poetry. Vietnamese folk poetry would be commonly sung and recited by the common and illiterate mass, and it was through those verses that the true, honest feelings of the people were shown through the simple yet captivating melodies as well as the various images associated with the rustic life at the countryside villages, such as the cranes, the bamboos, the buffalo and countless more.

Traditionally, the themes which poets usually wrote on were those which reflected the various aspects of the nation’s culture and society. Yet for a long time, most of those reflections were viewed mostly from the perspective of the ruling classes and the powerful: the royal families, the nobilities, the mandarins and bureaucrats. With the rise and popularity of folk poetry and its forms, the Vietnamese people slowly yet steadily broke away from the influences of the Tang poetry which had for so long constricted and bound them in inflexible frames and complicated rules. Several poems of great literary values were written in the Nôm script and passed down through generations, with the most exceptional examples being king Lê Thánh Tông’s Hồng Đức Quốc Âm Thi Tập (The Hồng Đức Anthology of Poems Written in the National Language) in the fifteenth century, Đoàn Thị Điểm’s Nôm translation of Đặng Trần Côn’s Chinese original of Chinh Phụ Ngâm (Lament of the Soldier’s Wife) in the eighteenth century, Hồ Xuân Hương’s various daring Nôm poems, and, most famously, Nguyễn Du’s Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kiều) in the nineteenth century, which was composed using the Lục Bát poetic form.

Under the reign of the Tây Sơn Dynasty, progressive reforms turned the Nôm script the country’s official language in the eighteenth century, and it was at this time that poetry written in Nôm flourished the most. Even women, after having been positioned at the bottom of society and denied formal education for so long according to the Confucian doctrine, were trained in the art of poetry composition, and many displayed their talents which rivaled or, in some cases, stunningly exceeded those of men. For instance, Đoàn Thị Điểm, a talented poetess, left the older scholars visiting her house speechless, rendering them unable to form a poetic response to her poems. Similarly, Hồ Xuân Hương, with her unique boldness and wits, scathingly exposed the social injustice and moral degradations of various classes of people which had for so long haunted the nation through her use of folk knowledge, proverbs and mythology as well as through her witty wordplay and sexual double entendres apparent in her compositions on seemingly mundane objects or topics found in people’s everyday life.

All the tumultuous events taking place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – all the rises and falls of various dynasties, the cultural and social reforms implemented by the Tây Sơn and the Nguyễn Dynasties, and the appearance of western forces inside the nation – also greatly influenced the literature of the country in the time, serving as inspirations for the poets and poetesses.

The war-torn time and the sorrows caused by the splitting of family members, of husbands and wives were vividly illustrated in Đoàn Thị Điểm’s Nôm translation of Đặng Trần Côn’s Chinh Phụ Ngâm (Lament of a Soldier’s Wife). The years when the vernacular Nôm became the official language of all courtly affairs and literary practice were highlighted by various poets, with the prime examples being the works of Hồ Xuân Hương, many of which were aimed at cleverly exposing the inequality in the male-dominant society as well as expressing the thoughts and feelings of the females, and Nguyễn Du’s Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kiều), which not only told a woeful tale of trials and tribulations faced by the titular Kiều, but also reflected great details all aspects of society, including the turmoil of warfare, the degradation of morals and the oppressive, corrupted forces which trampled upon the lives of honest, peaceful people.

Under the reign of Emperor Minh Mạng, the hearts and minds of many scholars were still filled with nostalgia and laments for the golden age of the Lê Dynasty now long extinguished – powerful emotions which stir the heart and mind and serve as inspirations for poets such as Nguyễn Gia Thiều, Nguyễn Hành and Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, whose works were, though limited in number, deeply and artistically resounding compositions drenched in nostalgia.

Due to the aforementioned significance of the timeless works of Đoàn Thị Điểm, Hồ Xuân Hương and Bà Huyện Thanh Quan – all of whom are considered to be among the most famous poetesses in the history of Vietnam, I have decided to choose some of their most popular works and translate them into English while attempting to – to the best of my current ability – preserve some of the formal and musical qualities of the orginal poems while retaining, as much as possible, the messages within the poems. Annotations will also be provided for details, allusions and cultural references which the translations fail to fully convey.

As the translations in this book are the result of my own experimentations, any mistakes and inaccuracies present are, therefore, owing to my own shortcomings and mine alone.


Đoàn Thị Điểm

(1705 – 1749)

ĐOÀN THỊ ĐIỂM, also known by the title of the Rosy-Cloud Lady, was a celebrated female poet Vietnam’s history in the 18th century.

She was born in Giai Phạm village, Văn Giang district in Kinh Bắc (Hưng Yên province in modern day). She hailed from a long line of scholars with connections to the Lê Dynasty at the time. When she turned sixteen, she was well-known both for her skills with poetry as well as her charms. As a result, Lê Anh Tuấn, a high-ranking official in Lord Trịnh’s court at the time, expressed his desire to adopt her after a small test in order to introduce her to his lord. However, Đoàn Thị Điểm turned him down. Instead, she went to Lạc Viên village in Kiến An province, where her father Đoàn Doãn Nghi was working as a teacher and doctor, to avoid troubles which could result from her refusal. Along with her brother Đoàn Doãn Luân, she continued her study in the art of poetry and further flourished as a poet.

In 1729, when Đoàn Thị Điểm’s father passed away. After carrying out the funeral rites, she, along with her mother and brother, moved to Võ Ngại village in Hưng Yên province. In 1735, her brother passed away as well, leaving his children behind. Đoàn Thị Điểm, in order to support herself, her mother and her late brother’s children, had to work as a teacher and make medicine.

Well-known for her beauty and flair, she was thus popular with men of all social standings. Many men came to her to ask for her hand in marriage. However, she refused all of their proposals. In 1742, however, she at long last accepted the proposal of Nguyễn Kiều, a famous scholar whose wife had recently passed away. Nguyễn Kiều had to travel to China for the next three years, leaving her alone shortly after their marriage. It was believed that during this time, Đoàn Thị Điểm came across Đặng Trần Côn’s Chinh Phụ Ngâm, written in Chinese.

In 1745, Nguyễn Kiều finally returned from his excursion and was offered a position in Nghệ An in 1748. Đoàn Thị Điểm went along with her husband. However, along the way, she was afflicted with a fatal disease and passed away in Nghệ An. Nguyễn Kiều, to mourn her untimely passing, composed a funeral poem that sang praises to her skills as a poetess and her virtues as a woman.

The peach, not yet ripe, has withered,

Cinnamon, fragrant, has shriveled,

Amid deep forests, vast oceans, where have you gone to?

The gem’s broken, jewel’s shattered; my mourning heart aches…

In her literary career, Đoàn Thị Điểm did not compose much. She was best known for being the author of a collection of works written in Chinese under the title Truyền Kỳ Tân Phả (傳奇新譜), and for being the translator of Đặng Trần Côn’s Chinh Phụ Ngâm Khúc (Lament of a Soldier’s Wife) from Chinese into the vernacular Nôm (the Southern Scripture). Her Nôm version of Chinh Phụ Ngâm Khúc is included in this book alongside the English translation.

Song Thất Lục Bát (7-7-6-8)

Song Thất Lục Bát (lit. Double Seven, Six, Eight) is a Vietnamese poetic form, which consists of a quatrain made up of a couplet with seven syllable succeeded by a Lục Bát (6-8) couplet.

As a unique poetic form of Vietnam, the Song Thất Lục Bát has its own set of rules governing its construction and flow. The last syllable of the first seven-syllable line rhymes with the fifth syllable of the second seven-syllable line. The last syllable of the second seven-syllable line rhymes with the last syllable of the six-syllable line, which in turn rhymes with the sixth syllable of the eight-syllable line. That marks the end of a quatrain.

The second quatrain begins, with the fifth (or third) syllable of the beginning seven-syllable line rhyming with the last syllable from the eight-syllable line of the previous quatrain.

The tonal rules of sharp and flat are shown in the extract from Chinh Phụ Ngâm (Lament of a Soldier’s Wife) below:

1. Thuở trời đất nổi cơn gió bụi (a)


Khách má hồng nhiều nỗi (a) truân chuyên (b)


Xanh kia thăm thẳm tầng trên (b)


ai gây dựng cho nên (b) nỗi này (c).


5. Trống Trường Thành lung lay (c) bóng nguyệt (d)


Khói Cam Tuyền mờ mịt (d) thức mây (e)


Chín tầng gươm báu trao tay (e)


Nửa đêm truyền hịch định ngày (e) xuất chinh (f).


(* An irregular tone)

As English does not have tones, I decided to focus solely on the number of syllables, meter and the rhymes only. Here is an example taken from the translation of The Song of the Soldier’s Wife (p. 21):

1. When earthly dust-storms arise (a),

The rosy-cheeked fight (a) hardships (b),

Vast Heaven, high and deep (b)!

Who’s wrought such dreadful deeds (b) and doles (c)?

5. Chang Cheng’s drums rattle (c) moonlights (d),

Mount Gan Quan’s smokes hide (d) clouds’ glows (e),

The Throne’s prized sword’s bestowed (e),

Planned march order follows (e) midnight (f).

Due to the limited number of pure rhymes available in the English language, I have consequently decided to use slant rhymes in hope of somewhat replicating and introducing to interested readers the musical quality of the poetic form. As for the message, I have also tried to stay as faithful as I could to the Vietnamese text; however, there will be imperfections which cannot be avoided. Therefore, it is advisable that readers who are interested in this translation should also seek out other published translations by other scholars as well, so that they can form a better understanding of the message of the poem as a whole.

The Song Thất Lục Bát, along with Lục Bát (6-8), was held in high regard from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century. However, due to its complex rules and constrictions, the Song Thất Lục Bát form gradually became less popular with the poets of the New Poetry Movement started in the 1930s. Despite its obscurity thenceforth, this poetic form is still, and ever shall be, one of the most definitive, notable and important contributors to the diversity and sophistication of the Vietnamese classic poetry.


Chinh Phụ Ngâm Khúc

Thuở trời đất nổi cơn gió bụi

Khách má hồng nhiều nỗi truân chuyên

Xanh kia thăm thẳm tầng trên

Vì ai gây dựng cho nên nỗi này.

5. Trống Trường Thành lung lay bóng nguyệt

Khói Cam Tuyền mờ mịt thức mây

Chín tầng gươm báu trao tay

Nửa đêm truyền hịch định ngày xuất chinh.

Nước thanh bình ba trăm năm cũ

10. Áo nhung trao quan vũ từ đây

Sứ trời sớm giục đường mây

Phép công là trọng, niềm tây sá nào.

Ðường giong ruổi lưng đeo cung tiễn

Buổi tiễn đưa lòng bận thê noa

15. Bóng cờ tiếng trống xa xa

Sầu lên ngọn ải, oán ra cửa phòng.

Chàng tuổi trẻ vốn giòng hào kiệt

Xếp bút nghiên theo việc đao cung

Thành liền mong tiến bệ rồng

20. Thước gươm đã quyết chẳng dung giặc trời.

Chí làm trai dặm nghìn da ngựa

Gieo Thái Sơn như tựa hồng mao

Giã nhà đeo bức chiến bào

Thét roi cầu Vị, ào ào gió thu.

25. Ngòi đầu cầu nước trong như lọc

Ðường bên cầu cỏ mọc còn non

Ðưa chàng lòng dặc dặc buồn

Bộ khôn bằng ngựa, thủy khôn bằng thuyền.

Nước trong chảy lòng phiền chẳng rửa

30. Cỏ xanh thơm dạ nhớ khó quên

Nhủ rồi tay lại trao liền

Bước đi một bước lại vin áo chàng.

Lòng thiếp tựa bóng trăng theo dõi

Dạ chàng xa ngoài cõi Thiên San

35. Múa gươm rượu tiễn chưa tàn

Chỉ ngang ngọn giáo vào ngàn hang beo.

Lament of a Soldier’s Wife

1. When earthly dust-storms (1) arise,

The rosy-cheeked (2) fight hardships,

Vast Heaven, high and deep!

Who’s wrought such dreadful deeds and doles?

5. Chang Cheng’s (3) drums rattle moonlights,

Mount Gan Quan’s smokes (4) hide clouds’ glows,

The Throne’s prized sword’s bestowed,

Planned march order follows midnight.

Three-hundred-year quiet, peace’s

10. Gone! Armors must be put on.

Heralds urge men at morn,

The law outweighs one’s own feelings.

Arrows, bows, men bring and leave,

Thoughts of wives, kids seize their hearts.

15. Flags wave; drums roar afar,

Grieves climb high pass; woes start from homes.

You’re young with hero’s birthright,

Take arms, set aside brush, ink.

You yearn to serve the king,

20. Staunch sword shan’t spare strapping rebels.

Men stomp on thousand horse skins (5),

Lift Tai Shan (6) like thin feathers.

You swing your whip, armored,

Like fall’s winds, whiz to the Wei’s (7) bridge.

25. Down runs a stream which’s pristine,

Nearby sprouts grass, green and new.

I see you off; wistful,

Your horse, boat, I wish to be now.

Flowing stream can’t drown sorrows,

30. Sweet grass can’t swallow heart’s pains.

Farewell, hands twined again.

At each step made, we then falter.

My heart’s keen like the Moon high,

For far Tien Shan (8) flies your heart.

35. Wine’s yet drained, sword dance starts,

T’ward beasts’ lair, spear’s tip darts thus straight.

Săn Lâu Lan, rằng theo Giới Tử

Tới Man Khê, bàn sự Phục Ba

Áo chàng đỏ tựa ráng pha

40. Ngựa chàng sắc trắng như là tuyết in.

Tiếng nhạc ngựa lần chen tiếng trống

Giáp mặt rồi phút bỗng chia tay

Hà Lương chia rẽ đường này

Bên đường, trông bóng cờ bay ngùi ngùi

45. Quân trước đã gần ngoài doanh Liễu

Kỵ sau còn khuất nẻo Tràng Dương

Quân đưa chàng ruổi lên đường

Liễu dương biết thiếp đoạn trường này chăng?

Tiếng địch trổi nghe chừng đồng vọng

50. Hàng cờ bay trong bóng phất phơ

Dấu chàng theo lớp mây đưa

Thiếp nhìn rặng núi ngẩn ngơ nỗi nhà.

Chàng thì đi cõi xa mưa gió

Thiếp lại về buồng cũ gối chăn

55. Ðoái trông theo đã cách ngăn

Tuôn màu mây biếc, trải ngần núi xanh.

Chốn Hàm Dương chàng còn ngảnh lại

Bến Tiêu Tương thiếp hãy trông sang

Khói Tiêu Tương cách Hàm Dương

60. Cây Hàm Dương cách Tiêu Tương mấy trùng.

Cùng trông lại mà cùng chẳng thấy

Thấy xanh xanh những mấy ngàn dâu

Ngàn dâu xanh ngắt một màu

Lòng chàng ý thiếp ai sầu hơn ai ?

65. Chàng từ đi vào nơi gió cát

Ðêm trăng này nghỉ mát phương nao?

Xưa nay chiến địa dường bao

Nội không muôn dặm xiết bao dãi dầu.

Hơi gió lạnh, người rầu mặt dạn

70. Dòng nước sâu, ngựa nản chân bon

Ôm yên, gối trống đã chồn

Nằm vùng cát trắng, ngủ cồn rêu xanh.

Tread Jie Zi’s way, seize Lou Lan (9).

Reach Man Xi and plan Fu-bo (10).

Your coat’s red like sunglow,

40. Your horse’s white as if snow’s dyed it.

Drums and horse bells mix, jumbling,

Facing then parting quickly,

This bridge splits you and me,

By roadside, sad eyes see flags go.

45. Vanguards near Willow Camp’s site,

Zhang Yang’s trails (11) still hide rearguards.

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