Vietnamese Epic & The Budget Traveler

Kim Van Kieu is one of those stories that is so famous that The Lonely Planet Guidebook will advise enterprising tourists to read it if they really want to move beyond the superficial world of noodles stalls, trinkets and bar-hopping. Supposedly, its influence is so immense that even illiterate peasants, working the emerald rice paddies, will recite a few lines, as they bend their backs in the kind of primordial labor that also makes great postcards.

Through this literary endeavor, any budget traveler can truly begin to understand the Vietnamese people.  But don’t just listen to me or The Lonely Planet; I’ve had this point corroborated on the good authority of several drunken German tourists at that delightful watering hole in Saigon—Apocalypse Now—who swear by its merits as a touchstone of culture:  “Kim Van Kieu is a part of your literary DNA.”  Short of dating a local girl, reading a bootlegged photocopy book of the story of Kieu is the best way to distinguish yourself from the crowd at the youth hostel.

Front Entrance of Apocalypse Now

Kim Van Kieu is a narrative poem that serves as an allegory of resistance.  Put in layman’s terms: the poem tells a story and we can read from the story how it is trying to tell, quite indirectly, another story.  The other story is about a beset Vietnam as it has attempted to resist a thousand years of invasion.

The backdrop of the story is the imprisonment of Kieu’s brother and father.  In order to save them, she marries herself off to a rich man who tricks her, turning her into a prostitute.  Her virtuous self-sacrifice is paradoxical, for she becomes that which is diametrically opposed to the very essence of virtue.  She becomes a whore.

The story can be read as a tale of the individual caught up within the machinations of the state, compelled to make sacrifices under unusual circumstances for the cause of nationalism.  The heroine Kieu is the archetypal Vietnamese, forced into terribly unnatural acts out of desperation.  The father and brother are the patriarchal authority, thwarted by injustice.  The middle-aged man can be any of a series of imperial powers–China, France, Japan and the United States—who have interfered with a nubile young country’s natural development.

Vietnamese people appreciate the pathos of this type of irony, even if they do not tolerate it in real life.  Prostitution is a growth industry in my old homeland and the statistics are staggering.   In my various visits to Vietnam during two years of traveling, I often saw the young sex workers come out at night and stand, backlit, at the doorways as pimps piss-pissed their wonders and virtues.  Girls of this kind could usually be found lurking somewhere near that bar Apocalypse Now, which is a hotspot for tourists who seek a certain kind of adventure.

I often wonder how many young girls, sold into prostitution in Vietnam are choosing to do so for heroic reasons.  I often wonder how many people actually think that what they are doing is patriotic and self-sacrificing—that it might serve a greater cause that will shake the very fabric of Vietnamese civilization to its core. But it doesn’t seem like an appropriate question to ask.

One night, I got drunk on Tiger Beer at Apocalypse Now and then wandered around the tourist quarter, looking for people to buttonhole.  I asked this forbidden question to a nice, middle-aged man at a coffee shop.  Set before him on an aluminum tray was a tall glass of ice coffee, an ashtray, a pack of Jet cigarettes and the daily newspaper.  He was dressed in that classic Vietnamese style that always makes me feel immediately at ease:  white button-down shirt, high-water black slacks and plastic flip flops.  His hair, severely side-parted and blackly impeccable, glinted against the luminescence of the naked bulbs strung like gargantuan Christmas lights on steroids.  He told me two things that immediately made me feel better.  “Kim Van Kieu, she’s not a real person.”  The other thing:  “Those girls, most of them we get from Laos.”  I guess I should have been relieved that the bulk of our prostitutes are not really of consequence because they come from across the border.  Perhaps I was.

It took me several days to get a dawning sense of the true injustice that lay behind this new knowledge.  For what of the predicament of the many Western sex tourists who had been assiduously plugging away at Kim Van Kieu and waiting for the moment when they could graduate to a real Vietnamese?  Did they know they were getting the switcher-oo?  All that work, all that intellectual development, all laid waste. The injustice of that was terrible.

—–Khanh Ho

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  1. I wonder whether those male sex-tourists would be able to decode (maybe through their accents or behaviors?) that these sex workers and/or girls enduring child sexual abuse were/are Laotian.

    I only learned about Kieu through Trinh’s film Surname Viet Given Name Nam, which I first saw in 1991 (or 1992?) and since then have taught the film several times and read The Tale of Kieu (but never assigned it). I think my students might enjoy the Tale more than the film.

  2. Kieu is far from dead. Here is a quotation from Philip Caputo’s review of David Rabe’s new novel, which features a Vietnamese prostitute as a major character (oh, shades of The Quiet American!):

    In a brief afterword, Rabe suggests that he was partly inspired by “The Tale of Kieu,” an early-19th-century epic poem by Vietnam’s Shakespeare, Nguyen Du. The original title was “A New Cry From a Broken Heart,” because Du wanted his poem to be a scream hurled against injustice and the harshness of fate, a scream to break the heart. “Girl by the Road at Night” is Rabe’s cry, and it deserves to be heard.

  3. I beg to differ with Dan that many people ‘really do know’ this epic poem, (an imposing 3254 lines), nor do I believe that Nguyễn Du’s Vietnam was free from oppression. In a nutshell, Vietnam and Kiều do share an allegorical fate. Interwining and inexorable. One can say that to understand the Vietnamese lot, we must read the story Kim vân Kiều. Until Vietnam has real self-determination, the story, the trials and tribulations of Kiều will always be the key to understand the karma of the long-suffering people.
    To understand Kiều, one needs to know the backdrop to Kiều, where, for a long period, VN was plagued with warfare, i.e. the internal strifes between the Trịnh and the Nguyễn (1627-1673) and then the Tây Sơn. Not unlike present-day VN leaders- Lê Chiêu Thống, the last king of the Lê dynasty, invited the Qing (Thanh) dynasty to help him reclaim his throne but Qing’s emperor QianLong and his Chinese troops was defeated by Nguyễn Huệ in 1788. Nguyễn Du ambassadorial appointment took him to China in 1813, where he picked up an obscure and illicit (harlequin romance) story and turned it into literary gem, national treasure.

    As a middle-schooler in Vietnam, I’d already learned that Nguyễn Du wrote Kiều to express and relieve his ill-feeling of shame and guilt for working for the Nguyễn dynasty instead of serving the Lê’s, where he’s and his father are great loyal subjects. We need not discuss the significant parallel between Nguyen Du’ s marriage to the Nguyễn dynasty while his soul remains with the Lê’s and Thúy Kiều prostituting herself with unsavory characters while her heart is pining away for Kim Trọng.

    However, I do not see the parallel between the archetypal male patriarchal authority in Kiều and the real-life male chauvinistic figure. To me there is no real archetype authority figure – male or female – nor is there any cultural paradigm in Vietnam society today that is represented in Kiều. Thúy Kiều after all is a story about a femme fatale, a living victim of her time and her own illusionary ideals of sacrifice and heroism. Everything else is an add-on, a projection of our own uncertainty and insecurity in a time transition and adulteration.

  4. Not a lot of people would have enough straightforwardness to call Kieu a whore. Not Vietnamese people anyways.

    I liked this entry. Though initially I thought that you kind of read too much into a seemingly innocuous and quite non-political poem, I do now think you brought up a few good points. I personally never thought about the resistance of Vietnam that the poem might have portrayed or the irony in Kieu’s sacrifice. Probably because high school here only likes to teach students to dissect some popular lines of the poem, recite several stanzas and possibly recognize the trite metaphors that have been overly repeated by generations of jaded Vietnamese students.

    Anyways, nice post. I’ll probably follow diacritics more often from now on.

  5. Thanks for the feedback.

    Dan: Contact me through my academic account, which is easily available by googling and we can discuss the conference.

    Hai-Dang & Dao: This is the beginning of a longer piece I’ve been thinking about for a while…so I’ll try to keep your suggestions in mind as I write the piece.

  6. I also enjoyed this entry and the comments following – the issue of looking at the masculine archetype and its implications seems apt to me…. I have myself often contemplated why it is that the archetype of the prostitute (this is how it occurs to me) is one with which many often identify Vietnam, and – in a broader picture – why it is that many women go through periods of identifying with this archetype as well. I think if you look back at certain sources (Magdalene, I am sure there are others) the act of submission for the prostitute is – yes – “heroic” and also equates with something holy: the idea of submission to a higher force. But I also wonder if it is not, in these times, more relevant for us to now move (our nation, ourselves) beyond that archetype…. & what is she when she is no longer the property/the victim/the object upon which the patriarchy acts out or displays its power struggles? …. Thanks for the interesting discussions here, all of you.

  7. I enjoyed the piece as well. Not stuff you read in Lonely Planet Vietnam!

    My comment/question: To riff on your line, I also wonder what of the predicament of the Vietnamese (male) diasporic intellectual returning to VN and writing this ethnographic account featuring other men (your drunken German tourists and your chain-smoking, cà phê sữa đá-drinking older Vietnamese Man–I recognize him too!) and their various determinations of Vietnamese women sold into prostitution, past and present, Kieu and the Cambodians, allegorical and flesh and blood?

    The short version of this is: might you elaborate on the role that gender/masculinity/sexuality might play within this “new knowledge” and its circulation? The drunk Germans seem like an easy target to me. With them, there’s critical and ironic distance. But what seems most interesting and problematic is your exchange with the older Vietnamese man. With him, there seems to be an unexamined familiarity, an uncanny closeness, with a patriarchal figure who “fixes” the interpretations of both Kieu and the prostitutes in question. By the end, I’m left wondering what the relationship is between knowledge production, cultural authority, and gendered identities–all around the figure of Kieu.

  8. Neat. I like the broad characterization of the Lonely Planet reading of Kieu followed by the specific ethnographic encounter, your drunken conversation with the man on the street.

    Who knew exactly what you were talking about! Many people really do know the poem, and know it is a poem. “She’s not a real person,” he must have said, since “Kim Van Kieu” is not her name, but the poem’s.

    Two more pedantries. First, taking the poem as the essential Vietnamese poem is an Orientalism, whether from Lonely Planet or Nguyen Khac Vien. We don’t read the Comedy for the soul of Italy.

    Second, the allegory of resistance is a characteristic of texts, something we have shown can be demonstrated in about anything. Applied to Kieu, it would seem to be anti-colonialist, but there are two problems with that.

    First, if Du was resisting anyone, it would be Gia Long. He wrote it at the beginning of the Nguyen dynasty when no nation was oppressing Viet Nam. You can read Nguyen Huy Thiep’s short-story trilogy, and Peter Zinoman’s essay on it, for an elaboration of this line of thought.

    Second, actual anti-colonialists tended to think the poem was weepy fluff, not resistant at all. The communists tried to replace it, with Song of a Solder’s Wife, to little success.

    Because people really do like to live with Kieu. People of all origins. When I first read it, I took it as a ridiculous Perils of Pauline that had become a national treasure by accident, as often happens.

    Now I walk around thinking, “Tram nam trong cuoi nguoi ta, chu menh chu tai kheo la ghet nhau…” Talent and fate are at odds and if you live long you will see things that make you sick.

    Who can argue with that? Nobody on the streets you describe so well. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Eric Henry is kicking off the Viet Nam Literature Seminars this fall, on the eve of Nguyen Du’s death anniversary, with a teleconference on reading the poem through its English translations.

    Would you take part? Please drop a line –



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