By IYWP Intern Camellia Pham
I vividly remembered listening to my grandmother telling the story of Tấm & Cám as a bedtime story. I slept with magic and wonders when I was young. Then I started to learn about it more comprehensively during my sophomore year into high school. The magic and wonders were still preserved. The narrative, however, is much darker and edgier than most of the Cinderellas versions across the globe, considering the Vietnamese beliefs of karma, constant reincarnations of a soul, and the veneration of the dead. Tấm & Cám of Vietnam is not much different from the story of Ye Xian in China for the first half of the story. Tấm’s father passes away when she was young; she then lives with the second wife of her father and Cám, her stepsister. Tấm, as the Vietnamese version of Cinderella, also drops her golden embroidery slipper on her back to home from the festival. The king happens to pick it up and wants to chase the girl down to be his wife.
The second half weaves into this magical reincarnation of Tấm. After her happy marriage with the king, she came back home to help her stepmother prepare for the anniversary of her father’s death day.
The stepmother demands Tấm to climb on an areca tree to gather the betel nuts to offer for the father’s altar. While Tấm is on the tree picking the fruit, her stepmother tries to strike down the tree in an attempt to kill her, fending off that she is just warding the red stinging ants off. Tấm falls down and dies, incarnating into an oriole bird. Cám then dresses herself in her sister royal garb and officially enters the palace taking Tấm’s place and serving the imperial court. The bird flies to the palace, and dwells in the king’s garden. Disheartened over the death of his late wife, the king is mourning for Tấm while listening to the bird’s songs, which sends his mind back to Tấm’s silvery voice. He can’t help but chant along: “O oriole, if you are my wife, enter my sleeve,” and the bird does so.
Cám once again is jealous of how intimate the king is to the bird. She follows her mom’s counsel, butchered the bird, and buried its feathers in the king’s garden. From the spot where the feather is buried, an immense tree grows with lushness. The tree provides a huge shade for the king to take a nap in his afternoon break. The king spends his days and even nights to sleep under the embracing shade of the tree, neglecting Cám. Cám then slashes down the tree and makes a weaving loom out of it. When Cám is weaving clothes for the king, the loom accuses Cám of killing Tấm and stealing her husband. Cám is frightened to the core. She tosses the loom into the nearby fire and hurls the ash far away from the king’s palace. From where the ash is flung grows a golden apple tree.
A crone living nearby scent the distinguished smell of the only fruit on this big tree, she starts to intone, placing her basket below the fruit: “O golden Apple, fall to my basket / Your scent I’ll smell, eat you I’ll not.” The crone keeps the golden apple in the house for decoration like her promise and treasures it. She soon notices that when she saves the golden apple in the house, the chores are always completed, and a meal is prepared as soon as she gets home from work. She then schemes a plot by the next day, pretends to go out to work but goes home early. She finds out a fine young woman appears from the apple. The crone tears off the fruit, so the young girl, who is an incarnation of Tấm, can’t come back to the fruit anymore. She adopts Tấm as her daughter.
One day, the king comes across the crone’s house on his mission, stops there to rest, and realizes the particular betel leaf that his former wife, Tấm, always prepares for him. The king demands to meet the daughter who made it, and he is elated to see his beaming smile of his late wife. They finally reunite after many incarnations of Tấm, the Cinderella of Vietnam, and live happily ever after.
The significance of Tấm & Cám in Vietnamese culture
Everything rendered in Tấm and Cám is beckoned with a very distinguished aura of Vietnamese cultures and beliefs. Tấm wished for a red silk-gown of dress but not any other material, as silk was the embodiment of luxury, richness, and social supremacy. The stepmother also tells Tấm and Cám to go into the neighboring lake and catch some shrimp with the reward of a red yếm (traditional Vietnamese bodice) for the one who has more shrimp in their bamboo baskets––which are also traditional significations of the rural area of Vietnam, symbolizing resilience, indomitability, and bravery. The color of red, the material of silk, signifies auspiciousness and health in Vietnamese tradition. We also see women dressed in red silk Áo Dài (traditional Vietnamese dress) during the New Year Celebration of Tết Nguyên Đán in the hope of welcoming great happiness and prosperity.
Ancestor worship, on the other hand, is an ancient Vietnamese tradition as a ritual practice that allows the living to pay tributes to their deceased family members to be constantly reminded of their roots. In the story, Tấm has to leave the palace and come back home for her father’s death day’s anniversary, of which henceforth, the stepmother takes advantage to trick Tấm to fall into the trap of her own death. According to the Hồng Đức legal code established during the Lê Dynasty, people had to worship up to 5 generations of ancestors in the 15th century. The notion of Confucianism and patriarchal society has also been much appreciated in Vietnamese society: children must display a sincere expression of filial piety towards the previous generations by worshiping and remembering them by their death day in the lunisolar calendar.
I recalled my grandfather’s passing two years ago when I was still in the school year at the university in the States–I could only see pictures from my family group chat of how grandeur and reverent the funeral looks like. The open casket with grandpa’s corpse dressed in simple, everyday clothes, the altar placed in front of the casket, featuring grandma’s compassionate smile after he closed his eyes for the sake of eternity, the old image of Buddha in a secured glass, monks with long orange, saffron robes, scintillating candles, fragrant flowers, colorful fruit, and smoking incense. Everything felt so unreal that I even imagined grandpa’s happy reincarnation living in a lavish palace, like Tấm after multiple metempsychoses. Because after fighting in such an agonizing Vietnam war, he was more than deserved to be worshipped and remembered.
The Cinderella of Vietnam is also distinctively different from other Cinderellas in the whole world. She seems to be the only Cinderella to stand up for her own happiness and take vengeance for her pain-ridden life that her stepfamily has inflicted upon her. While Cám was stewing in unrestrained jealousy for Tấm, her heart blazing with anger and her iris firing with resentment, Tấm became even more beautiful than ever. Cám asked her half-sister to attain the beauty secret. Tấm, on the one hand, used the request to good advantage, tricked Cám to sit in a hold dug in the ground and pour boiling water into it.
On the other hand, she gave her stepmother a meat paste jar and the stepmother enjoys eating it with rice. The crow flies over the stepmother’s house while she is having dinner with Tấm meat paste, willfully perched on the roof of the house and cries: “Delicious! The mother is eating her own daughter’s flesh! Is there any left? Give me some.” She realizes something is off and finds a skull inside the jar. Realizing she is eating on her daughter’s boiled blood and flesh, she instantly dies of shock. The lesson of karma, therefore, has been taught within Vietnamese household about the tale of Tấm & Cám: if you are collecting good intents and doing good deeds, you will reach good karma and have a happy rebirth; otherwise, you will receive retribution from the bad karma of faith.