Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào (The Virgin Thơm of the Red Market)


The year was 1999.  I was foot-loose and fancy free, traipsing about in northern Vietnam with nothing but my passport and a backpack filled with a few items of clothing and my Canon DSLR.  This was back in the days when I shunned luxurious modes of transportation, wanting instead, to travel with the least amount of riff-raff stuck to me so that I could take off in any direction at my slightest whim.  I took the bus to whatever destination it arrived at and got off if I smelled something good to eat or if the scenery looked interesting enough to warrant a photo or two.

It was at one of these dusty bus depots that I found myself in the province of  Long An, in the village of Mỹ Lệ, where I heard an old man talking about the province’s only claim to fame, a regionally renown rice with a strikingly unique name of Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào.  He told me in his difficult-to-understand local Vietnamese dialect that it was the rice which was grown and served to the kings of Vietnam in ancient times because it was so fragrant and so rare.

Of course, you know, as a curious Taobabe, I absolutely had to try it out.  So I followed the old man to a roadside inn where the kitchen was located outside of the structure because of the smoke coming from the wood cook range.  The rice used here is authentic, he assures me, but I had to ask for it, and I had to pay a lot more than the normal price for the rice.  How much more?  I asked.  A lot more, he said.

Well, ‘a lot more’ meant ten-cents per bowl for Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào, as opposed to five-cents per bowl for the usual run-of-the-mill fragrant white rice found in plentiful supply all over Vietnam—so I said, “Bring it on!”  To add some flavor to the rice, and also because I was hungry, I also ordered a few extra dishes to go with the rice.

foodieLet me tell you, the man was not exaggerating about the rice’s unique properties.  Within minutes, I could smell the strong perfumed aroma of the rice, and even as the smoke from the cooking stove blew into my eyes and caused my vision to blur, through the veil of tears, I could see plates of meats and vegetables placed before me in ever-growing quantities.

Since the price of each dish ranged between fifty to seventy-five cents apiece, I really didn’t care how much food came out.  I wanted to try everything.  The rice was the last to arrive, it being the guest of honor on my culinary sojourn, and it was the heavenly smell of this grain that made my stomach growl.  Thirty-minutes and three-dollars later, I was convinced of the rice’s wondrous properties.

Before I get into the details of the Scented Virgin, let me assure you that I am quite familiar with most varieties of white rice, both local and imported.  I have been cooking with a wide variety of rice on a daily basis since I was nine or ten so I have a well-rounded working knowledge of the unique flavors and uses of a plethora of rices.  Compared to most rice available on the market, this rice is extra special.

Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào, literally translated, means The Virgin Thơm of the Red Market.  The word Thơm, in the Vietnamese language has two meanings, depending on context.  It can mean pineapple, or it can mean scented.  Since we are talking about a specific rice strain, it makes no sense to assign the meaning of pineapple to the word thơm, therefore, in context, it can only mean scented.  In this case, however, there is an added twist.  Thơm is the name of a girl who was born in ancient times, and her story is what imparted the strikingly memorable name to one of Vietnam’s most famous strain of rice, Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào.

According to local legends, Thơm was a strikingly beautiful girl with breathtaking features, slender curvy body, milky white skin, and long, lustrous raven hair.  She was so beautiful that every man who met her fell in love with her.  This is not as much of a blessing as you would think.  In fact, it is rather a bit of a drag.


Thơm was not born into wealth.  Her family was poor, but they did own several plots of land in Mỹ Lệ (Picturesque Village) next to a canal named Rạch Đào (Red Groove Canal).  All the men in her village vied for her hand in marriage, but she paid them no attention as she was already in love with her childhood friend, a local boy whose family was just as poor as hers was.  Of the men who thought they might have a chance with her, one was the son of a wealthy landowner.

Using his family’s wealth and power, he managed to confiscate the three small plots of land that her family owned.  His terms were simple.  All she had to do to recover the three plots was to agree to marry him.  Thơm was devastated by this turn of events.  She did not want to marry this man, but her family was poor and there were many mouths to feed.  Thinking about all her hungry sibblings, as well as her hard-working parents who toiled in the rice fields all day long, Thơm agreed to the wealthy man’s terms of engagement.  She tearfully broke up with her long-time sweetheart and went home to prepare for her wedding day.

On the date of her wedding, true to his promise, the deed of the three plots of land was returned to her family, and the wedding was to take place that afternoon.  However, when it was time to pick up the bride, Thơm was nowhere to be found.  Later that day, they found her body in the Rạch Đào (Red Groove Canal), an apparent suicide.  It is also said that before she died, she wished for her family, the best lands in the world, where the rice would grow so well as to become rice fit for a king to eat.  Legend says, it was this dying wish that gave Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào rice its famous scent and taste.

Back in 1999, when I first had a bowl of this rice, it was still fairly obscure to the rest of the country and only widely known throughout the region.  However, by 2006, even though it was an ancient grain, it was finally officially recognized as a separate genetic strain of rice and renamed Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào.  Once it was recognized, everyone wanted to try the rice, but here is where things got tough.

Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào is not your typical rice strain.  It is a fairly difficult rice to cultivate.  It only grows six months out of the year, and only once per planting which means there is only one crop per year from only three rice fields located in Mỹ Lệ Village.  Compare this with  many other rice strains which grow three times per year in all other regions of the rice-growing lands, up and down Vietnam, and it becomes even more apparent how special this rice is.

Unfortunately, not all bags labeled  Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào are legitimate.  Some bags only have a certain percentage of the real deal, with the remaining rice made up of Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào rice grown elsewhere.  The cost is cheaper, and certainly, there is some real Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào rice mixed in with the other non-specific locale variety, but it would not be the same as the real deal.  To get the real rice, one would have to make a trip to that village and find an honest merchant who specializes in that rice.  Hopefully, in future, when there are procedures in place to protect the product, only rice grown in this region from this stock will be given the appropriate label.  Until then, there is no guarantee one will get the real Nàng Thơm Chợ Đào rice without having been there in person to make the purchase.

Why am I going on and on about rice?  Short answer is:  genetic variance and diversity.  Turns out, there has been much breakthrough in the science of rice genetics.  The lineage of rice follows the same pattern of human migration, and it is towards this exciting topic that I will focus my next posting around.

Con Nhà Nho Giáo – Children of the Grapes

grapes girl.

Con Nhà Nho Giáo

Everybody has heard this saying and everyone thinks it means a person who is from a well-educated family.  That is true, to a certain extent, but it does not describe the statement fully.

In the old days (oh some thousands of years in the past, all the way up to about a hundred years ago), the kids who could read ancient Việt language were called Con Nhà Nho Giáo (Children Educated in the Ancient Court Việt Language).  For some inexplicable reason, the word Nho also means grapes in Vietnamese, so I always thought it meant Children of the Grapes.  As a naturally curious little child, I asked my Daddy what Children of the Grapes meant.  He threw me a desultory look and said, “Haven’t you ever heard of a ‘homonym’?  Honestly, you are con nhà nho giáo—children of family educated in the court language, you shouldn’t let people hear you asking such silly questions or they will think you crawled out of the jungles.”

Psshhh!  Out of the jungles indeed.  Isn’t that better than being known as Children of the Grapes?

Methinks Daddy is so silly.  Why should I keep calling it Chử Nho?  It sounds so dumb.  To call it Ancient Vietnamese Court Language (which is what it actually is) is just as pompous and formal.  I would rather just keep it short and simple.  I kinda like Grapes Words myself, to be honest, and since this is my blog, I’m going to call it whatever I wish.

Grapes Words it is

So here I am, using ancient Grapes Words to transcribe out each word from the Three-Words-Book into Quốc Ngữ, the modern-day written Việt alphabet.  Keep in mind that the Chinese pronunciation of each character will be different from its Việt counterpart, but the character and the meaning will remain the same.  Also keep in mind that this is ancient Việt which is very different from modern-day Việt.

Nobody talks like this or write like this any more.  Most can’t even understand it without translations because the days when folks were actually taught to read this is long gone.  The Tam Tự Kinh (Three-Word Book) was meant to be a primer for school age children to learn the Hanzi script which is the script used by the courts.  Everyone else used either Nôm characters (which is similar yet has a separate set of different characters) or they didn’t write at all.  Grapes characters look just like the modern-day Chinese character script but it is spoken differently.  This is similar to the Run Spot Run, Go Jane Go book, only much less fun, much more difficult.

Before I go into the actual translation, I need to explain a few things:

Tam Tự Kinh

When I speak the title of this book out loud, it sounds so mystical and magical.  To my ears, it sounds like an incantation or ancient spell, ready to burst forth, sparkling with magic and energy.  Alas.  It is merely the sound of three mundane words.

That’s right.  Just three words.

The Three-Word-Book is called Three-Word-Book because each line of this book consists of only three words that are written in Grapes Characters (Hanzi).  As an example, I am going to take the first two sentences of this book and write it out as it was originally written in the book.


If we could read Grapes Characters, this would need no translation.  Sad to say, both myself and most of my readers need a little bit of translation help.  To translate these four lines, I have to combine the characters into two lines of six characters each, separated by a comma followed by a semi-colon (or a period), so that a two-sentence phrase can be created to form a single complex idea.

 人之初, 性本善;
性相近, 習相遠.
苟不教, 性乃遷;
教之道, 貴以專.

Once the lines have been separated correctly, I then have to phonetically write out each character into the alphabetized Grapes Words.

Here is how the Grapes Words look and sound like when it has been written out phonetically.  Notice that each green Grapes word corresponds with each individual red Hanzi character:

Nhân chi sơ, tính bổn thiện;
Tính tương cận, tập tương viễn.
Cẩu bất giáo, tính nãi thiên;
Giáo chi đạo, quí dĩ chuyên.

Afterwards, I will translate each individual word into English.  Since the translation needs to be as accurate as possible, where appropriate, I will deviate away from the three-letter format for accuracy and ease of understanding.

The two sentences above break down to this English translation:

People are born naturally good;
Similar in nature, yet dissimilar in life experiences.
Lacking in teachings, their character traits deteriorate;
Teach them the way, pass on the value of diligence.

Obviously, I must use many more English words in each sentence to fully express the idea that the Grapes Words can express in twelve succinct words each sentence.  I will try to keep the English words to a minimum while still maintaining the clearest translation that I am able to.

(…to be continued)

Ancient ties between Taiwanese and Vietnamese

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I always knew my family’s spoken language was slightly different than what was spoken on the streets.  There were many terminology which didn’t fit in with the Việt vocabulary that I learned in school and on the playground.  For example, my father called his mother, my paternal grandmother, by the word Bu (母) pronounced as in the English word ‘boo’.  I never understood why.  I just thought he was a bit strange.  As I got older, I found out that the Taiwanese word for mother is pronounced Bu, and the Japanese word for mother is (pronounced ‘bow’).  I thought that rather odd since there really isn’t a connection between my Father and a native Taiwanese (or Japanese).  So I decided to dig around myself to find out what’s the deal here.

Before I go too far, let me just lay out the four basic language groups:  Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan, and Austronesian.  I am zeroing in on Austronesian because this is the language root of the Việt people.


Austronesia is further split into four separate groups.  Austronesian, Austroasiatic, Tai-Kadai, and Tibito-Burman (more commonly known as Sino-Tibetan).  My question was, where does Vietnamese fit into these four branches?  Since I am not a linguist, I had to go find out what the linguists of note thought.

Back in 1852, James Logan thought it was Austroasiatic (he called it Môn Anam back then).  In 1905, another linguist named W. Schmidt thought it was Môn Khmer, but then changed his mind and said it had to be part of the the Tai-Kadai grouping.  Then in 1912, Maspéro placed it in with the Tai-Kadai.  But then, in 1952, Andre Haudricourt placed the Vietnamese language back into the Austro-Asiatic group again.

So which is it?  Austroasiatic or Tai-Kadai, and why the mix-up over such a long time (roughly 100 years)?   The answer came in 1975 when a linguist by the name of Paul Benedict decided that the old groupings didn’t work, so he proposed to combine the Tai-Kadai and Austronesian into one grouping called Proto-Austro-Tai (or PAT for short).  This is because Vietnamese didn’t fit in either one, having features found in both.  But that still left the other two groupings Austronesian and Sino-Tibetan.

Upon further review, the various linguists of the day found a single language that combined all four groupings, making it the proto-language of the South-East-Asian and South-Asian world.  They proposed a new name, Austric, to combine all four into one so that the single language would have a placement.  This single language came out of the Hòa Bình culture, which eventually evolved into the Việt culture and encompasses the written Văn Khoa Đẩu (more commonly known as the tadpole script), aka Proto-Việt language.


This tadpole script was found everywhere, all over southeast Asia, in Japan, Taiwan, southern China, even into Thailand and Sumatra.  It was carved on rocks, bones, turtle shells, megalithic stones, you name it.  Once people figured out what it was, it turned up everywhere.  Reading this script is not extremely difficult either…if you know Vietnamese.  Of course, the words are a bit strange, but a decent grasp of old Việt language is really all that one needs to be able to read the ancient phonetic writing on these rocks.

Incidentally… Hòa Bình means Peaceful.  I kinda like that.  



Sunken Paradise

anime girl 191

Much of the ancient world inherited by our ancestors now lies under water after melting ice caps flooded vast areas at the end of the last Ice Age. New advances in geology and marine technology mean that the great archaeological finds of this coming century will more than likely be found under the oceans. It now looks likely that large populations of early humans were obliterated from the historical record by this catastrophe over 10,000 years ago.  ~  Graham Hancock

(…continue from Ancient Viet: Cradle of Asian Civilization)


In order to understand ancient Vietnam and how it fits in with world history, I have to take a look back farther in time than I have been.  In fact, I have to go back to the time when we were all starting to move out of Africa.  Unfortunately, this means I have to talk about an area of the world that is no longer even on the map and for the longest time, was thought to be mythical.

I am standing here, looking at the shadowy depths of an area called Sundaland which, sixty-thousand years ago, was once a rich, fertile area, densely populated by a people with a high level of civilization.

sundalandMap taken from petetherockman.com

OK, so I know some folks may think I am talking about a mythical place similar to an often-talked-about-but-never-found Atlantis, but there is real geological evidence that it does indeed exists.

Geological Evidence for Sundaland

According to geologist Peter Cattermole, Sundaland [1] was HUGE.  It was the largest area on Earth that underwent a submersion following three waves of global flooding following glacier ice melts at the end of the last ice age.  This means that, soon after our ancestors migrated out of Africa (and archaeogenetics show that it was in one big wave of migration, not two smaller waves), one of the first places we went to was Sundaland.  The weather was nice, the food was plentiful, we proliferated and grew in numbers.  We lived and worked and played in that area for at least 50,000 years—plenty enough time for a fairly advanced level of civilization to occur.  [2]

It was Eden…until global warming occurred (sound familiar?), at which time, we got flooded.

It didn’t happen all at once.  When the first signs of flooding appeared, around 20,000 years ago, my ancestors were slowly being forced to migrate westward.  Eventually, the southeast Asian subcontinent was hit HARD by three great sea level surges which sank the continent in huge swaths of land.  The first surge occurred in 12,000 BC, the second surge hit at around 9,500 BC, and the final surge hit around 5,600 BC.  Three times, they were forced to move westward and northward, onto drier shores of what is now present-day Northern Vietnam and Southern China.  From there, the population recovered and began spreading out all over the area. [6]

This happened as early as twenty-thousand years ago, when our ancestors found their homes becoming water-logged and had to move further inland.  However, according to new findings back in August of 2012, people were not just living in the area of Sundaland, they were also spread out into areas that were much further inland and further north. [3]

Here, I hit upon another gnarly situaiton:  How to prove human movement.  Since that was not within the scope of geology, I had to consult modern anthropology.


Anthropological Evidence for Human Presence

According to Dr. Laura Shackelford, anthropology professor at University of Illinois, in the summer of 2012, a skull found in Northern Laos that was dated circa 63,000 years old, indicates that there was also human presence there, which corroborated with the latest genetic studies that indicate that modern humans occupied that part of the world at least 60,000 years ago. “This is the first fossil evidence that supports the genetic data,” she said. [4]

Compelling evidence also shows that we went as far west as Sumeria, where folks started setting up a new civilization. [8]  That is how archaeologists go from seeing nothing—no sign of human civilization, to all of a sudden, a people who called themselves Sumerians springing up out of nowhere, with a completely developed culture and civilization.  Even though there was no evidence whatsoever of where they originated and how they came to acquire their knowledge, the middle-east region became known as the cradle of civilization because that was the farthest scientists had been able to pull back the veil of ancient past. [7]

But now, with better technology, better methods of research, we are starting to discover deeper and deeper levels of humanity’s existence.  With archaeogenetics and the ability to do genome sequencing of ancient biological evidence, all of a sudden, we had the tools and knowledge to reach back even farther—thousands and thousands of years farther.

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Archaeogenetical Evidence for Human Movement and Expansion

Genetics indicate a radical and completely fascinating story.  The real cradle of civilization seems to be pointing towards the sunken Sundaland continental shelf, with the oldest of that population, genetically-speaking, being the Vietnamese population. [5][7]

According to the sequencing of human mitochondrial DNA from 153 independent samples which was done in 1992 by a team of scientists working with the Genetics Society of America, “all  Asian  populations  were  found  to share two ancient AluIIDdeI  polymorphisms at nps  10394  and  10397  and to be  genetically  similar indicating that  they  share  a  common  ancestry.  The  greatest  mtDNA  diversity  and  the  highest frequency of  mtDNAs with  HfiaI/HincII  morph  1 were  observed  in  the  Vietnamese  suggesting  a Southern Mongoloid  origin of Asians.” [8]  This means that my Vietnamese ancestors spread out EVERYWHERE.

Using this initial finding as the leaping board, through a massive collaborative effort of the Human Genome Organisation in 2009, scientists from 40 institutes were able to gather 2,000 samples from 73 different populations covering almost the entire spectrum of linguistic and ethnic diversity and genotyped for approximately 50,000 single nucleotide polymorphic markers.

This is some of what they were able to assertain:  [9]

1.  East and Southeast Asians share a common origin.

2.  East Asians mainly originated from South East Asian populations with minor contributions from Central-South Asian groups.

3.  A common ancestor of the Negrito and non-Negrito populations of Asia entered into the continent. This supports the hypothesis of one wave of migration into Asia as opposed to two waves of migrations from Africa.

4.  The Taiwan aborigines are derived from Austronesian populations. This stands in contrast to the suggestion that this island served as the ancestral “homeland” for Austronesian speaking populations throughout the Indo-Pacific.

5.  Genetic ancestry is highly correlated with linguistic affiliations as well as geography.

This is powerful information.  It sent a shock wave rippling through the communities around the world when the information was initially released.  As more and more evidence began to surface, the idea of a Sundaland Cradle of Civilization became more and more widespread until it began to turn the tide and is now in the process of rewriting the history of ancient mankind.

By no means am I saying that this is all there is to know about our ancient past.  I will always be on the lookout for any new information that comes to light in regards to ancient people of Sundaland and elsewhere.  Indeed, much of what has just been found all around the Sundaland area between 1999 and early 2013 (barely 14 years of research) continues to support the evidence of what has been indicated by genetic sequencing.  However, this is plenty enough evidence for me to confidently move onto my next leg of the journey, that of rediscovering the history of my people.

1.  Petetherockman.com.  Peter Cattermole.

2.  Dr. Martin Richards. “Climate Change and Postglacial Human Dispersals in Southeast Asia”. Oxford Journals.http://www.physorg.com/news130761648.html. Retrieved 2010.

3.  Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia.  Oppenheimer, Stephen.  July 1999.

4.  An Anatomically Modern Human in Southeast Asia (Laos).  Dr. Laura Shackelford.  August 2012.

5.  Mapping Human Genetic Diversity in Asia.  Science Magazine.  December 2009.

6.  Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization.  Graham Hancock.  October 2003.

7.  Genetic ‘map’ of Asia’s Diversity.   BBC News. Dec. 2009.

8.  Southeast Asian Mitochondrial DNA Analysis Reveals Genetic Continuity of Ancient Mongoloid Migrations. The Genetics Society of America.  1992.

9.  HUGO (Human Genome Organisation).  Dr. Vikrant Kumar.  December 2009.

Black Teeth Beauty

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I just got braces put on my teeth a few weeks ago to correct a bite problem.  I’m going to be stuck with them for about 24 months.  Already, it is starting to bug the crap out of me.  It’s no fun at all, especially since I am a full-grown adult and not a teenager in high school.

Normally, I don’t even think about such mundane things as teeth, but because my braces have caused me to focus on them ALL THE TIME, they are never far from my mind, partly because they are uncomfortable and partly because I am not used to them yet.  This then leads me to think about teeth and how the Vietnamese women in earlier times used to care for them.

If I had been born just 100 years earlier, my family would have blackened my teeth once I hit puberty.

No joke.

phu-nu-viet-xua (35)

This is an image of a woman with dyed black teeth from north Vietnam circa 1900.  That’s roughly a bit over 100 years ago.  It may not look like it now, but back then, it was all the rage.  There were two main reasons for the black teeth.

1.  It was a very effective teeth bonding procedure which kept the teeth from getting carries.  My grandmother kept every single one of her blackened teeth, up till the day she died.  According to studies done by scientists*, fresh soot of certain trees, when applied to the teeth as a dye, would inhibited the growth of salivary mutans streptococci and prevent dental carries.  The women who had their teeth blackened in this manner kept all their teeth throughout their lives, and given the fact that dentists were nonexistent in those days, the idea of keeping one’s teeth into old age was something that had to have been a great alternative to having teeth rot out of their mouths.  Ancient human remains showed skeletons with black-dyed teeth, complete and full, with no damage even after all those years.  That’s amazing!

2.  Since most South-East-Asians looked the same, it was hard to tell the difference between a Vietnamese person and a Chinese person living in the same community.  The only way to know was to look at the females when they smiled.  If they had white teeth, they were Chinese.  If they had black teeth, they were Vietnamese.  Intentional dying of the teeth by Viet women was used to differentiate and retain the customs of the Vietnamese culture.  It was also to keep the guys interested.  Viet guys only wanted girls who had black teeth because they thought it looked HOT!!!

It was great!  The girls got to keep all their teeth, AND it also kept the guys from getting confused as to which girl to go out with.  I’d say that was a win-win situation.

As a child, I’d always thought it was a rather bizarre custom.  Black is a rather unnatural color for teeth, methinks—until I see pictures like these:


And then I think to myself, this is not a natural color either.  Europeans call this ‘American Teeth’, as this color does not occur naturally in human teeth of any race or ethnicity.  It can only be obtained through deliberate dyeing or bleaching of the teeth.

In any case, dyeing teeth black is an ancient tradition that is no longer followed.  The only ones left around who still have dyed black teeth are women approaching the centennial mark.  However, it is a notable northern Vietnamese tradition so I thought I’d mention it, along with a recipe, just in case someone wanted to try it out.

Black Teeth Dye

black teethIngredients:
Powdered coal mixed with salt
Lemon slices
Lemon juice
Rice wine
Shellac (made from secretions of an aphid-like insect that feeds on sap)
Iron (or copper) filings
burnt coconut shells
Small piece of cloth


1.  Thoroughly clean teeth with powdered coal mixed with salt.  Do not eat anything solid or hot at any time during the process.

2.  Hold pieces of lemon in the mouth and drink rice wine mixed with lemon juice to eroded the enamel and create pits in teeth to allow for better adherence of the dye.  Do this for three days.
Caution: This may caused soreness and swelling of the lips, tongue, and gums.

3.  Apply shellac and lemon juice using a cloth soaked with this mixture.  Keep it on the teeth over several days and nights without taking it out.  This will turned the teeth a dark red color.

4.  Apply a solution of iron or copper filings which will react with the shellac and turn it black.

5.  Add extra shine by rubbing soot from burnt coconut shells.

And just to add a bit of culture to this post, here is an ancient poem called the Ten Loves which talks about the black dyed teeth of the Viet ladies.

blackened teeth

Mười Thương                                                     Ten Loves

Một thương tóc bỏ đuôi gà                                     One love, your hair in a pony tail                                 
Hai thương ăn nói mặn mà có duyên                       Two love, the way you talk so passionate and sweet
Ba thương má lúm đồng tiền                                  Three love, your dimpled cheeks
Bốn thương răng lánh hạt huyền kém thua      Four love, your teeth like shinny black seeds
Năm thương cổ yếm đeo bùa                                  Five love, the charm around your neck
Sáu thương nón thượng quai tua dịu dàng                Six love, your tassled mountain hat
Bảy thương nết ở khôn ngoan                                  Seven love, your smart and gentle ways
Tám thương ăn nói lại càng thêm xinh                      Eight love, the lovely way you talk
Chín thương cô ở một mình                                     Nine love, you live alone
Mười thương con mắt hữu tình với ai                        Ten love, your loving eyes at someone (me) 

It was adapted several times as different folk songs.  Here is one version.


Black teeth: beauty or caries prevention?. WHO Collaborating Centre, Faculty of Odontology, University of Malmo, Malmo, Sweden.

The Trauma of Being Different

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(…continued from Damn Stubborn Water Buffalo)

This is my firm conviction.  We Vietnamese should not claim folks as our people if they refuse the claim, meaning if they insist that they are not Vietnamese, we should not place that honorific on them…even if it’s true.

I remember when I was younger, much younger, I dyed my hair blonde and pretended that I didn’t know Vietnamese at all because I didn’t want people to associate me with Vietnam.  It worked quite well because although I am Vietnamese, for some strange genetic reason, my skin is very fair and I don’t look like the typical Vietnamese girl.  Now, you may ask yourself, why would I think like this?  My answer to you would be, ‘Have you ever been in a typical American High school?’

The kids are vicious!

Growing up in America, I saw first-hand how kids picked on others who were different in the slightest way.  The rule of the day was…DON’T FUCKING STICK OUT!!!  If I just looked like everybody else, acted like everybody else, thought like everybody else, I would escape ridicule, prejudice, and persecution.

In any case, living in America, I could meld myself into society quite easily.  I could be whomever and whatever I wanted to be.  Nobody knew, and frankly nobody cared.  The only thing that tied me to my heritage was my name, but that was easily remedied.  I acquired a nickname and that was what I went by.  Since I no longer stuck out, I was able to go about my daily life with little traumatic disruptions.  As an aside, acquiring a nice strong boyfriend who knew martial arts helped too, but that’s another story for another day.

Applying it to this situation, I can see how this would play out more than two thousand years ago, in the time of Lao Tzu and Confucius (roughly between 722 BC and 481 BC, aka the Spring-Autumn Period).

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Imagine this.

The warm and fertile Great South has been settled by the one-hundred-tribal-Viet people for thousands of years, and all of a sudden, they are overrun by the fierce nomadic tribes from the north.  With no recourse, they have to try and fit in, all the while, maintaining as much normalcy as they can so they can get on with the daily chores of getting the plantings done on time and getting the community fed.  That’s not a small task, especially when there are overlords demanding taxes and harvesting in return for keeping one’s head securely on one’s shoulders.

Then imagine being born into a royal family of the Great South, and having to try to blend in to keep from being ambushed.  Obviously, that had to be a major balancing act.  Those who were able to completely eradicate their ties to Âu Việt and assimilate as quickly as possible to the Han Chinese from the north were the ones who were able to most effectively live to a ripe old age.  Those who insisted on maintaining their Việt heritage were more likely to have ‘things’ happen to them.

Imagine being a famous writer of a book that has survived thousands of years, and yet the name of the  author of that famous book is nowhere to be found.

Obviously, we are not talking about Confucius.  We know exactly when he was born (551 AD), when he died (479 AD).  We know where he was born (somewhere in the state of Sòng (宋國) north of the Yangtze) and what his birth name is (Kong Qiu).  We know he is a descendant of either the Shang kings or priests (more likely both sides) through the Dukes of Sòng.  In other words, he was a properly-documented Chinese of royal birth from the northern states.

But what happens to a royal person who was documented as having been born from the area south of the Yangtze river?  What if he had been born to a southern tribal king and lived in an area called Âu Việt?  What if he insisted on being considered a part of the Âu Việt population?

lao tzu painting

As has been exhaustively documented by historians, in subsequent assimilation attempts by the Han Chinese, most if not just about every vestige of known Vietnamese history was completely wiped out, leaving very little left for us to examine.

The ramification of that act is also the biggest reason why there would be so few records of such an important figure as Lao Tzu.  The only parts left untouched which would vouch to his existence on this Earth were the several documented conversations that he had with the more illustrious Confucius, who was younger than he was and had come asking for wisdom and knowledge.  After all, Confucius’ documented sayings and activities had to be preserved at all costs.  He was a direct link to the powerful, elite, technologically advanced civilization north of the Yangtze.

All I can say is, thank heavens for those documented meetings with Confucius or we would have never known anything about this man.

Chinese documents reveal that Lao Tzu’s final days on earth were obscured by the fact that he took a water buffalo and headed due west, to the dessert beyond.  Nobody knew where he went and what happened afterwards.

I have talked about this extensively in my previous post Damn Stubborn Water Buffalo, and I have detailed the reasons why he could not have gone into the desert.  Since he could not possibly go eastward (the Pacific Ocean is a wonderful deterrent to any excursions eastward that would completely obliterate a person’s existence from the annals of history), and since there were no water buffalo in the northern regions (which is why the Han Chinese had to exchange the water buffalo for the cow in the twelve animals of the zodiac…but more on that later, I promise…) the animal would not be wandering northward.

The only logical conclusion that we can come to is that the water buffalo went HOME, south of the area where he was sent to pick up the venerable old Lao Tzu.  Contrary to what little has been left in modern Chinese history, Lao Tzu’s story doesn’t end with the swishing of the buffalo’s tail and his slowly disappearing form into the distant hills.

If we follow the direction of his buffalo’s route, we find that his story continues onward.

(…continue to The Temple of an Immortal)

Ancient Việt: Cradle of Asian Civilization

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I was born in Vietnam.

As I am writing these words, I reflect upon what that actually means in the truest and deepest sense of the word.  Out of the shadowy recesses of my native land’s past, swirling with mist and cannon smoke, I can barely see the outlines of those who came before me; those fleeting, familiar faces of a thousand years in the past; those who called themselves Vietnamese.

The smoke and mist gets thicker the farther back I try to peer.  After two-thousand years, there are no faces left, only vague forms.  Past that, there is only darkness.

And there it stayed…DARK—for thousands of years.

I grew up thinking we were just a tiny subset of a huge and powerful civilization to the north that was far, far older in documented history; a civilization that invented a thousand important things, from ceramic, to paper, to silk.  As for us Vietnamese, we were documented as inventing absolutely, positively nothing, our society not technologically and advanced enough to have mental giants capable of doing such feats.  I thought we invented fish sauce, but even that’s up for debate because historically, the Greeks have claim to the idea first.

The Chinese to the north were a rich and powerful country and we were the poor wannabes to the south who could barely clothe and feed our own people.  I grew up thinking that the reason why the Vietnamese language and customs and culture was so similar to the Chinese was because we copied them, being unable to come up with anything original ourselves.

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I am so very sorry.

I can only beg my ancestors for forgiveness.  I didn’t know.  How could I?  We were never told the truth, and the truth is:

Ancient Việt land, south of the Yellow River, is the cradle of Asian civilization!

So how did we go from being the inventor of NOTHING to being the cradle of Asian civilization?  Obviously, we do not have the historical writings to back this up.  All of our long and illustrious history had gotten erased over two-thousand years ago and suppressed on pain of death and dismemberment.  And besides, historical writings are hardly the anchoring points with which to nail one’s evidence on as everyone knows that history is written by the victors and may not necessarily come anywhere close to being the truth.

No, this is an extraordinary claim, and as Carl Sagan says, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’  So with little historical writings to back this up, where would my ‘extraordinary evidence’ come from?

Two words—archaeogenetics and archaeology.


Let’s start with Archaeogenetics, as it takes the genes to make the people who create a civilization.  Archaeogenetics is the relatively new method of scientifically studying the human past by applying the techniques of molecular population genetics by using several methods:  analysis of DNA recovered from archaeological remains, analysis of DNA from modern populations, and the application of statistical and mathematical methods to tie the archaeological and the genetic material together.

This method has only recently been available to us due to the groundbreaking work of geneticists who were able to completely sequence the human genome.  With that scientific blue print, scientists are now able to trace human lineages backwards into the far, distant past and shed a pure light of knowledge onto what was previously murky and indistinct.

This is the opening statement from a document released in 1992 by a group of geneticists with the Genetics Society of America.

Human  mitochondrial DNAs (mtDNAs) from 153 independent samples  encompassing seven Asian populations  were  surveyed  for  sequence  variation  using  the polymerase  chain  reaction (PCR), restric-tion  endonuclease analysis and  oligonucleotide  hybridization.
All  Asian  populations  were  found  to share two ancient AluIIDdeI  polymorphisms at nps  10394  and  10397  and to be  genetically  similar indicating that  they  share  a  common  ancestry.  The  greatest  mtDNA  diversity  and  the  highest frequency of  mtDNAs with  HfiaI/HincII  morph  1 were  observed  in  the  Vietnamese  suggesting  a Southern Mongoloid  origin of Asians.

The high sequence diversity of the Vietnamese and the high frequency of the HincII/H#aI morph 1 haplotypes suggest that Southern China is the center of Asian mtDNA radiation (BLANC et al. 1983)…The high frequencies of the deletion haplotype group D* mtDNAs in Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands, and the New World implies that the migrants carrying this marker were descendant from a single founder population. ~  The Genetics Society of America*

Their painstaking research and gene sequencing revealed an astonishing truth:  “The data provide evidence that  the Vietnamese are the most diverse and, hence, the oldest population.“*  This means (drum roll please), the history that my people related to us, carried on the whispered teachings for lack of written evidence, about our huge ancient Việt Empire, was true all along.


Now we go to Archaeology.  Books can be burned and historians can be buried alive to suppress truth and history, but vast amounts of ancient artifacts lying undisturbed under layers of dirt thousands of years down cannot be destroyed so easily.  With the recovery of the artifacts also come the recovery of my people’s ancient past.

All that needs to be done is:

1)  Locate ancient bones and other things
2)  Date them
3)  Record their positions geologically

That’s it.  The truth will pop out once the ancient artifacts have been found.

The date and the location is very important because before 111 BC, the region below Yangtze river, from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the eastern edge of Burma, was all Vietnamese territory.  The map below shows where the Vietnamese regions are and what they were called.


This map does not show Taiwan, although the migration patterns show that my ancient ancestors had traveled upwards towards that island in at least three successive waves.  The first wave came in 4,000 BC from the area near Hoa Binh (in present-day North Vietnam).  Stone tools and genetic material from bone fragments match those found from both sites.  The second wave came from Bac Son area (also in present-day North Vietnam) and also showed matching tools, axes, genetics, etc.  The third wave was the most diverse, coming from Central Asia (Java and Malaysia).  This last wave settled along the coastal area of central Vietnam and make up present day Champa people (more on this migration pattern in a later posting).

The map shows how ancient Bách Việt (百越 / 百粵) looked like in ancient times.  The term Bách Việt means một trăm bộ lạc Việt or 100 Việt Tribes, which goes back to the ancient tale of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ, and their 100 children born from one egg sac with 100 eggs.  Although the mythology sounds like a children’s fairy tale, it is the scientific study of genetics which determine the geographical spread of the Việt people in that area and not someone’s fanciful imagination about a supposed glorious past which may or may not have existed.

Anything found within that region that dates back before 111 BC is Vietnamese origin because that was where Vietnamese people lived for thousands of years prior to 111 BC.  Yes, it is now Chinese territory and anything that happened after 111 BC can arguably be claimed by the Chinese, but that does not negate the fact that Việt people lived in that region prior to being taken over by the Han Chinese.  This means that any ancient artifacts must be correctly attributed to the Vietnamese and not to the Han Chinese.

Since I cannot go into detail of all the various artifacts that have a Vietnamese origin due to the scope of this small posting, I am going to focus on ceramics for now.  I will try to detail other archaeological findings in future postings.

According to LADIR Dynamics, Interactions and Reactivity Laboratory at the University of Paris 6, ancient ceramic pieces date back to well over 4000 BC (that’s more than 6,000 years ago).  In their analysis, proto-porcelain and celadon ware came out of Southeast Asia, where the Việt people were living at the time.

The most ancient ceramic pieces (< 4000 B.C.) were found in Taiwan, in the Philippines and in Vietnam.  The first Vietnamese ceramic potteries date back to the Hung period (700 BC). Han-Vietnamese pieces range from brown-red to beige-yellow, from gray to white, and their style is very simple, in the Buddhist tradition. Celadon stoneware appeared with political independence, under the Ly (1009-1225) and Trân (1225-1400) dynasties and became very popular in China.
There is also written evidence of this still surviving in Mongolia from a request made by Kublai Khan:
Kubilai Khan, the Mongolian emperor, asked that “white porcelain bowls” be included in the tribute owed to him by a Vietnamese prince.  Ly and Trân monochrome ceramics are covered with three types of enamel (ivory, brown, and jade color); they include large jars, bowls, plates, cups, vases, and can be decorated with leaves, flowers, animals, etc.
The analyses also identified the clay types and materials, which nail the techniques used and the geographic area where the clay was taken from.
The micro-structure of ceramics contains a great deal of information on the techniques and materials used at the time. Thanks to Raman spectrometry, composition can be analyzed without danger for the object itself.  It appears that Vietnamese ceramics have a relatively high proportion of iron oxide, which explains their color, as well as potassium oxide and especially alumina (>30%) and must be fired at very high temperatures. Raman spectrometry can thus show the difference between the modern copies and ancient.
workingWith all this evidence comes the startling realization that my ancestors were a once-mighty empire, spreading far and wide across the face of the Asian continent.  We had a long and illustrious past, filled with great heroes and mighty kings.
Our people spread far and wide, migrating to lands far to the north of present-day Vietnam.  Our genes—our maternal blood—runs through our brethren to the north (Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese) and to the south (Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines).
The painful truth is, we are a fallen empire.  We lost our history, our writing, our knowledge, our blood ties to our lands, we even lost our memories of that once-mighty kingdom.  But from the ashes rise a new phoenix of understanding.  The truth has set me free from that sad inferiority complex that I used to carry around with me as a child.
I know now that we didn’t copy anybody and we were not wannabes.  Our knowledge and our wisdom has been incorporated into the Han Chinese way of life, our language and customs, subverted and assimilated until we, the Vietnamese children, could not even recognize it for what it was, as having once belonged to us.  But in my arteries and my veins runs ancient blood from a great and glorious empire.  Even if I am the only one who realizes this, at least while I am still alive, the memories of my ancestors live on.