Vietnamese Folktale – Tấm and Cám
Before being dominated by mass media, indigenous storytellers had been passing down their life’s morals from one generation to the next through folktales. One of the most popular Vietnamese folktales about women is The story of Tấm and Cám. Also known as the Vietnamese version of Cinderella, The story of Tấm and Cám relates many details about ancient Vietnamese lifestyle and traditional customs. At the same time, it vividly conveys moral lessons that are deeply influenced by Buddhism, such as karma (cause and effect) and reincarnation. Read The story of Tấm and Cám to know more about Vietnamese culture told by Khue, Wild Tussah’s Vietnam expert.
The Story of Tấm and Cám
Once upon a time, in a far away village in Vietnam, there was a widower who lived with his beautiful, beloved daughter. Her name was Tấm, which means ‘broken rice’. Because her father was worried that nobody would take care of Tấm, he remarried to a woman who later gave birth to a little girl, who was as dark as rice bran, that they named Cám (rice bran). The stepmother was so jealous of Tấm’s beauty that, after her father passed away, she started to abuse her and forced her to do all of the housework.
One day, the mother sent Tấm and Cám to go fishing, and promised a reward the one who caught most fish with a new “áo yếm” (a traditional Vietnamese bodice worn underneath a blouse or an overcoat). While Tấm was working hard to catch a basket full of fish, Cám only wanted to play around, and spend her time picking up wild flowers. When they were about to go home, Cám told Tấm to wash the mud out of her hair so the mother would not scold her. Tấm innocently followed her stepsister’s advice and went to the pond to wash her hair. After Tấm had gone, Cám poured all the fish from Tấm’s basket into hers and ran home.
When Tấm came back and discovered that she had been tricked by Cám, she started sobbing uncontrollably, until Bụt (Buddha) appeared and comforted her. He told her to look into her basket and find a remaining little carp, that she should bring to the well in her house’s backyard, and feed it while singing this magical poem:
“Oh my dear little carp!
Come and eat the golden rice, silver rice of mine
Not to eat the stale rice, old porridge of the other’s”
Tấm carefully followed Bụt’s instructions. Everyday, after her meal, she would come to the well, sing the poem until the carp came up from the water and feed it with cooked rice. As the fish grew bigger, Tấm’s stepmother and Cám started to suspect her behavior. They eavesdropped on her singing and learned the poem. Then, one day, the stepmother asked Tấm to feed the buffalo in a further field; then she and her daughter went to the well, sang the magic song and caught and ate the poor little carp!
When Tấm discovered her carp was dead, she burst into tears. Buddha appeared again and told her to put the carp’s bones into four separate jars and bury them under the four corners of her bed.
A short while later, the King proclaimed a big nationwide festival to look for a wife, and every unmarried woman was eligible. The stepmother and Cám made many new beautiful dresses and dressed up for the festival with the hope that they could capture the King’s attention and become the Queen. When Tấm asked for permission to join the Festival, her stepmother ordered Tấm to sort out one big basket of mixed green beans and black beans into two separate baskets before she could go. Tấm knew that she could never finish the job in time, and she cried. Then Buddha appeared again, and sent hundreds of birds to help her. In a few minutes, the beans were sorted out in black and green! Although the job was done, Tấm was still sad because she had nothing to wear to the festival. Buddha told her to dig up her four jars. Surprisingly, Tấm found a beautiful blue and silver gown in the first jar, and a pair of golden embroidered slippers, a saddle and a horse in the others! She showed her gratefulness to Buddha and went to the Festival. On the way to the Festival, Tấm was in such a hurry that she dropped one of her slippers in the stream. One of the King’s servants caught it and showed him the golden slipper. The King was amazed by the beauty of the slipper because he had never seen such a work of art before. He sent his word that the one whose feet would fit in this shoe would become the new Queen. A great number of women from all over the country came to try on the slipper However, no one could fit into that small little shoe. Finally, Tấm tried it on and it fit perfectly -not to mention she also had the other slipper with the same wonderful craftsmanship. The King immediately announced her to be his Queen and took her to the Palace, under her stepmother’s and sister’s jealous gaze.
After moving into the Palace, Tấm lived happily and grew to love the King, but she never forgot her family. On Tấm’s father’s death anniversary, she went home to prepare the offering for her father’s altar. The stepmother asked Tấm to climb the areca tree to pick some fruit and when she was high on the tree, her wicked mother chopped it down. Tam fell to the pond and died. By tradition, Tấm’s sister, Cám, would marry the King in her place. Tấm’s pure and innocent soul turned into a beautiful nightingale and flew to the Palace. Recognizing the spirit of his beloved late wife through the beautiful songs it sang, the King loved the bird very much. He put the nightingale in a golden cage, played with it and listened to it all day, totally forgetting about Cám. Cám was very jealous and angry. On her mother’s advice, she waited until the King was out and she killed the bird; then she burned and buried the bird’s feathers far away from the Palace.
From the feathers grew a big magnificent “thị” tree that had only one golden fruit with a very sweet, pleasant smell. One day, a poor old woman walked by, and, unable to resist the aromatic smell, she sat below the tree and sang:
“Dear golden fruit,
Drop down to my bag,
I would only enjoy your smell,
I would never eat you”
The fruit fell into her bag. She kept the fruit on her bed and only smelled it as she promised.
Since she brought the fruit home, every day after coming home from her errands, her house was perfectly tidy and hot meals were prepared for her. The miracle was happening continuously for a while until one day, in order to discover the secret, the old woman pretended to go out but came back early, hiding herself behind the door. She found that a very beautiful lady walked out from the golden fruit and started cleaning the house. She ran in and tore up the fruit so the lady had to stay as her adoptive daughter.
One day, when the King got lost while hunting, he stopped by the hut. The old woman offered him an areca nut, wrapped in betel leaves (a traditional snack of ancient Vietnamese) and the King was surprised by the way the betel was skillfully rolled. He wanted to see who prepared the betel. Tấm came out and the King immediately realized that the girl was his late wife. He was overjoyed and took her back to the Palace.
Wondering why Tấm had been loved by the King so much, Cám came to ask her how to have skin as fair as hers. Tấm told Cám to take a bath in boiling water, which she gleefully did, and died a painful death in the hot water. The stepmother cried a lot until she was blind and died not long after that. Tấm became Queen again and lived happily with the King.