Once Upon A Time, a wicked stepmother was jealous of the beauty of her stepdaughter and forced her to sleep in a dirty corner of the kitchen and to cook, clean and chop wood until her hands were cut and blistered with angry sores and her hair matted. But the poor girl had nowhere else to go.
Does this sound familiar? Cinderella is a story that for me, symbolizes the celebration of women as passive damsels in distress, relying on the godawful myth that they will be rescued by the one and only Prince Charming (today’s random hot guy in the club) based on their ‘beauty’. Excuse me while I puke. So the Vietnamese version follows the same general path…. UNTIL… Well, I won’t give it away. But in my opinion, the Vietnamese women that I observed when I lived in Hanoi were hard-working and no-nonsense – Maybe this story tale reflects that. I’ll leave you to decide whether Tấm, our Vietnamese Cinderella is more of a role model for being assertive, or if she takes the whole bitch-slap-back too far.
The Lazy Fish Thief
Tấm sweated and her back groaned and complained as she painstakingly filled the bucket given to her by her evil stepmother to collect fish. The stepmother in question was called Quỷ An, and Quỷ An had also ordered her to clean the kitchen floor and prepare her favourite mam with garlic and lime before nightfall. Tấm sighed and glanced over at her stepsister, Cám, who was lounging lazily in the sun. She didn’t protest and carried on gathering fish. For she knew that she was the only one who would be beaten if there weren’t enough fish.
As her fair skin burned in the midday heat, Tấm remembered when her father was alive and Quỷ An had seduced him whilst growing jealous of her. For Tấm was as fair as broken rice and Cám, the daughter of her father and Quỷ An was as swarthy as rice bran (*See Writer’s Note; I am not racist).
The sun began to set and Cám looked into her empty basket. She turned to Tấm; “Yuck, your filthy hair is full of mud. Go and wash it before mother beats you.” Tấm ran back to the well and when she returned, she gasped in despair. Cám had wickedly stolen her fish, before running home. Her palms began to sweat; she would surely get lashed for this.
Suddenly a strong breeze began to blow and the clouds whitened. The Goddess of Compassion, Quan Am appeared smiling out of nowhere. It was a miracle! “Dear child, look into your bucket and tell me what you see”. Tấm uttered a little cry of surprise when she saw one remaining perfect fish with rainbow fins and golden eyes. Quan Am asked Tấm to care for this fish in the family well and feed it with the rice she saved from her own meals every day.
Tấm loved her fish and cared for it so well that it only came to the surface when it saw her. One day she was sent to graze the buffalo in new fields “go as far as you can and search for greener pastures” her stepmother instructed. When she returned in the evening to feed the fish, she saw nothing but blood on the surface of the water. For Quỷ An had noticed her strange behaviour and had dressed in Tấm’s rags, called to the fish just as Tấm did, caught it, killed it and ate it with rice porridge.
The Fairy At The Festival
Quan Am appeared again through Tams tears. “Dear child, your stepmother has killed your fish. You must find it’s bones, place them in four jars and then bury the jars in the ground under your sleeping mat. Tam did as she was told.
The heat of summer eventually subsided into a cooler breeze. A proclamation was sent out that the King was holding a dance for the Grand Autumn Festival. Tấm was eager to attend, however Quỷ An had other plans. She slyly mixed two baskets of green and black beans together before ordering Tấm to separate them and set off to the festival smugly with Cám. Tấm sobbed by herself under a tree and whispered “O Goddess of Mercy, please help me.”
Sure enough, Quan Am appeared and the flies under the tree turned into sparrows that separated the beans with ease. Quan Am held out the jars in which Tấm had buried her beloved fish’s bones and lo and behold; inside one was now a splendid white and gold silk ao dai with embroidered flowers and fish. In another was a circular headgear called a khăn đóng. In the third was intricate gold jewellery and in the last was a pair of embroidered gold slippers. Tấm was so happy that she did not know whether to laugh or cry. Marvelling at her fortune, she dressed quickly and headed to the festival in a chariot summoned by the Goddess.
A hush spread through the festival as Tấm arrived and all heads turned, wondering who this fairy princess was and which distant kingdom she hailed from. The King, who was still unmarried, was struck by both her beauty and the interesting conversation he had with her and knew he had found his soulmate. As she turned, Tấm saw the piercing gaze of Quỷ An and Cám and in a panic, rushed home so fast that her slipper fell off.
It was retrieved by a soldier and brought to the King, who declared that he had never seen such an exquisite work of art. He set out to find the mysterious fairy of the festival and asked all the ladies of the land to try on the slipper. Finally Tấm tried it on and it fit perfectly. She wore the other slipper and was escorted to the palace where she happily married the King and the people rejoiced.
Now, wait and see what happens.
The Accident On Purpose
Over the years, Tấm’s happiness grew as she was beloved by the King and her people. However, Cám and Quỷ An itched with jealousy and a murderous rage. On the anniversary of her father’s death, Tấm went back to the family home and was ordered by the stepmother to climb to the top of an areca tree to gather nuts for the guests. Although she was the Queen, she listened and obeyed out of respect to her dead father. The tree began to sway alarmingly and when she looked down she saw her stepmother cackling as she cunningly chopped it down with a sickle. Tấm died and Quỷ An claimed it was a tragic accident.
The Nightingale’s Message
The conniving stepmother then set into action a plan in which Cám seduced the King with the help of a love potion and forced him to make her his Queen. However, Tấm’s soul was so strong and pure that it would not rest without the King and it took the shape of a nightingale that dwelt in the palace gardens. It sang the same sweet and melodious songs that Tấm used to. When one of the maids was hanging out the King’s robes to dry on a sunny day, she sang gently “O maid of honour, please take care when hanging my beloved husband’s robes and do not set them on a thorny hedge else they will tear”.
The King was passing by and heard this. “O sweet nightingale” he said “if you are indeed the soul of my beloved, then please come and sit in my wide sleeve”. The nightingale obliged and the King was overcome with joy. He kept the her in a gold cage in his bedroom where she sang all day and all night.
Cám watched her husband treat the nightingale with warmth and affection that he never gave her. Jealousy overcame her and she stole the bird from its cage whilst the King was in a meeting and killed it. After cooking it, she threw its feathers into the Imperial garden laughing. When the King saw that his beloved wife’s spirit had gone, he was distraught. “It must have flown away” Cám said. The King saw a lie in her eyes and banished her from entering his quarters.
The Fragrant Apple
The purity of Tấm’s soul again took shape. This time into a magnificent apple tree bearing but one apple. This apple was golden, as large as a pumpkin and had the most delicious smell. An old peddler woman was passing by the palace when she smelled the fragrance. She knew that this fruit was indeed magical. “O sacred golden fruit, drop yourself into my bag and I will treasure you forever, never to eat you, but only to enjoy your fragrance.” The fruit at once dropped itself into her bag.
As promised, the old woman did not eat the apple, but instead placed it on a table in her small wooden house to enjoy its sweet smell. The next day, she went out to sell her wares. To her great surprise, when she came home, she found her house spotless and a delicious pho broth cooking for her on the stove. The following morning, she pretended to leave the house again but rushed back in when she saw Tấm emerging from the fruit to cook and clean. She hugged her and told her to henceforth call her “mother”.
One day, the King was hunting and lost his way back home after dusk. He sought shelter at the home of the old peddler woman. The old woman was humbled to have such a guest and quickly brought out some betel and tea. The King was astonished to see that the betel was delicately arranged into a flower. “Who has prepared this betel in the same fashion as my beloved Queen?”
“Son of heaven, it is just my daughter”
When Tấm was brought before the King, they both cried and laughed in happiness after facing such trials and tribulations. Tấm returned to the palace and Cám was all but forgotten.
The Special Sauce
Soon afterwards, Cám imagined that if she were as fair-skinned as Tấm, she might finally win the King’s heart. So she asked “Dear sister, how can my skin become as fair and lovely as yours?” Tấm, who was fed up by now of all the troubles brought on by Cám and her stepmother replied “All you need to do is climb into this magic well”. Cám climbed dutifully into the well. “Now stay there and trouble me no more” Tấm said calmly as one of her servants poured boiling water on Cám.
Cám’s remains were then made into the stepmother’s favourite sauce of mam, with lime, lemon, garlic and chilli and sent to her with regards from the palace. Each day, Quỷ An ate some sauce with her meals and licked her lips in satisfaction. However, when the jar was almost empty, she saw something hard and grey emerging. Digging further, she realised that this was in fact a human skull.
Enraged, she walked to the palace to demand the meaning of this distasteful gift. Tấm laughed and told her of the fate of her daughter Cám. Immediately evil Quỷ An had a heart attack and died of grief.
How do you feel about this ending? Let me know in the comments! Please share if you liked this story and check out more HERE
Do you think Quỷ An and Cám got what they deserved?
Do you think Disney’s Cinderella could learn a thing or two from Tấm?
Do you think it’s OK to tell children this version of the story?
*Writer’s note: I don’t have anything against people with dark skin like Cám, I myself have brown skin and it’s unfortunate that her darkness seems to imply that she’s evil and jealous. I am just re-telling the story here. I also don’t endorse cannibalism.