Forked tongues: Snake sayings in Vietnam

(No.1, Vol.3, Jan-Feb 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Rồng rắn lên mây, a traditional game featuring snake, Hang Trong woodblock.
Photo: Nguyen Anh Tuan

The word ‘snake’ is mentioned in Vietnamese idioms and proverbs, although it is not as popular as fish, tiger, dog, cat or buffalo.
‘Carrying a snake home to strike the chicken’ is a saying used to refer to people who bring home enemy to do harm to their dear and near. The saying has been applied to King Le Chieu Thong who, in 1788, brought home 290,000 Chinese Qing warriors to fight against the Tay Son army, and king Nguyen Anh (Gia Long) who a year later, brought home the French to beat the Tay Son.
‘Hang hùm nọc rắn’ or ‘tiger’s cave, snake’s venom’ is used to refer to fatally dangerous places.
‘Vẽ rồng vẽ rắn’ or ‘drawing dragon and snake’ is used to mean the act of making something complicated; doing unnecessary things.
‘Vẽ rắn thêm chân’ or ‘drawing snake’s legs’ has a similar meaning.
‘Khẩu phật tâm xà’ or ‘talking like Buddha and having a snake’s mind’ is for a person who talks of doing good things, but actually his mind is full of evil things.
‘Khẩu xà tâm phật’ or ‘talking like a snake and having the mind of Buddha’ is applied to the opposite type of people.
‘Như rắn mất đầu’ or ‘like a snake without head’ refers to a group or organization without a leader.
‘Rắn trong lỗ bò ra’ or ‘snake coming out of its hole’ refers to people who talk so nicely and convincingly that even snake comes out of its hole to listen.
‘Oai oái như rắn bắt nhái’ or ‘crying like a snake catching a frog’ is used to refer to people crying about a trivial matter.
‘Rắn đến nhà không đánh thời quái’ or ‘if one does not beat a snake when it comes to one’s home, it will become a monster’. One needs to take measures against evil people.
‘Rắn đổ nọc cho lươn’ or ‘a snake dumps its venom at an eel’s place.’ The snake is considered a dangerous animal, while the eel is considered a benign animal. The saying is used to refer to people who do evil things and try to lead others into believing that those things are done by good people.
‘Rắn con hăm nuốt cá voi’ or ‘a small snake intending to swallow a whale’ is said about arrogant people.
‘Đánh rắn đánh đằng đầu’ or ‘when striking a snake, strike its head’, is to advise people to launch fatal attack at evil people so they will have no chance to take revenge.
‘Rắn rết bò vào, ếch nhái bò ra’ or ‘frogs go out as snakes go in’ implies that it’s hard to live with evil people, just as frogs can not live with snakes who eat them.
‘Nọc người hơn mười nọc rắn’ or ‘a human’s venom is ten times stronger than that of a snake’ is used to imply how dangerous a human being could be to his own species.
Another saying: ‘Khi đi gặp rắn thì may khi về gặp rắn thì hay phải đòn’ can be translated as:
‘It is lucky to encounter a snake as one leaves one’s house. One is expected to be beaten if one encounters a snake on the way home.’

Sources: The Vietnamese Dictionary of Proverbs, Idioms and Folk Songs, Viet Chuong, Dong Nai Publishing House, 1998 and Snake in Folk Culture and Sayings, Tran Trong Tri, Ao Trang magazine, issue 21 & 22, 2000.

Compiled by Le Duc Tan
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