The Village of Verse

(No.4, Vol.6,June-July 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Illustrations by Duc Lai

In Hoang Duong village (a.k.a. Pagoda Village), Son Cong Commune, Ung Hoa District of Hanoi, a famous landmark near the capital, all people, old and young, use only rhymed verses in everyday life
conversations. Moreover, they even use verses to scold and curse each other in
conflicts, to provoke or vex each other in order to engage in a warm, long lasting love.

‘Insulting’ in verses
Following a villager’s recommendation, we came to see 71-year-old Mr Le Xuan Sung, the chief poet of Pagoda Village. Slowly pouring tea, Mr Sung read for us a fragment of the piece he uses to reconcile conflicting sides, ‘Advise your wife with good words/ Restrain your hubby with
reason/ Fighting never solves your
problems/ It’s illegal and destructive...’

Poetry repels social evil
The village chief Mr Cao Van Huy told us, ‘Pagoda village is also called the Village of Poetry, because, old or young, man or woman, learned people living far away or farmers smeared in mud, everybody can improvise verses. Maybe that’s why among our 1,000 heads, nobody is involved in social evils. In everyday socializing, people use calm and decent language. They are helpful to each other, encouraging each other to work hard, live with optimism, and use poetry to remedy the fatigue after a day in the fields.’

Elated, he read for us almost 10 pieces of his own composition. Those verses, with simple yet very delicate folklore wisdom, have helped the people in this village
easily and humorously overcome little
misunderstandings that can otherwise
reduce big castles to ashes.
In the middle of the conversation, the author suddenly heard rhymes verses being spoken next door. So did Mr Sung. He told us, ‘Now that’s what you came for. Mr Tai and Ms Hang are fighting again.’ The rhythmic, rhymed sentences in
incisive, high-pitched voiced flowed like lava, ‘Once upon a time there was a cock/ The whole world heard it crowing/ It sure makes everyone deaf/ Stewed, it may be good with some wine.’
Just as the female voice stopped, a male, no less sharp voice slammed back, ‘I hear a cock crowing/ or maybe a cow, a buffalo/ No, my neighbor only has a dog.’ Seeing me completely stunned, Mr Sung laughed, ‘Mr Tai and Ms Hang are neighbors. They have a quarrel over the fence, and fight every now and then. They only fight with verses, but as you may have noticed, the words are quite pricking.’
Ms Nguyen Thi Nu, once famed for her verses which incited village boys, comments on the vexing verses of Pagoda Village, ‘Here you won’t hear people curse each other,
couples fight, or parents scolding their child. When a conflict occurs, they use verses to argue, to express displeasure, to retort. To be able to do that, one must remain calm,
moderate to measure every word, so as to make the opponent’s guts churn. The better one masters one’s temper, the softer the voice. It can be so soft that outsiders may take it for an artistic performance. The target person, however vexed though he may be, has to recognize the wit. That is art.’
The village elders consider the custom of using verses to scold and curse each other as a mental nutrient for Pagoda
villagers. Scolding verses are jeering and mocking, but the behavior is well-cultured. It may sound strange, but even the village kids can enjoy the beauty of improvisation. It is the cultural specialty of the place.

A village where everything, even swearing, is a poem

Ms Nu said, ‘I remember, once a wife went looking for her husband at a gambling table. Seeing him there, she got mad and poured out, “Father sinks in the whirlpool/ has fun at night, dreams of cards all day/ Mother and kids have to go away/ because the house is on mortgage.’ The hubby gave tit for tat, ‘Who wouldn’t love the fun of gambling/ Who wouldn’t love the rhyme of a full house/ Winner’s wife shows off her bling bling/ Loser’s wife goes on lamenting!’ Hearing the couple fight, the host came out, ‘Woman, how dare you make noise/ From now on my doors are shut/ It’s not a place for improper nuts!’ After that the husband never dared to go there to gamble again.”
With great joy and dignity, Ms Nu goes on, ‘To us Pagoda villagers, ethics is sacred. In the past, misbehaving children were taken to the communal house for
punishment. Parents who mistreat their children were also sneered at in verses. Whipping was gradually replaced by
educational poems.’

‘Mocking’ to incite love
Pagoda villagers invent verses not only for fun, or to scold each other. They also use this to express feelings. Talking of love in Pagoda village, the elders spare no words to praise the poetic relationship between Mr Cao Duc Thi (born in 1953) and Mrs Nguyen Thi Toi from Phuong Tu
Commune, Ung Hoa District.
As the story goes, at 21, Mr Thi was
seriously ill, and then he became paralytic. Not giving up his aspirations for life, Mr Thi struggled to overcome the difficulty. Once, his younger sister brought home Miss
Toi from a neighboring village. Mr Thi
immediately fell for her. But as she was
reputed to be a playgirl, Mr Thi said
despising verses, ‘Today’s girls are so
unworthy/ Dancing, hugging, looking horny/ Rocking the butt and rolling the eyes/ and so they go night after night.’ Miss Toi rolled her eyes and showed her sharp tongue, ‘Today’s girls yield to no one/
Dancing, hip-hop like everyone/ Just now and then, just to relax/ It’s no big deal, don’t make a fuss.’
Miss Toi didn’t know why after that she came to Mr Thi more and more often. They sparred with verses every time. And neither of them can remember when it started. Mr Thi began saying love verses, ‘You come to me a spring evening/ Grass on the dyke waves as you walk/ Your shoulders blossom lavender/ You smell of home, you smell of life, my dear,’ or ‘Stop the wind, sweep away the clouds/ Let my heart run free, happy and stout...’
Admiring the strong-hearted,
romantic, paralyzed man, Miss Toi fell deeper and deeper in love.
She recalls, ‘That evening, sharing those intimate, soul elevating verses, Mr Thi and I vowed that we were destined for each other.’
But as Thi was incapacitated, Toi’s family was vehemently against their
coupling. Unable to convince her kin, Toi ran away in despair, without leaving any trace. Alone with uncertain love, not only did Thi’s feelings not fade, they grew stronger and stronger. They had started by mocking each other. Now, far from his beloved, the man realized the full force of the verses that he invented without knowing their depth. He began sending his calls of love to newspapers and the national radio station.
Heaven heard his voice. One day Toi just happened to have read to his words, ‘Needles can mend a shirt/ What else can mend my heart?’ and ‘Even the moon can befriend with stars/ Tell me, oh moon, when will my wounds scar? You, celestial, can move in the sky/ I can’t but wish to hear my sweetheart’s sigh...’ The woman in Toi woke up, and she rushed back to him,
uncaring of her family’s opinion.
To this day, having been through all the hardships of life, with their children grown up and having stable jobs, Mrs Toi still
considers her husband still the best man in the world. They go on making verses, and she brings them to the village’s chief poet every Thursday to broadcast on the
commune’s loudspeaker. In the evenings neighbors hear Mr Thi reciting his poems. Sitting on his side, Mrs Toi writes down on a sheet of paper, ‘I gave you a flower/ You pinned it on your hair/ That’s pretty, like a song/ or like a rising sun...’

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