During my small part in America's big commitment to the Vietnam War, I had some chances to immerse myself in Vietnamese culture, and that included an introduction to Vietnamese literature, especially folktales and fairy tales. One of my favorite old tales is "A Flower to Catch a Thief," which I read again today in Dorothy Lewis Robertson's 1968 book "Fairy Tales from Viet Nam."
Children's folktales in Vietnam are full of animals who talk, and this story is another example of that. In fact, "A Flower to Catch a Thief" begins: "Long ago, when men and animals spoke the same language…."
Many Vietnamese tales also feature idols, who appear in different forms. And almost all Vietnamese children's tales advocate honor, honesty and integrity. This story incorporates all the above ingredients and traditional values.
"A Flower to Catch a Thief" is about a young servant who loses his master's water buffalo. In his desperate situation, he collapses. A crow happens by, thinks the young man is dead, and swoops down to peck out his eyes. Oh, those crows.
The servant snaps out of it, grabs the crow and is ready to wring the bird's neck, when the frightened crow is freed in exchange for a magic jade. Carved in the shape of a lotus blossom, the jade grants the man's every wish. Soon he is rich and buys a fine home and land at a nearby village.
His happiness is complete after he wishes for a wife and marries the beautiful daughter of another rich farmer from another village. His new bride asks the former servant how he acquired his wealth so quickly. Foolishly, the man shows her the jade and its power.
One day, when the man hauls some rice to market, his wife steals the jade and runs back to her family. The young man is both mad and sad. However, a gold turtle saves the day. This brilliant tortoise turns out to be the idol Kim Qui, who appeared before Emperor An Duong Vuong centuries before, telling him how to defeat the Chinese.
Now he tells the young man how to retrieve his magic jade. He gives him two flowers –one red, one white. As instructed, the man goes to the home of his wife's family, ties the white flower to the garden gate, and waits with the red flower in a bamboo grove.
The white flower's fragrance fills the air and draws the young man's wife and family from their home. They all smell the white blossom, and their noses grow as long as elephant trunks. The only cure is to smell the red blossom, for which they give up the magic jade. Yep, the turtle's plan worked like a charm.
Of course, this story is more interesting in its complete form. And, of course, the wife "meekly followed her husband back to his home and from that time on they lived happily ever after."
In all Vietnamese folk stories, good behavior is stressed, and bad behavior is punished. The Vietnamese values of honesty and integrity – so important in the proud Vietnamese culture – are shown true.
Personally, I think the ultimate lesson of this story could be this: Don't trust anyone. Growing up in a small town in Illinois, I was a trusting soul, putting almost full faith in other friendly souls almost all the time. During my first year in combat in Vietnam, however, I learned to trust nothing – except my fellow Marines.
Later in life, I reached a middle ground in my trust. You have to if you share your life with another person.
I also learned it's a good thing to bring a couple of flowers home to your wife rather regularly. Don't worry; her nose won't grow and look like an elephant's trunk. Trust me.