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From Vietnamese Folk Poems
translated by John Balaban

During the war in 1971-72, John Balaban traveled the countryside in South Vietnam tape-recording the sung poetry known as ca dao, an oral tradition in which Vietnamese have been composing for hundreds of years. Sung by ordinary individuals without accompaniment, about 5000 ca dao are thought to exist at any one time. The poems in this group are part of a bilingual collection called Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry to be published by Copper Canyon Press in 2003. The poems here can be heard in the original at where the background noises sometimes include a battle and a pagoda bell.

John Balaban is Poet-in-Residence at North Carolina State University and currently a Guggenheim Fellow.


Leaving the Village

Even when cross planks are nailed down,

bamboo bridges are shaky, unsound. Hard going.

Hard going, so push on home to tidal flats to catch crab,

to the river for fish, to our sandy patch for melons.


Mother Egret

Egrets bear egret sons.

Mother’s after shrimp. Little one’s at home.

Mother Egret has flown far off

To alight…and be roped by Brother Eel!

Nearby, a man poling a bamboo keel

slides through cattails to catch eel and fowl.

Poling clumsily, he rams his prow.

Brother Eel dives. Mother flies off.


Complaining About the Second Wife

A breeze stirs banana leaves behind the house.

You’re crazy about your second wife and neglect our children.

The children–well, with one on each arm,

how should I draw the water or rinse the rice?


(no title)

Hatred for Diem-Americans will last a thousand years.

Seven years now of laying waste our southern land.

So I must shoulder a gun and head for the fighting.

Your fate is a girl’s: house, garden, and fields.



He: Your face is so pretty with make-up.

How many big fellows can your boat take on?

She: This boat is long-sided, deep-bottomed.

Previously it freighted your daddy’s coffin.


The Saigon River

The Saigon River slides past the Old Market,

its broad waters thick with silt. There

the rice shoots gather a fragrance,

the fragrance of my country home,

recalling my mother home, stirring deep love.


At the Exiled King’s River Pavilion*

Evening, and all around the King’s pavilion

people are sitting, fishing, sad and grieving,

loving, in love, remembering, waiting, watching.

Whose boat plies the river mists

offering so many river songs

to move these mountains and rivers, our nation?


* Phu Văn Lâu. King Duy Tân’s moonwatching pavilion on the Perfume River in Huế. The young king led a brief rebellion against the French. This ca dao has a known author: Thúc Giạ Thi, pen name, "Ưng Bình." Sometimes literary and political figures succeeded at inserting poems into the oral tradition, in this case an attempt to stir sentiment for the absent king pursued by French authorities.

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