Ngày Quốc tế Phụ nữ : Thơ Việt Nam / Poems for International Women’s Day : Vietnamese Voices : “I have crushed my dreams and turned them into a life…”

Untitled_photograph © photographer An-My Lê, born 1960

Untitled_photograph © photographer An-My Lê, born 1960

Dieu Nhan (Buddhist nun, 1041-1113)

“Birth, Old Age, Sickness, Death”


Birth, old age, sickness, death

Are commonplace and natural.

Should we seek relief from one,

Another will surely consume us.

Blind are those praying to Buddha,

Duped are those praying in Zen.

Pray not in Zen or to Buddha,

Speak not. Linger with silence.


(translation: Huu Ngoc, Lady Borton)

Buddhist nun Dieu Nhan_Birth, old age, sickness, death

Dam Phuong (1881-1947)

“Flood Relief” (around 1928)


Harsh winds and the relentless rains drown

Districts that were once Thanh Hoa towns,

Swirling them down river, the water brown.

Warn the world: Silence is a stand,


Silence without opening your heart and hand.

Labourers reach out in crises of need,

Women with their gentleness take a lead,

Only then do the palace chiefs heed.


From this time on, we understand “kindness”,

Everyone joining in to ease public distress,

Those from humble trades with help appear,

Women draw on friends far and near.


(translation: Lady Borton)

Dam Phuong_Flood Relief

Mong Tuyet (1914-2007)

“The price of rice in Tràng An” (1945)

(for Van Muoi, clerk at a flower shop in Tri Duc Garden)


I hear the price of rice in Trang An is high.

Starving for food, thirsting for life-saving rain,

Our friends and family in the centre and the north

Are desperately hoping rice will be sent from Dong Nai.


Grief dazes our nation’s artists.

You encouraged me to study poetry,

You want to release the ink of my poetic spirit.

Lost in a literary forest, I was building a road out.


I carried your books back home.

The people awaiting rice are in agony.

Sister, with my poor skills, how can I help?

You’d answer:

“I’ll sell literature, you sell flowers.”


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

Tràng An is an old name for the city of HaNoi.

An important railway route and main road lay destroyed at the end of WWII,

hence rice did not reach enough people.

In Viet Nam, two million people had died of starvation by the end of the war.


Mong Tuyet_The price of rice in Trang An

Tran Thi My Hanh (born 1945)

“The road repair team at Jade Beauty Mountain” (1968)


Jade Beauty Mountain at Van River

Deserted at mid-day, buzzes with heat.

The mountain looks like a beautiful girl

Reclining, her eyes searching the azure sky.


Clouds like friends surround the Beauty.

Below are women workers from a road team,

Their youth and strength breaking a new trail,

Their hands skilled with hoes and quick with guns.


Pity the road circling the mountain,

Bomb craters slashing into bomb craters,

Olive trees, oak trees blackened with resin,

The birds scattered, ripped from their flocks,

Every rock on Beauty Mountain cringing in pain,

The earth tumbling down into the lowland paddies,

Night after night as the Beauty Mountain lies awake.

The women repairing the road are uneasy;

With torches, they search their way forward.

For them, a bite of dried bread is a delicious treat.


The green jackets that arrived yesterday

Were completely mended today (it was nothing).

Despite beating sun, pouring rain and bitter smoke,

The chop chop of hoes lifts skyward until after midnight.


The battlefield is here – The Front is here,

We fight the enemy for every inch of this road,

We shovel, shovel rock that smells of the mountain,

Our blood and sweat blending with the mountain’s basalt.


I hear the startling horns of passing trucks,

Feel my blood and the road’s blood pulse as one.

We, women with hearts as pure and dazzling as jade,

Stretch in a silhouette along the ridge of Beauty Mountain.


(translation: Lady Borton)

Jade Beauty Mountain is in northern Viet Nam’s Red River Delta. Route 1 is nearby,

and this major north-south road served as supply route during the U.S.–VietNam War.

Route 1 was bombed often by American planes.

Tran Thi My Hanh_The road repair team at Jade Beauty Mountain_part 1Tran Thi My Hanh_The road repair team at Jade Beauty Mountain_part 2

Ha Phuong (born 1950)

“A meal by a stream” (1971)


A platoon of twelve

Four mess kits of cold rice

A packet of jerky

Wild vegetables from the forest

A minute to rest by a stream.

The fire hisses, as if urging the soup to boil –


With no dining table,

Some stand, some sit.

The steep mountain pass has quickened our hunger,

We hastily spread a leaf to make a small tray;

A mouthful of dry rice

When you’re hungry is delectable.


Jokes, teasing, the crisp sound of laughter,

A mess kit of cold rice, a few minutes’ pause.

“There’s still salt. The rice is tasty…”

The sound of laughter

The sound of laughter spreads.


Our unit’s meal is strangely joyful:

We’re far from our parents

But share the love of comrades.

On the Trail these days as we fight the Americans,

Our forest meals are delicious feasts.


(translation: Lady Borton)

Ha Phoung_A meal by a stream

Thuy Bac (1937-1996)

“Thread of Longing, Thread of Love” (1977)


Truong Son East

Truong Son West


On one side, sun burns

On the other, rain circles


I extend my hand

I open my hand



To cover you


Pull this thread of love

To splice a roof


Pull this thread of longing

To weave a blue dome


Bend the Eastern Range

To cover you from the rain


Bend the Western Range

To spread a cool shadow


Canopy the sky with love

Of purest blue


I bend everything

Toward you.


(translation: Le Phuong, Wendy Erd)

The Ho Chi Minh Trail – a series of old mountain paths used for supply routes

by the North VietNamese during the U.S.–VietNam War –

passed through Truong Son (the Long Mountains).


Thuy Bac_Thread of longing, thread of love

Doan Ngoc Thu (born 1967)

“The city in the afternoon rain” (1992)

Doan Ngoc Thu_The city in the afternoon rain

The city in the afternoon rain:

A beggar sits singing

A song from the war.


The city in the afternoon rain:

Roaming children

Vie for the bubbles they blow

And for fallen almonds.


The city in the afternoon rain:

Near a small roadside inn,

Cigarette ashes eddy with a burnt match

And a return ticket filled with nostalgia.


The city in the afternoon rain:

Suddenly I run into you,

You’re just as before – proud and harsh.

You step silently through the rain

To the beggar’s side

And weep –

At the song echoing the time of war.


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

The war referred to is the U.S.–VietNam War.

.     .     .

Untitled, Nam Ha, 1994 © An-My Lê

Untitled, Nam Ha, 1994 © An-My Lê

.     .     .

Tran Mong Tu (born 1943)

“Lonely Cat” (1980)


The cat sprawls in the yard

Lonely, playing with sunlight.

Inside the window

Lonely, I’m watching him.


On grass green as jade,

Alone, his white back spins.

Sun shimmers down, drop by drop

The cat turns round my sadness.


I see myself in the glass,

A dim shadow, its outline vague:

The gate to marriage shut tight,

Imprisoning me so gently.


The cat has his corner of grass,

I, my dim pane.

We two, so small.

Our loneliness uncontained.


Dear cat in the sun,

Assuage my sadness.

My ancient homeland, my former lover,

Still soak my soul.


(translation: Le Phuong, Wendy Erd)

Tran Mong Tu_The lonely cat

Tran Thi Khanh Hoi (born 1957)

“The Pregnant Woman” (1990)

Tranh Thi Khanh Hoi_The pregnant woman

She came to me,

Her eyes like the waves of a river in flood,

Her voice choking

At its source, then gushing like a waterfall,

Her breasts throbbing with milk about to flow,

Her unborn child kicking at my side.

In a few days, birth will release

The child’s hands and feet, its wails and cries,

But right now the mother sits waiting in weariness,

Like an arid field as the rising flood approaches its limit.


Angry at her husband, who won’t stop drinking,

She’s been pregnant throughout a season of hard labour.

Fears about her ill-treated baby

Have aged her,

Have left her fearful

Of the wealthy screaming for the money owed them,

Unmoved by the pain of a worried

Woman who is pregnant.


She came to me,

Seeking consolation, protection, sympathy.

What could I say when we can’t stop the inevitable?

The time is soon for this pregnant woman.

I swim through waves of silt from the flood,

Tonight –


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

.     .     .

Men and Joy of Cooking, 2010 © Dinh Thi Tham Poong, born 1970

Men and Joy of Cooking, 2010 © Dinh Thi Tham Poong, born 1970

.     .     .

Huong Nghiem (born 1945)

“I don’t know” (1991)


Thinking of

The endless Universe,

I am suddenly aware:

The sun is very small.

Thinking of

Endless love,

I realize:

I am limited by you.

Instead of letting my own ego expand,

I am absorbed

In scrubbing

Your shirt collar clean.

But to what end

I don’t know.


(translation: Nguyen Quang Thieu, Lady Borton)

Huong Nghiem_I don't know

Le Thu (born 1940)

“My Poem” (1990)


I want you to be the ocean

Never ending, forever strange.

But I fear your heart may run too deep

For me to reach its limits.


I want you to be a river

Depositing rich soil on its banks.

But I fear the river’s length;

When does flowing water return?


I want to hear your words in a vow

To be sure you are mine forever.

But I fear flying high unfettered;

Yet how can I bind your wings?


I want you to be the moon,

Full on the fifteenth of the lunar month,

But I fear the next days’ waning;

Would our love also fade with the season?


So! You should be a poem

Gently entering my heart.

Then, our love forever young

Can be compassionate and complete!


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

Le Thu_My poem

Nguyen Bao Chan (born 1969)

“For my father” (1995)


Looking at your hands

I see the lines

Splitting into the future and an exhausting past

I see also the sky of my youth,

How I drifted in dreams, following the moon and stars.


Time has rushed on

I have crushed my dreams and turned them into a life

I have held the broken pieces of your life in these frail hands

I have ground the shards to bluntness, ground them some more,

In order to live, love, and protect myself.

If ever I’m inattentive to you, broken

And reduced to pieces,

I know you will pick up the shards

Even though they cut your hands and give you pain.


(translation: Lady Borton)

Nguyen Bao Chan_For my father

Y Nhi (born 1944)

“Longing” (1998)

Y Nhi_Longing

To leave

like a boat pulling away from a dock at dawn

while waves touch the sandbar, saying goodbye


Like a still-green leaf torn from a branch

leaving only a slight break in the wood


Like a deep purple orchid

gradually fading and

then one day closing off like an old cocoon


To leave

like a radiant china vase displayed on a brightly lit shelf,

as the vase starts to crack


Like a lovely poem ripped from a newspaper

first sad

then elated

as it flies off like a butterfly in late summer


Like an engagement ring

slipping off a finger

and hiding itself among pebbles


To leave

like a woman walking away from her love.


(translation: Thuy Dinh, Martha Collins)

.     .     .

My Angel 1_2007 © Nguyen Thi Chau Giang, born 1975

My Angel 1_2007 © Nguyen Thi Chau Giang, born 1975

.     .     .

Lam Thi My Da (born 1949)

“I return to myself” (2004)


Free the moon for its fullness,

Free the clouds for the wind,

Free the colour green for the grass.

I return to myself.


Free the gentle girls

To be unaffected;

Free people from suffering,

From competing for fame,

Free them all, free them all.

I return to myself.


Free teenage girls

From hiding away,

Free grey hair

To be white forever.


Everyone carries a smile

To chase away tears.

Joy has colours,

Sorrow is transparent.

I return to myself.


Poetry is the scarlet of blood

Seeping into the voice.

Life has untold blessings and disasters;

We sow, then unexpectedly reap.


The weary can never rest,

The pained can no longer cry,

The silent ones are like shadows.

I return to myself.


Luckily, a small child

Remains inside the soul,

Her gaze fresh,

Shimmering at the roots,

Her heart still naive.

I return to myself.


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

Lam Thi My Da_I return to myself_part 1Lam Thi My Da_I return to myself_part 2

.     .     .     .     .

All of the above translations from Vietnamese into English are the copyright © of the following translators:

Huu Ngoc, Lady Borton, Le Phuong, Martha Collins, Nguyen Quang Thieu, Thuy Dinh, Wendy Erd, and Xuan Oanh.

This compilation of poems is the copyright © of editors Nguyen Thi Minh Ha, Nguyen Thi Thanh Binh, and Lady Borton.

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