January 9, 2022
An Interview with Author Trần Thị Minh Phước
About Her New Book “All About Vietnam” and the Upcoming Tết Nguyên Đán
Phuoc Tran is the author of Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories, My First Book of Vietnamese Words, and her newest book All About Vietnam (being released in March). Her story “The Ocean Where the Dreams Go” was included in the anthology Sky Blue Waters: Great Stories for Young Readers. Additionally, she was a librarian in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul area of Minnesota for over 30 years, and was the first Vietnamese librarian in all of Minnesota.
A respected storyteller and a 2016 and 2019 Minnesota State Fair Blue Ribbon author, she shares her knowledge of Vietnamese culture at cultural events, storytelling programs, conferences, libraries, universities, colleges and schools throughout the state and beyond.
Phuoc Tran fled Vietnam in 1982 on a crowded boat and ended up in a Malaysian refugee camp for ten months before coming to the United States.
Wanting to learn English, she spent much time at local libraries which inspired her future career path to become a librarian and serve people like herself.
Phuoc Tran, welcome and thank you for doing this interview with us.
Chào Leonard! Hello Leonard! Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! Happy New Year!
First thank you for the interview and I am so excited to share with the readers my new book, part of the award-winning series All About Countries.
I’ve seen other books in the Tuttle Publishing’s “All About” series, but have not seen your new book yet. Tell us about your latest book "All About Vietnam." What are some of the things readers will find in your book?
All About Vietnam: Projects and Activities for Kids: Learn About Vietnamese Culture with Stories, Songs, and Crafts, written by Trần Thị Mình Phước and illustrated by Nguyễn Thị Hợp and Nguyễn Đồng, invites young readers on a trip through the extraordinary country Việt Nam -The Land of the Children of the Dragon and the Fairy (Con Rồng Cháu Tiên). After decades of foreign domination and war, the Vietnamese people have bravely protected their country against invaders and take pride in preserving their customs and cultures.
The book is about two cousins living in Việt Nam who meet their cousin from Minnesota, U.S.A. for the first time. Together they explore the three regions of Việt Nam and its people. They introduce us to their history, language, holidays, celebrations, beliefs, Vietnamese zodiac, waterways, transportation, games, distinctive cuisine, the iconic áo dài (national long dress) and nón lá (conical hat), and more.
In this book, readers will -
* Discover the best attractions in Việt Nam, including historical monuments, museums, temples, villages, natural landscapes, fruit orchards, and sandy beaches.
* Enjoy the play “The Bamboo of One Hundred Knots” and learn the Legend of the Areca Nut and the Betel Leaves and the Rice Drum / Trống Cơm.
* Celebrate Tết/ Vietnamese New Year, Trung Thu/ Mid- Autumn Festival, and the rites of passage.
* Learn Tết greetings, words, and phrases.
* Fold the origami lotus flower and make the jumping fish and the dragon puppet.
* Dance “the Rice Drum” with friends.
* Prepare delicious foods with simple recipes
And a lot more!
Along with fun, unique, and interesting facts, young readers will also learn about the spirit of Việt Nam that makes the country and its people one-of-a-kind. This is a book for family to explore together and I hope it would bring you laughter, love, and luck in discovering the surprising beauty of Việt Nam. Last but not least, you’ll be able to travel to Việt Nam without a passport from the comfort of your home through turning the beautiful pages of the book.
When did you first come up with the idea for doing this book and why? As a librarian, were you often asked to help patrons with questions about Vietnam? Did you often meet children of Vietnamese descent that were ignorant of their parents’ and grandparents’ culture?
The series of All About Countries from Tuttle Publishing are very popular and well received, so it’s time to add the “All About Vietnam” to this award-winning series. As always, there is a need of multicultural children’s book and “All About Vietnam” is perfect for story time at home or in a classroom, and is one children will come back to time and again. The charming full-color illustrations and photographs bring Vietnam's history and culture vividly to life.
Yes indeed, I got quite a lot of questions and readers’ advisory from students, teachers, parents, and fellow authors as well related to Vietnamese holidays, celebrations, and resources. Vietnamese culture and customs reside in my heart and soul, which I am eager to share and pass on to the next generations. As a librarian and a storyteller, I would bring alive for listeners of all ages my favorite Vietnamese stories and legends.
The Hennepin County library system has an awesome Vietnamese collection including print and non-print educational materials and primary source documents and there is no problem for me to guide the patrons to the right resources and books.
In the contrary, most of the immigrant children and families I have encountered at the library are eager to learn about their culture. They probably see the beauty of their roots and heritage.
Did you have to do a lot of research or did you draw upon a lot of your own knowledge and experiences? What are some of the sources you relied on and what books would you recommend to people wanting to learn more about Vietnam, its people, and culture?
It depends on the topic, but mostly my writings are from my common knowledge, imagination, and experiences. I might do research if needed for some specific and historical facts and contexts. Here is the list of books and websites to people wanting to learn more about Vietnam
For Kids and Young Adults
Tran Thi Minh Phuoc and illustrators Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong, ill. All About Vietnam: Projects and Activities for Kids. Learn About Vietnamese Culture with Stories, Songs, Crafts & Games, 2022
Tran Thi Minh Phuoc and illustrators Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong, ill. Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories, 2015
Tran Thi Minh Phuoc and illustrators Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong, ill. My First Book of Vietnamese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Language and Culture, 2017
Tram Le and Tri C Tran. Vietnamese Stories For Language learners: Traditional Folktales In Vietnamese and English Texts, 2017
Bao Phi. A Different Pond, 2017
Minh Le. Lift, 2020
Cung Trầm Tưởng, Một Hành Trình Thơ (1948-2018), 2019
Châu Thụy, Bloodstained Sea, 2019
Châu Thụy, Vực Xoáy, 2015
Hà Tường, Two Minnows, 2019
Huynh Sanh Thông with a historical essay by Alexander B. Woodside , translated and annotated , Nguyen Du: The Tale of Kiều: A Bilingual edition of Truyện Kiều, 1999
Pham, Dai Gia, The Last Prisoners, 2016
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees, 2018
Rather than go into a detailed list of the customs and ways that people celebrate Tết Nguyên Đán, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration, tell us about some of your favorite family traditions and memories related to this holiday?
Tết Nguyên Đán is the most important festival of the year. When we were in Việt Nam, a week before Tết, we went to visit our ancestors’ grave to clean and decorate them with fresh flowers and offerings. We invited the spirits to return home for the new year’s celebration.
My favorite ceremony is the Kitchen God Day, which falls on the 23rd of December of the lunar calendar. The Kitchen God (also known as the Trio of Deities) often is described as a household guardian wearing a hat and shoes, but no pants. People believe that the fire of the brick stone has burned off the Kitchen God’s pants.
Giao Thừa ceremony (New Year’s Eve), which means the old year passes into the new year. My mom set up a small altar with fruits and food in front of the house and we prayed to bid farewell to the old year and greet the new year.
Flowers and plants play an important role during Tết. There would be no Tết without a yellow Mai flower tree in the garden and full blossoming branches of bright yellow flowers. Every flower and plant comes in a pair, such as the Mai flower, Chrysanthemum, trái tắc or Kum Quát, poinsettia, marigold, and red cockscombs flowers were my mom’s favorite ones.
Could you explain more about the custom of the “First visitor”? I thought I read about it somewhere else – could you explain this to our readers?
Vietnamese have a strong belief for superstition about luck and bad luck. The first visitor on the first day of the new year, often arranged or asked by the homeowner, is very important because he/she is expected to bring luck, prosperity, success, and longevity. The chosen visitor is usually a person of good virtues or high social standing, cheerful disposition, or having a meaningful name.
Every year, my three younger sisters, my mom, and I were designated to be the privileged first visitors to our home because of our meaningful and beautiful names: Phước (Luck), Lộc (Prosperity), Thọ (Longevity), and Hà (River).
I believe I read somewhere in your biography that you were separated from most or all of your family when you took your harrowing boat trip out of Vietnam. Was it hard to continue some of your family traditions when you settled in Minnesota? Were there customs that you had to initially forgo? Just finding the right foods to celebrate Tet must have been difficult, let alone not having family to celebrate it with you.
Not at all because I am very creative in finding the alternative ways to celebrate Tết and keep our new year traditions vivid and meaningful. For example, instead of the Mai flower, we have bright yellow forsythia or twisting the bubble wrap replaces the sound of firecrackers. Luckily, there are several Asian and Vietnamese stores in Minnesota and I can buy mostly what I need for the new year celebration.
However, what I miss the most is having a pair of bright yellow trái tắc in the house. Luckily my family in California has sent us every year a basket of trái tắc.
When I was growing up in my Chinese family, there were many customs that we did where we never really knew why we did them, and we never got to ask our parents. Were there some customs like that for you? What were some of the things you learned about Tet during the course of working on your books?
In my book, the three cousins talk about Superstition. Bình An used to wear a tiger’s claw for protection so he wouldn’t cry at night or have bad dreams. Nguyệt Thu said that grandma always warn children not to break the fish sauce bottle because it brings bad luck. Hải Dương’s mom reminds her not to praise a baby, or if she does, to add the words “trộm vía,” which mean “stolen soul.”
I have shared with the young readers the Tết symbols, the New year’s rice cake, the bamboo pole, my favorite lucky red envelope ritual, new year’s superstitions, and some Tết greetings. Most of all, it is a good opportunity for foreigners to experience Vietnamese culture thoroughly.
What little I know about Tet is that there appears to be a lot of similarities with how different Asians celebrate the Lunar New Year. What would you say is one of the more unique Vietnamese cultural practices during Tet?
I would say the foods of Tết, especially bánh tét and bánh chưng. The rice cakes are served in every family during the new year. According to the legend, among the rare and special gifts and dishes offered from all of his princes, King Hung the Sixth finally decided to choose Tiết Liêu to inherit the throne because of his tastiest, simple and meaningful round and square rice cakes, representing respectively the sky and the earth.
Here’s a question that I’ve been wondering about for a while. I even did some research on it and found an article where some people had theories and debates about it. What are your thoughts about why Vietnamese have a zodiac year of the cat when most other Asian cultures celebrate the year of the rabbit in its place? There is even the great race folktale surrounding the issue of why cat didn’t make it into the Chinese zodiac. Do Vietnamese have a version of the great race folktale with the cat finishing the race?
Great question, Leonard! I can talk briefly about the Vietnamese zodiac vs Chinese zodiac .
Each year is represented by each animal- a total of twelve animals in the Vietnamese zodiac: Mouse, Water Buffalo, Tiger, Cat, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
Every twelve years the representation reverts to the same animal.
Here are the animals in the Vietnamese Zodiac : Tý, Sửu, Dần, Mão, Thìn, Tỵ, Ngọ, Mùi, Thân, Dậu, Tuất, Hợi
Note that the mouse, water buffalo, cat, goat, and pig in the Vietnamese zodiac will be replaced respectively by the rat, ox, rabbit, ram/sheep, and boar in the Chinese zodiac.
In the Vietnamese zodiac, there are animals with positive influence to each other called Tam Hạp
Snake- Rooster- Water Buffalo
Monkey- Mouse- Dragon
Tiger- Horse- Dog
Pig- Cat- Goat
Then, other animals with negative influence to each other called Tứ Hành Xung
Dragon- Dog- Water Buffalo- Goat
Mouse- Horse- Cat- Rooster
Tiger- Monkey- Snake- Pig
There is not a lot of books about the Vietnamese zodiac, but for sure the Cat and the Mouse should be present in the race because wherever is the mouse, there is a cat. They were friends a long time ago, even before being sent to Earth by the Jade Emperor. This song tells it all. Of course the cat always watches over the mouse for every move or bad behavior.
Con mèo mà trèo cây cau,
Hỏi thăm chú chuột
Đi đâu vắng nhà.
Chú chuột đi chợ đằng xa,
Mua mắm, mua muối,
Giỗ cha chú mèo.
The cat climbing on the areca nut,
Asked for the mouse's whereabouts.
The mouse went to the far market,
Buying fermented fish and salt,
For the cat's father's death anniversary.
Stay tuned for my next book about The Legend of the Vietnamese Zodiac. I'll tell the readers why the cat was ranked fourth in the zodiac even though the cat and mouse left the house at the same time to join the race or the cat's secrets and what animals never wanted to join in the race and why.
While we’re on the subject of folktales, tell us about the writing of your book “Vietnamese Children's Favorite Stories.” Did you draw upon the stories that you heard when you were little? Most folktales have a lot of variation for the same story when told by different people. How hard was it to create the version that you wanted to tell?
The collection of 15 legends and folktales presented in the book are some that are most dear to my heart “Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories.” It was through oral stories that my parents taught us how to value virtue and live honorable lives. It is my hope these stories will foster bonds between generations and become a vehicle for bridging gaps between cultures as well.
I didn’t have any difficulties in retelling and creating my own version of a folktale, which brought back so much memories. When retelling the folktale, I always think of the great balance between the text and illustrations that make readers easy to follow, that captivate and entertain them. I try as much as I can to keep the originality of the folktale that reminds the readers of what they listened to or were told when they were young. Definitely I should know where to end the story or have a twist to make the story fitted to the young audience and avoiding some cruelty or gruesome scenes in the original folktale.
Since you also wrote an introductory children’s book to the Vietnamese language, “My First Book of Vietnamese Words,” how about teaching us the proper greeting to say for Tet.
Let’s Learn Some Tết Greetings
There are two ways to say Happy New Year in Vietnamese
_____Cung Chúc Tân Xuân [kuŋ cúk tən sɯən]
_____Chúc Mừng Năm Mới [cúk mɯ̀ŋ naɯm mə́i]
An Khang Thịnh Vựơng [an xaŋ θịŋ vɯə̣ŋ]
Peace -Good Health- Prosperity
_____Vạn Sự Như Ý [vạn ʃɯ̣ ŋɯ í]
_____May All Your Wishes Come True
Sức Khoẻ Dồi Dào [ʃúrk xw᷈ɛ zòi zàu]
Wishing You Good Health
_____Tiền Vô Như Nước [tién vo ŋɯ nẃrk]
_____May Money Flow In Like Water
Much thanks again for doing this interview with us and Cung Chúc Tân Xuân Xuân.
Chào các bạn (goodbye friends) and Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!
Oh, at the beginning of the interview, didn’t you use “Chào” to say hello?
Great question Leonard about greeting and saying goodbye in Vietnamese.
When Vietnamese people greet or say goodbye to each other, they use the same word Chào plus the appropriate honorifics. They do not distinguish between the times of the day like in the morning, afternoon, and evening.
Foreigners have learned to say Tạm biệt as goodbye and they might be confused when hearing so many sophisticated ways to say goodbye in Vietnamese.
The Sino-Vietnamese Tạm biệt literally means “temporary separation” and do not have the same meaning of goodbye in English. Also Vietnamese rarely say Tạm biệt in daily conversation. Chào or xin Chào are often used to say goodbye.
In my book “All About Vietnam,” on page 60, I have cited some other ways of saying goodbye in different settings and situations.
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