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Street Cred: Ho Xuan Huong, a Woman Ahead of Her Time

Despite being one of Vietnam’s most prominent classical poets, Ho Xuan Huong’s existence remains an enigma to this day.

A beloved poet known nationwide for her sharp wit and sterling command of chữ Nôm (southern characters), Ho Xuan Huong’s rise to fame might seem peculiar by today’s standards. In a world where authors' and poets' life stories are so intimately interwoven with their work, the fact that we know so little about Huong’s life is a shame. Her masterful understanding of both chữ Hán (Han characters) and chữ Nôm yielded many a clever wordplay that, at times, baffled officials and flirty suitors who attempted to tease her.

Little is known about Huong’s childhood as there is virtually no documentation about her family. Her life and oeuvre were explored for the first time in Giai Nhan Di Mac (Lady Manuscripts), a biography compiled by Nguyen Huu Tien, published in 1916. In the book, Tien attempted to piece together a chronicle of the milestones in Huong’s life based on stories in classical folklore and clues embedded in her poems.

Before, historians believed that Huong’s life spanned the last half of the 18th century under the Tay Son dynasty, according to Van Nghe Si. However, recent findings suggest that she lived under the Nguyen dynasty. Her contemporaries include Pham Dinh Ho, Doan Thi Diem and even notable academic Nguyen Du.

Ho Xuan Huong was born to a poor family in Quynh Doi village, Nghe An province. Her father, Ho Phi Dien, taught chữ Hán to local children, thus at a young age Huong was proficient in the language. Dien passed away when Huong was young and her mother eventually remarried. Contemporary academics studying Ho Xuan Huong’s life and work unanimously agree that the poet endured a great deal of hardship in her personal life.

According to Hoang Khoi’s 2013 biographical book on Nguyen Du, titled Nguyen Du Tren Duong Gio Bui (Nguyen Du on the Road), their paths crossed for a brief period during their youth, but the short-lived fling never developed into something more.

In 1790, Nguyen Du paid Ho Tay a visit, sharing a home with a friend who worked as a local official in Hanoi. Ho Xuan Huong was 17 years old at a time, living with her family in Co Nguyet mansion due to her father’s tutoring job. From a young age, Huong proved to be a precocious, quick-witted teen. Many of her male peers had the hots for her but Huong remained nonchalant as she felt that no one was good enough...until she met Nguyen Du.

According to Hoang Khoi, Ho Xuan Huong and Nguyen Du met during a trip to a local lotus pond. “Xuan Huong met Nguyen Du, a young lad who was both profound and funny. She quickly fell for his wit. After years of wrestling with a debilitating loneliness, it was the first time that Nguyen Du came across a girl like her – talented, clever and strong-willed – so he felt that she complemented him,” wrote Khoi in his book.

The poets fell for each other, churning out some of the most coy yet most intimate works of the classical period. The relationship lasted three years until Nguyen Du had to return to Ha Tinh for the construction of his family home. They didn’t keep in contact and eventually pursued other relationships, ruining Vietnam’s chance for the smartest, most literary babies ever.

Ho Xuan Huong married twice, both later in life. The first time, she married Vinh Tuong, a local official, while her second marriage was to Tong Coc, another official but of higher ranking. Her second marriage didn’t last long either as Tong Coc died six months after their betrothal.

Huong spent the rest of her life in a quaint house near Ho Tay in Hanoi, making a living as a teacher and private tutor. Her hobbies included not needing any men in her life and traveling, as evidenced by many of her poems.

Ho Xuan Huong’s poetry is celebrated firstly for its clever use of wordplay, metaphors and double entendres, and secondly for her rebellious, almost disrespectful tone, which was later considered to be ahead of her time. Back then, Vietnamese poetry was heavily influenced by China's Tang poetry, which featured extremely strict rules regarding imagery, rhythm and enjambment. However, Huong’s works in chữ Nôm were free from such rigidity, employing metaphors and similes taken from humble Vietnamese daily life.

Two of her best-known works, Banh Troi Nuoc (Sticky Rice Cakes) and Trai Mit (The Jackfruit) exemplify this departure from Tang restrictions. In Banh Troi Nuoc, Huong likened her flesh to that of a rice cake: “My body is both white and curvaceous.” However, she emphasized that despite both subjects’ hardship in life, they remain unyielding and righteous: “Our shapes depend on the hands of the maker. Yet, our insides remain hearty.”

The poem has only one stanza, comprising four lines. It is included as a compulsory reading in Vietnam’s high school literature syllabus, thus cementing Banh Troi Nuoc’s status as her best-known and most celebrated work because of its simple yet adept use of metaphor. Recently, Banh Troi Nuoc also inspired a pop song by local chanteuse Hoang Thuy Linh. The song makes full use of the four lines in the poem, accentuated by Linh’s distinctive way of delivery, which is heavily influenced by ca trù, an ancient form of Vietnamese chamber music.

It is an injustice to discuss Ho Xuan Huong’s life without a deeper examination of her oeuvre. However, for the scope of this article, attempting to translate her work and retain its layered meanings is impossible. We will have to make do with the fact that her body of work is still an indispensable fixture in today’s discussion of the role and image of women in Vietnamese poetry. Ho Xuan Huong, both as a writer and a famous literary figure, remains a symbol of female intellect who was well ahead of her time and unmatched by her male counterparts. She is honored today with a quiet, shaded street in District 3 that runs between Truong Dinh and Cach Mang Thang Tam.


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