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Nước non nặng một lời thề,
Nước đi đi mãi không về cùng non.
Nhớ lời nguyện nước thề non,
Nước đi chưa lại, non còn đứng không.
Non cao những ngóng cùng trông,
Suối khô dòng lệ chờ mong tháng ngày.
Xương mai một nắm hao gầy,
Tóc mây một mái đã đầy tuyết sương.
Trời tây ngả bóng tà dương,
Càng phơi vẻ ngọc nét vàng phôi pha.
Non cao tuổi vẫn chưa già,
Non thời nhớ nước, nước mà quên non.
Dù cho sông cạn đá mòn,
Còn non còn nước hãy còn thề xưa.
Non cao đã biết hay chưa?
Nước đi ra bể lại mưa về nguồn.
Nước non hội ngộ còn luôn
Bảo cho non chớ có buồn làm chi.
Nước kia dù hãy còn đi,
Ngàn dâu xanh tốt non thì cứ vui.
Nghìn năm giao ước kết đôi,
Non non nước nước chưa nguôi lời thề.
Tản Đà

Tản Đà is the pen name of the poet Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu (1889-1939). It combines the name of a mountain, Tản, and that of a river, Đà, which are the two famous landmarks of his birthplace in North Vietnam. Born into a family of literati and mandarins, Tản Đà was a link between two important eras of Vietnamese literature -- the writings of Confucian tradition of the nineteenth century and the writings under western influence in the early part of the twentieth century. A lifelong poet and journalist, Tản Đà served as publisher of An Nam Tạp Chí in Hà Nội and Nam Định and as editor of Hữu Thanh in Hà Nội. Later, he collaborated with fellow journalists in Saigon. Yearning for a liberation of the country from French domination, he met with and supported the patriots Phan Bội Châu and Nguyễn Thái Học. The two prestigious magazines of that time, Đông Dương Tạp Chí edited by Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh and Nam Phong Tạp Chí edited by Phạm Quỳnh, sought his collaboration because of his great fame. Whether he worked for himself or for others, he remained faithful to his own philosophy of life, especially his theory of “thiên lương” (tentatively translated as “conscience” for lack of a better word). According to Hà Như Chi (1958), Tản Đà’s “thiên lương” can be understood as “a thing that is at the top of the invisible; it is the benevolence that mankind has been endowed with by nature. If it is low, the person will misbehave, be rude, and achieve little; on the contrary, if it is high, it will produce heroes and sages.” He urged people to nurture and develop this innate quality in order to serve life better. As a poet and writer, he admitted that his writing was “for the sake of life” (văn vị đời) and that he embraced both “big dreams” (mộng lớn) and “small dreams” (mộng con). Such heartwarming aspirations pervade the poem Thề Non Nước.


The mountain and the river had a solemn vow, [2]
Yet the river kept flowing away without returning.
Recalling their eternal pledge,
The mountain stays idle while the river is away.
Standing tall, it just watches and waits with impatience, [3]
The extended wait has dried up its spring of tears.
Its smattering of frail bones has worn out,
Its cloud of hair is covered with snow and frost.
The sun is setting in the west, [4]
Revealing the mountain’s fading jade and gold.
Tall mountain is still young,
It misses the river, which may have forgotten it.
Even though stone may wear down and water may dry up, [5]
As long as mountain and river exist, their vow should endure.
Tall mountain, do you know this yet?
Carried to the sea, water now returns to its source as rain.
Mountain and river shall oftentimes meet again; [6]
Thus, there is no reason for mountain to be so sad.
Although river is still gone,
With lush green mulberry fields flourishing, o mountain, perk up!

[1] “Mountain and river” (poetically rendered as “non nước”) also means “country” in Vietnamese. This poetic gem is cherished by the people, for it showed the poet’s extraordinary devotion to his native land, a theme he also expounded in other poems. In his Ode to a Torn Map (Vịnh Bức Dư Đồ Rách) he bitterly deplored the transformation of his once-splendid homeland into a “tattered and torn” country, symbolized by a map of a same condition: “Sao đến bây giờ rách tả tơi?” (Why is it now tattered and torn?). In his Đêm Tối (Dark Night), he asked himself, “Kiếm đâu cho thấy mặt anh hùng” (Where on earth will we find a hero) who would emancipate the country already more than fifty years under the atrocious French yoke (Nguyễn Xuân Thọ, 1994). In his essay Bức Thơ Rơi (The Anonymous Letter), although he sounded disappointed, he suggested other ways to protect the race and the culture, reasoning cogently “Há phải vai đeo cung kiếm mới là chân chính ái quốc?” (Must one shoulder bows and swords to be genuinely patriotic?). Although he knew his limits, admitting poignantly “Bốn mặt non sông, một mái chèo” (Four sides of the country, one oar”) in yet another patriotic poem titled Sông Cái, Chiếc Thuyền Nan (Large River, Basket-boat), he did not allow himself to be quiet. Thề Non Nước was not published separately; it was instead part of a story bearing the same title which related the poet’s romance with a songstress named Vân Anh. According to Phạm Thế Ngũ (1966, pages 308-309), the poem can have three different interpretations: “The first one is purely descriptive. The painting in the story showed a mountain with a green mulberry grove at its foot and a scrawny apricot tree. After Vân Anh pointed out that there was only mountain and no river, the poet composed this poem to explain the river’s absence, to be added to the painting. Another interpretation is purely romantic. The poet, like water in the river, kept flowing away while his lover was pining for his return. However, the poet never forgot the vow between them, and indicated that he would come back. The third interpretation is that the poem illustrates the righteousness of its writer, who borrowed the story of a beautiful woman and an artist in a red-light quarter to express his devotion to his country. The vow between mountain and river is also the poet’s vow to his homeland, which he has served since his youth, trying to restore a torn map and save a country fading under the sun. He cautiously informed readers that he would never forget that vow.”
[2] This poem has a clear and tight structure. Presenting a sentimental drama, this opening stanza sets the tone for the poem. The remaining stanzas expound the pain of waiting by the mountain for the river, the explanation for the absence and the eventual return of the river, and the renewal of the vow between the mountain and the river.
[3], [4] These two stanzas depict the pining of the mountain as it hopelessly awaits the river’s return. Tản Đà uses conventional, yet refined, terms to describe the lonesome mountain as well as the moral and physical deterioration of a woman gnawed by an extended wait. The terms xương mai, hao gầy, tóc mây, and the phrase đã đầy tuyết sương, albeit trite, elegantly describe her frail beauty. At the same time, the terms mây, sương, tuyết are all apt for describing a mountain landscape. The terms vẻ ngọc and nét vàng in the third stanza suggest that the woman’s good looks stay on despite the passing of time. The last verse of this stanza, Non thời nhớ nước, nước mà quên non is an agonizing cri de coeur from the mountain to the river. This heartfelt appeal will be matched by a categorically reassuring response from the river (please see annotation [7]).
[5], [6] These two stanzas cover the river’s reiteration of the vow and the sharing of some uplifting news, based on a scientific explanation of the water cycle in nature – the eventual return of water in the form of rain is a certainty. Along with the uplifting news is the river’s calm consolation for the mountain and urging it to cheer up because they will meet again.
[7] This couplet clinches the poem with a heartening renewal of the eternal vow between the mountain and the river. In addition to a convincing interpretation of this vow mentioned by Phạm Thế Ngũ (1966) cited earlier in this article, many readers understand this vow as a sworn determination by Vietnamese patriots who fought to regain their country’s sovereignty. Thus, while the mountain symbolizes those who remained at home, the river stands for those who had to go far away to achieve this common goal.

Hà Như Chi (1958). Một Thời Lãng Mạn Trong Thi Ca Việt Nam. Saigon: Tân Việt.
Phạm Thế Ngũ (1965). Việt Nam Văn Học Sử Giản Ước Tân Biên (Tập III). Saigon: Anh Phương.
Phạm Thế Ngũ (1966). Kim Văn Tân Tuyển. Saigon: Quốc Học Tùng Thư.
Trịnh Bá Đĩnh & Nguyễn Đức Mậu (2000). Tản Đà Về Tác Gia và Tác Phẩm. Hà Nội : Nhà Xuất Bản Giáo Dục.


Đăng ngày 19 tháng 09.2015