The Story of Nom

by Sarah Tilton, Aug 1, 1997 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi
Nom calligraphy by artist Vien Thuc

Nom calligraphy by artist Vien Thuc

Nom calligraphy by artist Vien Thuc

Once upon a time many centuries ago, in a country we now call Vietnam, there was a happy village by a lake. The children laughed and played with the water buffalo and their parents grew rice and mangos.

But one day a monster suddenly appeared in the lake. The monster was very big and very hungry. It was so hungry it ate some children who were swimming in the lake. When the monster was full, it vanished back into the deep water. Whenever the monster got hungry, though, it came out and gobbled up any nearby children. The villagers didn't know what to do. The monster was too big to capture or kill. So, they asked the Emperor in the north for help.

The Emperor sent one of his most brilliant scholars to take care of the problem. The scholar traveled hundreds of miles to the village and then stood by the lake in his impressive red silk robes and spoke to the monster. He ordered the monster to stop eating the children and told it to have some fruit instead. He threw bananas into the water. The monster watched the scholar, but since the monster's ears were underwater it could not hear the man. The scholar held up a scroll for the monster to see, however the monster couldn't understand the scroll because it was written in the language of the Emperor in the north, not in Vietnamese. The monster looked at the bananas and decided it did not like them and would not eat them (though it had never tried them). The monster thought about having the scholar for a snack, but then decided the man looked old and tough to chew.

The monster continued to terrorize the village. The upset villagers sent another message to the Emperor in the north and the Emperor dispatched another scholar. The scholar stood by the lake and read a proclamation from the Emperor. The Emperor demanded the monster leave the children alone and told the monster to try chicken or fish. The monster watched the strange man, though it could not hear him and it could not understand the proclamation that was written in a foreign language. The scholar went home and the monster kept eating the children. The desperate villagers sent one last plea to the Emperor. The emperor sent another scholar.

The scholar stood by the lake in his blue robe and talked to the monster. The scholar wrote his message on a scroll and held it up for the monster to see. Then the scholar realized he was writing in the language of the north and maybe the monster did not understand. The scholar had an idea. He would write the message in Vietnamese...though first he had to invent a way of writing Vietnamese. The scholar invented Nom. When the monster looked up and saw the message written in Nom, the monster sounded out the words. It made sense-the words were Vietnamese! The monster finally understood what everyone had been trying to say. The scroll explained that the monster was causing much pain and suffering in the village and must stop eating the children. The monster felt sorry for what it had done and promised to stop.

The monster went away and after that the village was once again a happy place.