Tam and Cam: The tale of a Vietnamese Cinderella


Tam is the Vietnamese archetype of the abused child. Tam means ‘’broken rice’, much cheaper than whole grain rice and usually reserved as staple for the poor. Cam means ‘‘bran’’, the partly ground husk of rice and intimately related to rice like the two half-sisters Tam and Cam. Even broken rice is white, in contrast with the darker color of bran. It is said that Tam was of fair complexion (her ivory skin, like ‘’Snow-white”) and Cam (from the bad side) was of darker skin; an indication that it was a color conscious society. 

The story of Tam and Cam is the Vietnamese equivalent of Cinderella, though the plot is much more elaborate and more symbols are involved:

The Fish:  Here a symbol of the Female Deity, Mother Earth, Goddess of Mercy, Fertility in matriarchal religions of ancient societies. According to the Women Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,” fish and womb were synonymous in Greek; Delphos meant both’’ and ‘’a world wide symbol of the Great Mother was the pointed oval sign’’…’’known as vesica piscis, vessel of the Fish’’ and ‘’fish were eaten as fertility charms’’. It is interesting to note that the Goddess of Mercy asks Tam to pray to the bones of the fish to get what she wants.

The Tree and the Fruit:: Though absent in modern western versions of Cinderella, according to the same source cited above, “An early German  version of the story  said Cinderella’s real mother, the Earth, though dead, sent from her grave a fairy tree in answer to her daughter’s prayer. This tree produced golden apples, fine clothes, and other gifts’’ (page 168).

Hien V. Ho, MD.


Tam and Cam: the Story

Adapted and abridged from Cinderella, in Vietnamese Legends by L.T. Bach Lan, Xuan Thu Publishers, 1958) by Stephen V. Ho.


            Long ago, a man was left with his small daughter Tam when his wife passed away. He remarried, however, to a wicked woman who detested Tam. For the wedding banquet, Tam was locked into a room by her and denied supper.

            Conditions grew worse for Tam when her new stepmother had a baby named Cam. The stepmother continued to tell lies about Tam to her husband. The wretched woman sent Tam to a dirty corner of the kitchen where she was forced to live and work. Tam had to scrub the floors, chop the wood, feed the animals, and do all the cooking. Her stepmother sent her far out into the forest in hopes that she may not return. Tam suffered hard labor and got blisters on her hands and dirt on her face. However, when she washed off the dirt, her ivory skin showed how beautiful she was. When her stepmother realized how pretty Tam could be, her hate and wish to do harm towards her grew.

            One day, she sent Tam and her own daughter Cam to go fishing in the village pond. “If you don’t bring a good number back, you will be beaten”, she told the girls, however, both knew that the warning was directed towards Tam. While Tam worked hard and got a basket full of fish, Cam spent all her time idly, basking in the warm sunshine and picking wild flowers. Cam looked at her empty basket and said to Tam “Sister, sister, you hair is full of mud. Why don’t you step into the fresh water and get a good wash to get rid of it? Otherwise, mother is going to scold you.” Innocently, Tam listened and while she washed her hair, Cam stole her fish and hurried home. When Tam realized what had happened, she wept, surely she would be punished for coming home empty-handed. Suddenly, a gentle wind passed, and in the clear blue sky appeared the smiling blue-robed Goddess of Mercy, carrying a green willow branch in her hand. In a sweet voice, the Goddess asked Tam what had happened. Tam gave her an account of her misfortune and added,

 “Most Noble Lady, what am I to do tonight when I go home? I am frightened to death, for my stepmother will not believe me, and will flog me so hard.”

The Goddess of Mercy consoled her.

“Your misfortune will be over soon. Have confidence in me and cheer up. Now, look at your basket to see whether there is anything left there.”

Tam looked and saw a small lovely fish with red fins and golden eyes, which she took home with directions to feed it three times a day.

            So Tam went home and followed the words of the Goddess and fed the fish three times a day. However, the fish would only surface when Tam was present. Tam’s stepmother took noticed of her behavior and one day in her absence put on her stepdaughter’s clothing and summoned the fish. She then killed it and cooked it. When Tam discovered that her fish was gone, she wept. The Goddess of Mercy appeared again and comforted her:

“Do not cry, my child. Your stepmother has killed the fish, but you must try to find its bones and bury them in the ground under you mat. Whatever you may wish to possess, pray to them, and your wish will be granted.”

Tam followed the advice and looked but could not find the fish bones until a hen helped her find them in return for some rice. She buried them according to the Goddess’ instructions and received gold and jewelry and dresses that were more beautiful than she could imagine.

            When the Autumn Festival came, Tam was ordered to stay home and sort out two big baskets of mixed black and green beans before she was allowed to attend the Festival. She would never be able to finish her task on time. Tam looked up and with tears in her eyes, sought the help of the Goddess of Mercy once more. At once, the kind Goddess appeared, and with her magic green willow branch, turned little flies into sparrows that sorted the beans out for the girl. Tam dried her tears, and put on a glittering blue and silver dress that made her look like a Princess going to the festival.

            Cam and her mother could not recognize Tam. When Tam realized that her stepmother and half sister were staring at her, she ran away, but in such a hurry that she dropped one of her fine slippers. The king recovered the slipper and declared he had never seen such a work of art before. He sent word that any woman who could fit the slipper would become his queen. However, no one could fit the slipper.

            Finally, Tam tried on the slipper and it fit her perfectly. She was taken to the Court with escorts and became queen. She was overjoyed with her new life. On her father’s birthday, Tam went home to celebrate it with her family. At the time, it was custom that no matter how great or important one might be; one was always expected by one’s parents to behave exactly like a young and obedient child. Taking advantage of this, Tam’s stepmother asked her to climb an areca tree; Tam piously and dutifully agreed. While Tam was in the tree, the stepmother cut it down and sent her to her death.

            As they had hoped, Cam then became the King’s wife with the unfortunate death of Tam. Tam’s pure and innocent soul could not find peace; it was turned into the shape of a nightingale, which dwelt in the most beautiful grove in the King’s garden and sang beautiful songs. The King realized that this bird was the spirit of his beloved late wife and he kept it in a cage. He spent all his free time next to it, listening to its melodious songs.

            Cam became jealous of the bird, and with her mother’s advice, she killed it. The King returned and discovered the absence of the nightingale. He was very sad, convinced by Cam that it had flown away on its own. But again, Tam’s restless soul was transformed into a big, magnificent tree, which only bore a single big, golden, sweet-smelling persimmon (trai thi). An old woman passed by the tree and called upon the golden fruit:

“ Golden fruit, drop into the bag of this old woman, I will only enjoy your smell, never eat you.” (Hu thi thi,rot bi an may, ba khong an dau, ba de ba ngui)

The fruit dropped into the old woman’s bag; she brought it home, put it on the table to enjoy its sweet-scented aroma. But the next day, she was surprised to find that her house was clean and tidy, and on the table was a hot meal waiting for her after she got back from her errands. The next morning, she pretended to leave, but stealthily came back, hid herself behind the door, and observed the house. A fair and slender lady emerged from the fruit and started to clean the house. The old woman rushed in and tore up the fruit. The young lady stayed and became her adoptive daughter.

            One day the King and his hunting party lost their way. It soon became dark and he sought shelter at the old woman’s house; she was happy to help. She offered him tea and betel, and when he examined the delicate way in which the betel was prepared he asked:

“Who is the person who made this betel, which looks exactly like the one prepared by my late beloved Queen?”

            The old woman answered in a trembling voice:

“Son of Heaven, it is only my unworthy daughter.”

            The king then ordered the daughter to be brought to him. When he saw her, he realized that she was his beloved wife. The Queen was then taken back to the Imperial city, where she took her former rank, replacing Cam.

            Cam, hoping that being as beautiful as her sister would help her win the King’s heart, asked her sister:

            “Dearest Sister, how could I become as white as you?”

            “It is very easy,” answered the Queen.

            “You only have to jump into a big basin of boiling to water to get beautifully white.”

            Cam believed her and followed the advice; she died and when her mother heard about the incident she wept and wept until she became blind. Soon thereafter, she died of a broken heart. The Queen lived a long life, and lived happily ever after.