The Story of Tam and Cam
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Tấm's life before she marries the king
The story is about two half-sisters; the eldest is named Tấm (literally broken rice) and the youngest is named Cám (literally rice bran). Tấm's mother dies early and her father remarries before dying soon after. Tấm lives with her stepmother, who is Cám's mother. The stepmother is very sadistic and makes Tấm do all the housework, whereas Cám does not have to do anything.
One day, the stepmother tells Tấm and Cám to go to the field to catch "tép" (caridina, a tropical genus of shrimp) and promises to give them a new red yếm (a Vietnamese traditional bodice) to whomever catches the most. Tấm soon fills up her basket, while Cám plays in the water and catches nothing. Realizing that her sister actually had a chance at receiving a red yếm and the day is almost done, Cám comes up with a plan to sabotage Tấm's work. Cám tells her older sister to wash her hair, saying that the stepmother will scold her if her hair is so muddy after catching all the tép, and Tấm obeyed. While Tấm is washing her hair, Cám transfers all the shrimp from Tấm's basket to hers and goes home.
When Tấm realizes that all the shrimp she has caught is gone, she cries in seeing all her hard work disappear and the impending punishment that will come from her stepmother. A Bụt (a wise old man who helps pitiful people in Vietnamese folklore, sometimes considered a tiên) appears and asks why she cries, and she tells him what happened. He tells her to stop crying and see what is left in the basket, which is merely a goby. Then he tells her to raise the fish in a well with her rice and teach her the words to call the fish up:
O goby, o goby
Go up and eat my golden and silver rice
Don't eat those spoiled rice and porridge of theirs.
Bống bống bang bang
Lên ăn cơm vàng cơm bạc nhà ta
Chớ ăn cơm hẩm cháo hoa nhà người.)
Without the exact recitement, the goby would not rise, according to what the old man has said before he vanishes. Tấm follows his counsel, and the goby grows noticeably. Tấm would spend her time talking to the goby about her thoughts, which the fish would silently comfort her. Suspicious about her behavior, the stepmother and the half-sister discover the fish as well as the poem by which Tấm summons it. The stepmother plans to distance Tấm in order to kill the fish:
"My daughter, the village has prohibited using the field; tomorrow you should graze our buffaloes far away, or they shall seize them."
The stepmother also tells Tấm to leave her coat behind. Tấm obeys her stepmother, unaware of her intent. The stepmother had Cám wear Tấm's clothes and recite the line- making the goby mistaken her as Tấm, which allows them to butcher the goby.
After coming back home, Tấm calls the goby up as usual, but nothing goes up but blood. She sobs again and the old man appears again. He asks why she cries and she explains. He replies: "Your goby they have eaten. Cry no more! Collect its bones, put them in four jars and bury them under your bed legs." and she does so.
Soon after, the king hosts a festival, which he invites people from everywhere to attend, including Tấm and her family. Noticing that Tấm also want to join, the stepmother mixes up rice and bran that she has to separate them before joining the festival, and threatens to punish her if she does not have it done by the time they back from the festival. Again she cries, the old man appears and she explains what happened. He calls sparrows down to help her and teach her a poem to prevent them from eating bran and rice:
O sparrows, go down and separate these for me
Eat a grain, and I will beat you to dead
Rặt rặt xuống nhặt cho tao
Ăn mất hạt nào thì tao đánh chết)
The old man then tells her to dig up those jars that she has buried previously. In the first two jars appear silk clothes, a scarf, and a red yếm. The third jar contains a tiny horse which enlarges into a normal horse; the fourth has a saddle for the horse.
Happily, Tấm washes up and wears the clothing before rushing to the festival in the capital. Crossing a stone bridge, she drops a slipper and cannot get it back. When the king crosses the same bridge, the elephant on which the king rides suddenly growls and brushes its ivory down to the earth. Curiously, the king commands his mans to looking underwater, and they find the slipper. He observes the slipper for a while and comments that the shoe must belong to a gracious woman. Saying so, he tells all the women in the festival to try the slipper to find out the owner, whom he shall wed. No one fits the shoe. Tấm arrives, excited about the festivities and notices her slipper on display. She approaches to try it on. Seeing Tấm trying it on, Cám and her mother mock her. The slipper turns out to fit her, and she draws the other one to wear. The king commands his people to lead her to his palace to wed her. Tấm goes with the king in front of Cám's and her mother's envious eyes.
Tấm and the king are happily married. Not forgetting her father's death day, despite the fulfilling life in the king's palace, she comes back home to help her stepmother prepare for the anniversary.
All the hatred the stepmother and Cám have towards Tấm rises again, but they kept their thoughts private. Despite their harsh treatment towards her before she was married, Tấm treated them kindly during the anniversary.
The stepmother tells Tấm to climb on an areca tree to gather its fruit for the ceremony. While Tấm is doing so, the stepmother chops down the tree, leaving her fall down and die.
The stepmother takes Tấm's clothes for Cám to wear. Cám goes to the king's palace and lies to him that Tấm was unfortunately drowned in a pond by accident. Cám states she came to the palace to replace her sister's position as his wife. The king is saddened to hear so, yet there is nothing he can do, and so he marries Cám. He ignores his new wife, mourning for Tấm silently, to the other's dismay.
Tấm reincarnates into an oriole. She flies straight to the king. On her way, she scolds Cám for not properly washing the king's clothes. Eventually, Tấm sees the king, and she sings to him.
Missing his wife, the king says: "O oriole, if you are my wife, enter my sleeve", and she does so. The king immediately believes that she has being reincarnated as the bird and only spends his time with it, ignoring Cám even more. He then builds a cage for Tấm to reside in when they are not together.
Following her mother's counsel, Cám butchers the oriole, eats it, and then buries its feather in the royal garden. She lies to the king that she was not aware of the interaction between him and the bird, and the oriole simply fled away when she tried to feed it.
From where the feathers were buried grow two peach trees. The trees bend itself to shade for the king. Noticing the two trees that somehow appeared in the royal garden, the king believes they are also a sign from Tấm.
The king tells his people to bring a cot so he can nap there every day. Cám chops the trees down and tells the king she did so to weave new clothes for him. While weaving the clothes, she hears Tấm accusing her for stealing her husband, cursing her and threatening to "hack her eyes". She then burns the loom and throw the ash far away from the palace. The wind carries the ashes far away before they eventually land. From the ash grows a golden apple tree.
A crone soon crosses by the tree and is enticed by the scent of its only fruit. The old woman says:
O golden apple, fall to my sack
Your scent I'll smell, eat you I'll not
(Original: "Thị ơi thị à, rụng vào bị bà, bà để bà ngửi chứ bà không ăn." or "Thị ơi thị rơi bị bà, bà để bà ngửi chứ bà không ăn").
The crone keeps her word and places it in her house as if it were decoration. She soon notices that the housework is always done when she gets home and a meal is prepared for her return as well. The next day she pretends to leave, and finds a woman, Tấm, appear from the apple. The crone then tore of the peel of the fruit when Tấm goes out, and she makes Tấm her adopted daughter.
One day, the king comes across the crone’s house and stops to rest. She offers the king betel leaf. It was prepared the same style Tấm did when she was alive, so the king suspects. He asks who made it. The old woman tells him that her daughter did. The king demands to see the "daughter" and Tấm appears. The king gladly brings Tấm back to the palace.
Later when Tấm has returned to the palace, Cám asks Tấm about her beauty secret, Tấm does not answer but asking back: "Do you want to be beautiful? I'll help you!"
Cám immediately agrees. Tấm tells her to jump down a hole and she does so. Tấm then commands the royal soldiers to pour boiling water onto her and then taking her corpse to make sauce (in the same way fish sauce is made).. Tấm then sends the sauce to her stepmother, saying it is a gift from Cám.
The stepmother believes so and eat it every day. One day, a crow flies by the stepmother's house and rests on her roof and cries out:
"Delicious! The mother is eating her own daughter's flesh! Is there any left? Give me some."
"Ngon ngỏn ngòn ngon ! Mẹ ăn thịt con, có còn xin miếng."
The stepmother becomes angry, but when she finally reaches the bottom of the jar, she discovers a skull inside. Realizing it is Cám's, the stepmother immediately dies of shock.
Variations of the story exists but still maintain the main points.
Some versions of the story implies that Cám is also involved in abusing Tấm while others suggest that Cám is indifferent about her mother's abusive nature towards her half-sister.
There are also some versions where the step-mother and Cám eating the goby when Tấm arrives home and the two laugh when Tấm's realizes who they were eating.
Other versions have the Bụt tell Tấm that she must return her silk clothes, shoes and horse once she returns home, so that her goby will come back to life. At the festival, her stepmother and Cám notice her and Tấm immediately flees in fear. She quickly rides back home, losing her slipper in the process. Upon returning home and changing back into her normal clothes, she discovers that one of her slippers is missing and begins to mourn for the lost of her friend. She walks outside and cries herself to exhaustion, clinging onto a nearby tree. Her stepmother and Cám make it back home to see her sleeping next to the tree. Thinking that she simply fell asleep from exhaustion and assured that they actually didn't see Tấm at the festival, the two returned back to the festivities. The king and his court were on the way to the festival when he discovers the shoe. Variations that have this change will have the King set up a place to display the missing shoe for all the maidens in the country to try on, and ordered the guards to notify him of anyone who can fit it. Eventually, the King grows impatient about the search and he himself joins the guards on watch. Tấm, believing that the shoe is the one she was missing, sneaks into the night and takes the shoe away so that she can compare it to the one she has in her possession at home. The guards, who were watching the shoe with the king at the time, initially wanted to arrest her for theft, but the king caught a glimpse of her face and immediately fell in love with her beauty. He commands his guard to silently follow Tấm home with him to see what she is doing with the shoe. As Tấm was able to confirm that the shoe she took was her missing pair, the king finally made himself known by entering her home. Despite being in his presence and the stepmother and Cám beginning to scold the girl for causing enough trouble to bring guards, the king speaks gently to Tấm and explains why he is at her home. He becomes enamored as he realizes that she is more beautiful up close. Tấm too is enamored by the king and his gentleness. She then reveals the shoe she took and the pair she had, trying both on, and proves that she is the true owner of the slipper.
In some versions of the death anniversary, the stepmother and Cám tell Tấm that they are unable to get the palm fruit; the stepmother claims she is too old and Cám is not able to climb well. Tấm volunteers to gather the fruits for them. Some versions have both the stepmother and Cám arrive at the palace after her death, explaining to the king that Tấm suggested the idea of her half-sister marrying him before she passed away.
One variation has the crone live in the royal palace with Tấm and becomes respected as Tấm's own mother.
For revenge, in some versions, Tấm tells her sister to bathe in boiling water, and Cám's vanity blinds her from reason.
In some variations, the stepmother and Cám died out of anger when Tấm comes back instead the stepmother eating Cám's remains. Some children-friendly versions of the story even omit the revenge from the story or even end the story at Tấm marrying the king.
The story's plot is very similar to the typical plot of many Cinderella variations. Up until Tấm marries the king, the story coincide Cinderella's plot. Examples include both of them being mistreated by stepmothers, prohibited from going to a festival/party/ball with their stepmothers forcing them to separate grains, and recognized by the king/prince by their lost shoe. The use of transformation and reincarnation are also shown in other variations of Cinderella.
Unlike some versions of Cinderella, Cám is never implied to be ugly. Cám is either portrayed as beautiful like her sister, though lacking in qualities like grace and being hardworking, or simply plainer than Tấm.
In popular culture
Many Vietnamese YouTubers or advertisers would reference or create parodies of the fairytale.
The story inspired the movie adaptation Tam Cam: the Untold Story. The movie stays true to most of the story with some differences as to add complexity to the plot and character development of the main characters. The king begins as a prince ruling his kingdom as his father grows ill, and the movie includes a subplot that describes his journey of becoming the new king and fighting against evil. The love story between him and Tấm is portrayed as destined love. The festival was used as a way to find the prince a suitable wife, which the prince invites all social classes and kingdoms to visit against the court adviser's concerns; he uses this as a way to see Tấm again after the first time they met. Rather than finding the slipper on his way to the festival, the prince was already attending the festivities when he was introduced to many suitors from different kingdoms; he ran away in anger as he wanted fate to choose for him. As his friends tried to stop him from running further, his eyes caught a glimpse of Tấm's missing slipper and believes that fate has asked him to marry the one that fits the slipper. He returns to the festival and announces his decision.
The stepmother and Cám become involved in the plan to help overthrow the king in exchange for allowing Cám to become queen, thus creating a motive to kill Tấm other than revenge. Tấm spends her time being reincarnated as a bird and tree to protect the prince from danger (she knocked a cup of alcohol from the king's hand to reveal that it was filled with poison as a bird and as a tree she dropped one of her branches in front of the prince to save him from an incoming arrow). She eventually finds herself as an apple at the crone's home. However, the crone does not destroy the apple and Tấm would leave or return to the apple as she pleases.
The prince does not simply find himself at the crone's home like the story; instead, after being injured in battle that causes his kingdom's throne to be usurped, he is discovered by the crone and brought into her home. He initially refuses treatment and is no longer motivated to take back his kingdom. Only when he finds out that Tấm is alive did he regain his health and was motivated to fight again. Both return to the kingdom, where the prince fights for his throne and Tấm arrests Cám for her doings. The prince successfully takes his throne back. He becomes the new king and Tấm becomes the new queen. Post-credit scenes show Tấm forcing her mother to eat the remains of Cám.
The movie's soundtrack Bống bống bang bang also went viral when the movies was released.
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