Cây nêu is made of a long bamboo stem with one leafy branch at its tip. Attached to the branch is a ring big enough to hold a number of charms against evil spirits – pandan leaves, cacti, chimes… Some families attach three paper carps to carry the Táo Quân deities to heaven, and ahead of the giỗ gia tiên to commemorate ancestors on the first day of Tết, a paper lantern to light their ancestors’ way. The decorated pole is erected on the 23rd day of the month preceding Tết, and taken down on the 7th day of the new year. A bow and arrow are drawn, traditionally with lime or vôi, on the ground around the pole.
Photos by EmCi
Linked to this custom is a folktale of perseverance against malevolence. Once upon a time arable land was owned by daemons who took most of what grew above ground, leaving little for the sharecroppers. To save them from starvation, the Buddha taught the sharecroppers to plant yams. In response, the daemons staked their claims on what laid below ground; the sharecroppers would get the tips of what they grew next. The Buddha taught the sharecroppers to plant rice. Thwarted, the daemons again changed their demands: Of the next crop both tips and roots would be theirs. The Buddha taught the sharecroppers to plant corn. Now enraged, the daemons threatened to take back all the land. The Buddha told the sharecroppers to ask for a patch only as big as a monk’s robe. After the deal was struck, the sharecroppers erected a bamboo stem. With the Buddha standing at its tip, the bamboo grew as high as the sky. Soon, the shadow from the Buddha’s robe covered the entire earth and the daemons found themselves pushed out to sea.
Wrangling over edible parts of crops can be found in stories from other cultures. But the Buddha’s intercession and the bamboo stem as a plot device are characteristic of Viet folktales. As a perennial evergreen with tensile strength, the bamboo is an enduring link between earth and sky. Its use in cooking, household objects, and musical instruments puts it at the center of everyday life. For many Vietnamese, the bamboo hedgerow that often delineates village boundaries has become an iconic image of “home.”