The Vampires of Hưng Hóa

I just came across an interesting passage in Lê Quý Đôn’s eighteenth-century Kiến Văn Tiểu Lục. It is about a kind of demon which lived in Hưng Hóa called a “ma cà rồng.” This is the term which is used today in Vietnamese to refer to a Western “vampire” like Dracula. However, this passage points to an older usage of that term.

The ma cà rồng was very similar to a kind of evil spirit which is found all over Southeast Asia, namely, a person who transforms at night into a being which can fly and which preys upon pregnant women.

In Cambodia, where it is called an aap, and in Thailand, where it is called a phi krasue, it is usually a woman whose head disconnects from her body, and she flies through the air with her inner organs and intestines hanging from her head. She can also extend her tongue very far, and this is what she uses to drink the blood of pregnant women as they sleep, or to eat their fetuses.

There are variations of this kind of ghost throughout island Southeast Asia as well. However, I’ve never heard stories about this type of evil spirit in Vietnam (although I have had some people tell me that their parents did tell them such stories).

So I was happy to find this story from Vietnam, but it looks to me like the area the story comes from was probably not inhabited by ethnic Vietnamese at that time. The place names (such as Tường Grotto, where “grotto” refers to an administrative region for people considered “different”) indicate this, as does the name of the demon, “ma cà rồng,” a name which does not sound Vietnamese.

In any case, here is what Lê Quý Đôn recorded:

In Hưng Hóa, from Tường Grotto (động) to Hạ Lộ sách (册 – this term is used to refer to a type of administrative unit, but I can’t recall exactly what type) there are demonic people who are called “ma cà rồng.”

During the daytime they work in the fields and engage in labor, and go about like everyone else. Beyond the eaves of their houses they place a wooden container where they immerse themselves in the sap from a tree (蘇木). Then at night, they stick the big toes of their feet into their noses and fly off as demons. They like to enter the homes of pregnant women and suck their blood. When people see that the light from their lanterns is different, then they know that this monster has arrived. They stretch a net around [the pregnant woman?? this part is vague] to hold it off so that it will not be able to enter, and will leave. There are those who will flail at it wildly with a stick, and it seems that they see it fall down and then fly off again. Its flying sounds just like that of a dung beetle.

At the fifth watch it flies back. It immerses itself in the tree container, pulls out its toes, and again becomes a human. If you ask it about the events of the night, it will know nothing.

A family that has been afflicted by this [demon], will invite a shaman to make incantations and pray. Seeing that the place where the ill person hurts has human teeth marks, they take the persons clothes and place them on a rice pot. The shaman then says, “You have already had your share, now let him/her be.” The clothes are then taken and put back on the person and the problem is resolved.

[Kiến Văn Tiểu Lục, A. 32, 6/15a-b]

7 thoughts on “The Vampires of Hưng Hóa

  1. This is fascinating.

    There are very old stories a kind of “Lao” 獠 barbarian in what is now the Kwangsi area called lạc đầu dân 落頭民 or phi đầu Lão 飛頭獠. These people would be ordinary in the daytime but at night a red scar would appear around their necks. When asleep, their heads would fly off and flap around by the ears, and they would flap off down to the river bank to eat some live crabs. If they couldn’t re-attach themselves the person would die. 搜神記 Sou shen chi I think has the earliest record and uses the term lạc đầu dân, and the Ming work Ch’ih-ya 赤雅 has a longer version calling them phi đầu Lão.

    P.S. I’ll swap you a digitised copy of the Sử Nam Chí Dị 史南志異 in Nôm for a digitised copy of the 見聞小錄!

    1. Thanks for the info. I had no idea that there was something like this in the Shoushen ji. I wonder why belief in this ghost does not appaer to have been common among “Sinicized” peoples? Because it certainly seems to be everywhere else.

      1. I am home again and could look it up. They are called Nukekubi 抜首, they derive from Chinese legend where they were supposed to be servants of “witches”. In Japan however they were mixed with Buddhist lore and considered victims of their own bad karma.
        They apparently appear especially often in stories about Samurai who became monks, I think that might have something to do with the different treatment of the death taboo in Japanese Buddhism.


  2. Thank you for the remarkable article. When I was under eight, I used to be told the story of Ma Hời, exactly like the “phi krasue” of Thailand: at night they fly with their inner organs hanging from their heads. Worse than that they said these demons are actually Cham people from Bình Thuận during day time (Cọp Khánh Hòa Ma Bình Thuận). I believe it was a racial intoxication. (I was born 1939 in Huế).

    1. This is VERY interesting!!! Thank you very much for the comment. I’m curious to know if this is a marker of “Tai” peoples, or if it is a belief which was shared by various peoples, and if so, who, where, and how did it spread?

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