“Huyền Thoại” – A Little Word with Big Historical Significance

Vietnamese music expert and blogger Tây Bụi just drew my attention back to a topic that I have been thinking about for a long time now – Where does the word “huyền thoại” (and the related term, “huyền sử” – for more on “huyền sử” see this video and this video) come from?

What does this term mean? Well, “huyền” means “dark” or “obscure” and “thoại” can mean “talk” or “tale,” but when they are combined together they create a compound that means. . . Well, that’s the problem. I can’t figure out what it means.

Go to the popular online Vietnamese dictionary vdict.com and search for “huyền thoại” under “Vietnamese-English.” You will see that it is glossed as “legend, myth.”

Then go and search for “myth” and “legend” under “English-Vietnamese” and you will get “thần thoại” and “truyện cổ tích,” respectively.

That’s strange! If “huyền thoại” means “myth” or “legend,” then why aren’t those two terms glossed as “huyền thoại” in Vietnamese?


Today I spent some time looking at all kinds of dictionaries (Vietnamese-Vietnamese dictionaries, Vietnamese-English Dictionaries, French-Vietnamese dictionaries, English-Vietnamese dictionaries) from the various parts/periods of the Vietnamese world (colonial Vietnam, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the diaspora and the Socialist Democratic of Vietnam [hereafter, SRV]) and I cannot find “huyền thoại” in any dictionary before the 1990s.


I have a 1996 edition of a Vietnamese-Vietnamese dictionary that was created by the Center for Dictionary Studies in Hanoi (Từ điển tiếng Việt), and Tây Bụi consulted a 1994 version of that same dictionary. They both contain this term and explain it as “story that is obscure [huyền hoặc], strange, and entirely the product of imagination; a myth [thần thoại]” (câu chuyện huyền hoặc, kì lạ, hoàn toàn do tưởng tượng; thần thoại).

Meanwhile, the term also appears in a dictionary that Nguyễn Đình Hòa published in the US in 1995 (NTC’s Vietnamese-English Dictionary). That dictionary contains a “supplement,” that is, a section at the end where Nguyễn Đình Hòa added new words that he had come across that he had not included in the main part of the dictionary. “Huyền thoại” appeared in the supplement, and it was glossed simply as “myth.”

Finally, to take the story a little further, Tây Bụi found a definition of “huyền thoại” in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Vietnam (Từ điển Bách khoa Việt Nam) published in 2002 that explains this term as “a story that is obscure, mysterious, and is invented from imagination. Huyền thoại often talk about spirits, supernatural people and extraordinary actions, are connected to some degree with history, [but] most do not have a basis in reality” (chuyện huyền hoặc, thần bí, do trí tưởng tượng hư cấu. Huyền thoại thường kể về các vị thần linh, các nhân vật siêu phàm, những hành động kì vĩ, gắn ít nhiều với lịch sử, phần lớn không có cơ sở thực tế).

oed myth

What an obscure definition! Huyền thọai “are connected to some degree with history, [but] most do not have a basis in reality.” What on earth does that mean?

This is a very imprecise definition, and its imprecision becomes particularly evident when one looks at the definitions of “myth” and “legend” in a source like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Here is how the OED defines “myth”:

“A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.”

So here the connection to history and reality is clear. It is an imagined story, but it is used to explain some phenomenon that is larger than the content of the story itself.

An historian can therefore examine myths and try to understand what that larger phenomenon is (and there are countless scholars who have done this for myths from around the world).

oed legend

As for “legend,” the main meaning in English is “the story of the life of a Saint,” but there is another meaning that comes closer to what seems to be indicated by the term “huyền thoại.” To quote,

“An unauthentic or non-historical story, esp. one handed down by tradition from early times and popularly regarded as historical.”

Here again, the relationship with history is clear. A legend is not actual history, but it is something that is “popularly regarded as historical.”

Therefore, an historian can examine a legend and can demonstrate what is not authentic about it, and can use that information to talk about why people might have created the legend and why people believe the legend even though it is not true.


In other words, what both of these definitions show is that myths and legends can be analyzed and understood by historians. They are not some “obscure” topic that one cannot examine and come to a convincing explanation about.

This, however, is not the case with “huyền thọai.” How, after all, can an historian understand something that is “connected to some degree with history” but which does “not have a basis in reality”?

While I am picking on this one definition, I am doing so because I have read and heard many Vietnamese scholars use this concept of “huyền thọai” or “huyền sử” to essentially not have to make any point about the past. – “Oh, it’s huyền thọai/huyền sử. Nothing can be known for sure.” (Không biết được.)

Well, one thing that we can know for sure is that this concept of “huyền thọai” first started to get documented in the 1990s. It obviously must have been in circulation before that point, but where? When?

A quick search for the term “huyền thoại” in my local library reveals only one title from the 1960s: Nguyễn Văn Trung’s French Colonialism in Vietnam: Reality and Myths (Chủ nghĩa thực dân Pháp ở Việt Nam thực chất và huyền thoại), published in Saigon in 1963.


Then in the 1970s there are a couple of literary works from South Vietnam.


In the 1980s there are works that were published in America, like Kim Vinh Phạm’s The Liberation of Vietnam: Myth, Reality and Hope (Giải phóng Việt Nam: huyền thoại, thực tại và hi vọng).


In other words, it’s clear that up until 1990, “huyền thoại” was a term used by South Vietnamese and then South Vietnamese in the diaspora.

In the 1990s, however, this started to change, as works started to be published in the SRV that used the term “huyền thoại”


By the 2000s, many works were getting published in the SRV that employed the term “huyền thoại” (my library lists 143 such titles).


So what happened here?

Tây Bụi discusses a song from South Vietnam in the early 1970s called “Legend/Myth of a Girl” (Huyền thoại người con gái).

This was apparently the first pre-1975 song from South Vietnam to be approved by the government of the SRV for performance.

That approval came in 1991.

Although I need to document this more clearly, Kim Đình’s concept of “huyền sử” also seems to have started to “make a comeback” around that time.

So there is something about the “re-emergence” of the South at that time, but I think it is also probably related to what some scholars have referred to as “late Socialism” or “the late Socialist moment.”

The gist of this idea is that as the Soviet Union fell, and most of the various remaining Socialist countries started to transform their economies from command economies to market economies, the ideological tenets that regimes were based on not longer “had a basis in reality.”

As that happened, there was a “turn to tradition” and an accompanying “re-enchantment” of reality. Temples and churches were renovated, spirits were venerated, etc.

This, scholars argue, was motivated by a sense of uncertainty. After decades of living in a world which was based on a clear ideological divide, how could the people in Socialist countries now open their doors to a world that they had long opposed? How would this change their societies? Would it destroy everything? What should people do?


Well in this uncertain setting, the past seemed like a good resource to rely on to gain a sense of strength and stability. After all, if the nation had existed since antiquity, certainly the nation could survive through the present changes.

But wait, was there actually a nation in antiquity? Wasn’t that all a bunch of myths? How could that be used to strengthen society in this new age?

Hence the appeal of terms like “huyền thoại” and “huyền sử.” While there had been terms that had been used for decades in Vietnam to refer to the Western concepts of “myths” (thần thoại) and “legends” (cổ tích, truyền thuyết), these new terms which had probably never really caught on in South Vietnam (and hence, never appeared in a dictionary there), and which had not been used since 1975, now provided the opportunity to create a new concept.

Indeed, Kim Đình’s concept of “huyền sử” (obscure history) really provided the model for this. It was real but not real. It was malleable. One could use it as one wished, because “nothing can be known for sure.”

I therefore find this term “huyền thoại” to be filled with historical significance. It is a term that emerged in South Vietnam in the 1960s, went overseas in 1975, “went back” in the early 1990s, and was then transformed to enable Vietnamese to cope with the uncertainties of a changing world.

In so doing, this term also freed Vietnamese scholars from the need to look critically at the origins of their society, a topic that was now being used to strengthen the nation in the absence of ideology. After all, it all was just “huyền thoại” and “huyền sử.” Không biết được.

In other words, unlike in the English speaking world, where “myths” and “legends” could be clearly examined and analyzed in various ways by historians, “huyền thoại” and “huyền sử,” by their very nature as stories that “are connected to some degree with history, [but] most do not have a basis in reality” could not.

They were too obscure.


17 thoughts on ““Huyền Thoại” – A Little Word with Big Historical Significance

  1. Liam, thanks to you and JG for tracking down the historical usage of the word. I’ve a mild suspicion that it might have derived from huyền bí – super-mysterious, obscure and unknown, etc. – and that the users of huyền thoại wanted to differentiate it from thần thoại, which connotes supernaturalism. Huyền thoại may mean that there could be a tiny basis of truth to the rational mind, whereas thần thoại means not at all.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out. I can’t “feel” this word, but in asking people who can, the term “nostalgia” came up too. So could we also say that while thần thoại is neutral (or perhaps slightly negative at times) huyền thoại has a more positive sense?

      1. Yes, I think it’s fair to assume a more positive meaning to huyền thoại – and the association to nostalgia. Let’s work it backward from English to Vietnamese. Google huyền thoại and one of the first phrases appearing is “huyền thoại Lý Tiểu Long.” It refers to a documentary in English under the title “The Legend of Bruce Lee.” There are several possible Vietnamese translations for “legend” in this context, but surely “thần thoại” would be a wrong translation. “Truyền thuyết” is better, but it doesn’t strike me as the most accurate.

        I think “Huyền thoại” is a really good one in this case: partly because of the positive sense you note, but mostly because we’re talking about a relatively recent life here, whose death was 42 years ago.

  2. One more… I’m not sure if “myth” and “legend” convey the meaning of huyền thoại well. There’s an element of belief, I think, about huyền thoại: that it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but it is too far-fetched of a belief. You’ve examined book titles so far: a promising start in historicizing the term. If possible, track down usage in sentences and paragraphs because they may give us a greater sense about the intended meanings of this term.

  3. I mis-wrote one detail. “Huyền thoại người con gái” was the first song by Lê Hựu Hà that was permitted to be performed after 1975. There were earlier pre-1975 songs given permission from 1989 – most of them were pre-1954 songs.

    There were a few other huyền thoại songs in pre-1975 Saigon starting with “Huyền thoại chiều mưa” in 1967 by Nguyễn Vũ. After 1975 the first song by a northerner using the term was “Huyền thoại Hồ Núi Cốc” by Phó Đức Phương in 1982. “Huyền thoại mẹ” written by Trịnh Công Sơn in 1985 was also very well known.

  4. A Google books (admittedly inadequate for the Vietnamese language, but it’s a start) shows only Saigon books having the word huyền thoại before 1970.


    That 1963 book you mention is the earliest iteration that turns up in the search. Do you know anything about a Chinese / Japanese / Korean usage of the same word?

  5. I just looked through our dictionary collection at the library, and none of the pre-1975 dictionaries from the South include the word huyền thoại (we must have around a dozen different books in original or reprint form). It’s true of Nguyễn Đình Hòa’s 1966 and 1971 dictionaries.

    The preferred words for myth or legend were thần thoại and chuyện hoang đường. I’m curious by what means the word huyền thoại took off. I’m guess that it must have started to be used in the educational system in Saigon. Why would Nguyễn Vũ include it in a song title already in 1967 even though it was not found in any dictionary?

    And then what factors caused it to be used in the North, at least since the early 1980s?

    1. I’ve barely started to get back to South Vietnamese periodicals for a paper and will have to keep an eye for the use of huyền thoại in articles. Interestingly, most of the examples that you and LK gave are relatively well known to the educated public. Nguyễn Văn Trung’s book was one of his best known. Lê Hựu Hà’s song, of course, has been quite popular. I have a sense that once introduced, huyền thoại was picked up eagerly by its users. Not that it was used widely, but it seems to have been favored by segments of the cultural elite.

  6. Thanks to your article, I learn that my only usage of the word “huyền thoại” (and I can see that this usage is very popular today) is not defined in “Tự điển tiếng Việt” (Viện ngôn ngữ học, 2003). That usage is included in the definition of “legend” on dictionary.com:

    6. a collection of stories about an admirable person.
    7. a person who is the center of such stories:

    Moreover, the stories are sort of heroic, extraordinary type.

    “Huyền thoại Lý Tiểu Long” or “huyền thoại mẹ” don’t mean something obscure, dark or coming from pure imagination (unless Trinh Cong Son was being sarcastic, which is not the case). I’m curious to know if other Vietnamese dictionaries include this definition or it was added in a later version of “Từ điển tiếng Việt”.

    Looking at the titles you quoted, I *feel* that the word’s main usage of the pre-1975 period is “thần thoại/myth” but that of the late communism period is the typical usage I pointed out. So I wonder how much usage of “huyền thoại” as “thần thoại/huyền sử” post-1975 is.

  7. One of the OED meanings of myth is “A person or thing held in awe or generally referred to with near reverential admiration on the basis of popularly repeated stories (whether real or fictitious)” [ex.: In the space of the first two or three weeks that The Sheik was exhibited, Valentino had become a myth.]

    Turning to huyền sử – there’s only one song title with that word. “Huyền sử ca người manh tên Quốc” by Phạm Duy in 1965. It’s written about a Republic of Vietnam air force officer who was part of a failed coup against Diệm and who died in a flying mission over the North in 1965. Again, like the Bruce Lee example Tuấn gives above, it’s about awe and admiration. It seems to be a way of attaching an aura or a halo to someone or something (as I think is the intention in the song I wrote about).

    But that cuts against the definitions in the Từ điển tiếng Việt and the Từ điển Bách khoa Việt Nam a little bit.

  8. The reason why I am interested in this is because I have repeatedly encountered opposition on the part of Vietnamese scholars to really examine “early Việt history” closely.

    One obvious reason for this is political. A certain interpretation of the past got politically enshrined in the 1970s (“Hùng vương có thật!”), and some of the people who enshrined that interpretation are still around today and are still powerful.

    Another reason is that most Vietnamese simply can’t access that information at a level where they can really analyze it because it’s in classical Chinese, and when it comes to really understanding Vietnamese history before the early twentieth century, quốc ngữ translations just aren’t sufficient.

    But another point that I realized in looking at various dictionaries and thinking about the history of the term “huyền thọai” is that there isn’t even a clear concept of what the information about early history is, and what its relationship to history is. What is a “huyền thọai”? What is a “thần thoại”? How can historians analyze whatever it is that one wants to call that information?

    None of this is clear. And part of the reason why none of this is clear is because there has never been a really serious effort to define the meanings of Vietnamese words. All the dictionaries that I have seen just have few words to explain a term. Contrast that with something like the Oxford English Dictionary which provides examples (in sentences) of the usage of terms in texts going back for centuries (and there are French and German dictionaries, etc. that have done the same). Contrast that also with reference works for classical Chinese which have also been around for centuries and which also do the same thing.

    In other words, while switching to using the Vietnamese vernacular in the 20th century was in many ways a good idea, one bad side effect is that it has enabled a kind of “linguistic mush” to emerge, where terms like “huyền thoại” can emerge and get used without anyone really knowing what it means.

    That said, I don’t think any of the stories about “Việt antiquity” are myths/legends/huyền thoại/thần thoại, etc. They are all part of a medieval East Asian literary genre – “tales of the strange” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhiguai_xiaoshuo), but they are also what we could call “late-medieval imitation tales of the strange” as they are basically literary inventions based on the already-establish model of the tales of the strange genre.

    That said, for anyone to be able to see that, s/he has to have a clear understanding of what myths/legends, etc. are, so that s/he can understand the difference. With “huyền thoại,” however, it becomes impossible to explain anything to anyone because how can one contrast the tales of the strange genre with a “huyền thoại” when there is no clear sense of what exactly a “huyền thoại” might be, and when there has never been a clear academic effort to to define exactly what that is – at least nothing that I’ve found convincing.

    1. I’m sympathetic to your frustration, but also think that you may be over-thinking this one… Precision is precious, yes, but there are a number of words with different meanings, especially a relatively “new” word. I think it’s all right as long as those meanings don’t contradict one another.

      Depending on its context, huyền thoại could mean “legend” or “legendary” in a historical sense, or a biographical sense, or with a connotation to popular culture and celebrities. But it may mean something like “illusion” too. You cite Phạm Kim Vinh’s book “Giải phóng Việt Nam: huyền thoại, thực tại và hi vọng,” and I think it can be translated as either “myth” or “illusion”: Liberating Vietnam: Illusion, Reality, and Hope. (I haven’t read the book and don’t know the context to prefer “myth” or “illusion,” but the latter isn’t out of the question.) Anyway, language evolves. Given the relatively recent coining of huyền thoại, it shouldn’t surprise that there isn’t one clear meaning but several less clear ones.

      For my part, I’ll keep an eye on usage of huyền thoại (and huyền sử) when reading pre-1975 writings and will report back if sighting anything of interest. 🙂

      1. Yea, it’s fine when used by non-historians, but when all historians have to think about the past is some vague concept, then I don’t think I’m overthinking things, and I can direct you to plenty of writings that would likewise lead you to despair. This has to be the only major world popular that has no idea where it came from, what its origins are, etc., because people don’t have a way (or a willingness) to identify what the information they have is, and how they can use it.

      2. Ok, it’s more understandable if usage is restricted to historical writing. No need to show imprecise writing leading to despair – yes, I believe you. As you’ve enumerated over the last few years, the problem is systemic, even overwhelming.

  9. Regarding “huyền sử”, a song in “Tổ khúc bầy chim bỏ xứ” which Phạm Duy wrote post-1975 is titled “Bầy chim huyền sử”, in which he mentioned “chim Hồng chim Lạc”, Đông Sơn, etc. so I think he used it with the meaning discussed in this post.

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