Chú Cuội is one of the most popular and well-known figures in Vietnamese mythology. His stories are told primarily around the time of the mid-Autumn moon festival, when people pass mooncakes to one another and children carry bright lanterns in the evening. There are many stories about Cuội, but below I will recount one of the most popular stories in my favourite version.
The water was dripping from the leaves onto the top of Cuội’s head, and running down the back of his neck. He shivered with pleasure at the cooling sensation, and tipped a leaf to his mouth allowing the water collected there to run down his throat. It was warm and humid in the jungle, and Cuội, a poor woodcutter, was on his way back to his tiny, shack-like home from another hard day collecting wood. His bundle lay beside him as he ran the back of his hand across his sweaty brow and sighed. He was tired and hoped that the wood he had collected that day would bring him enough money to fill his rice bowl that evening.
He had paused for his rest in a small clearing, and was sitting cross-legged with his back to a tree. Opposite from him was a large and handsome banyan tree. Cuội was too tired to set off just yet, but he would have to leave soon, before the heat of the day became too oppressive. To pass the time, he took out his trusty bamboo flute, which he always had on him, and began to play a few notes, gradually losing himself in the melody.
Suddenly, a tiger cub appeared directly before him, rolling and capering on the jungle floor. Without a pause for thought, Cuội grabbed the cub by the scruff of the neck and picked him up. The tiger cub regarded him with its bright blue eyes with neither fear nor malice. Cuội glanced around him and then back at the cub. Tigers were very lucky, and people would pay a handsome price for a cub. This was going to be a good day. He was just beginning to calculate how much he would get for a tiger cub, when a low, menacing growl made him almost jump out of his skin. Across the clearing, only 20 paces away, stood a majestic and terrifying fully-grown tiger. The tiger was looking directly at Cuội holding what was very clearly its cub.
As quick as a flash, Cuội, ran to the nearest tree as the tiger bounded towards him, snarling with its hideous fangs bared. He climbed quickly and skilfully, as a good woodsman should, but the tiger was faster and was gaining on him. It leapt up after him, its claws swishing at his heels and thudding into the bark of the tree. Cuội was climbing with just one hand, and knew he would be caught if he didn’t use both. In his panic, he let the tiger cub fall, and sped to the highest branches of the tree, where the tiger’s weight would not allow it to reach. The cub fell to the earth, bouncing off several branches on the way down, and hitting the earth with a thud.
The tiger roared up at the canopy impotently. Cuội shook as he perched in the uppermost branches, looking down at the tiger. The beast glared up at him and sniffed, then glanced down to the jungle floor below, where the tiger cub was lying, prone and still. With one last look at Cuội, the tiger descended to the ground, and began to muzzle and lick the cub. But it was no use: the cub was dead.
Cuội was safe for now, but it was only a matter of time until night fell and he would have to come down. If he fell asleep in the tree, he would likely fall out and break his neck. He had to get out of the tree and back to his village as soon as possible. He just had to wait for the tiger to go away first.
The tiger did not go away, though. As Cuội looked on, it did a very strange thing. It went over the banyan tree opposite where Cuội had been sitting and plucked one of its leaves with its claws. It put the leaf in its mouth and began to chew. Next, even stranger, it padded softly back to where its cub lay, and gently put the chewed-up leaf onto the tiger cub’s forehead. To Cuội’s amazement, the tiger cub sprang up, twitched its nose, and licked its paws. Then the two tigers walked slowly out of the clearing, but not without the adult tiger directing one last roar at Cuội.
Cuội waited in the tree for a long while, as the sun climbed above him. Eventually, he decided the coast was clear, and inched down the tree, his eyes and ears peeled for any sign of the tiger. The tiger was gone, though, and Cuội walked across to the banyan tree. It looked just like a normal banyan tree, but from what he had just seen, it clearly had magical properties. Cuội decided he would take a cutting with him, and taking out his hatchet, swung the blade at the tree.
Nothing happened. Not even a scratch.
He tried again, this time swinging with all his might, but he completely failed to make a dent in the greenish bark. Cuội looked at his wood pile and back at the tree. The tree was small enough for him to carry, if he could get it out of the ground, but it would mean abandoning the wood he had collected earlier. However, he could easily stash that and come back another day. He took out his trowel, and began to dig around the roots of the banyan tree.
It took most of the day, and Cuội grew hot and tired, labouring in the mid-day heat, but eventually, he had uncovered most of the roots, and with a great heave, he pulled the banyan tree out of the ground. Weary from digging, he rested on his back, panting, with the tree beside him. Looking up at the sky, he saw that it would be soon dark, and that this was no time to lie around in the jungle. With difficulty, he hoisted the tree onto his shoulder, and set off along the road to the village.
As he was struggling along the road with his burden, he came across an old, wizened man, with a white beard, and eyes pale with the blindness of advanced age. The man was leaning against a tree, and his breathing was shallow and rasping. He was clearly very close to breathing his last. Cuội was about to bless himself and the old man and walk along when he realised that here was an opportunity to test the tree’s magical powers.
Cuội put down the tree and plucked off a leaf. It smelled waxy and fresh, and when he put it in his mouth, it tasted bitter, but not unpleasant. He chewed for a while, as he had seen the tiger do, and then walked over to the old man by the tree. Stooping, he put the leafy paste on the old man’s forehead.
The old man’s eyes seemed to clear, and his body trembled slightly. He then took a deep and cherished breath and looked up at Cuội with bewildered gratitude in his eyes. He looked at his hands and legs, and slowly stood up, stretching as if waking from a long sleep.
“Thank you, young man. You have saved me from death, though I don’t know by what method. Was it magic?”
“I used the leaf of this magic banyan tree,” replied Cuội, and explained what had happened to him earlier that day.
“Hmm, so it’s a magic tree,” said the old man. “I don’t know much about magic in general, but I do know this: magic feeds from purity. If you want to keep this tree, you must be sure to plant it in the purest of soils, to live with the purest of hearts, and to water it only with the purest of water. If you fail to do so, the tree may lose its magic, or you may lose the tree itself.”
Cuội thanked the wise old man for his advice, picked up the tree, and continued his way back to the village.
When he arrived, he saw the villagers standing around looking morose, tears in their eyes, and pity in their hearts. When he asked his auntie Linh whatever the matter was, she told him: “Cuội, it’s terrible. The king’s daughter has been taken ill in the night. She has a high fever, and pains all over her body. All the physicians in the area have been to examine her, but it looks like there’s nothing they can do. She is his only child, and without her, who will lead the village after he’s gone? There’ll be trouble, mark my words! And for someone so young and beautiful, just about to start adulthood! Oh, it’s too terrible!”
Cuội started thinking, and realised that he had an opportunity to not just make money, but to make sure he never had to work another day in the jungle ever again.
That very evening, Cuội presented himself at the palace, and begged for an audience with the king. The guards tried to turn him away, but he was insistent. Eventually, they dragged him before the king, who was sitting looking out of the window with far-away eyes, swollen and bloodshot.
“What is it now?” Sighed the king.
“Sir, this peasant demanded to speak to you. If you like, we can throw him in the dungeon, and then have his tongue ripped out in the morning.”
“That won’t be necessary, thank you. Well, speak. But I warn you, I am not very well disposed to petitioners at present.”
“Oh, mighty king,” began Cuội, “I have heard the dreadful new that your daughter is ill, and that her very life hangs in the balance.”
“Yes, that is true. And I do not thank you for reminding me of my misfortune.”
“Well, your majesty, I believe I may have the power to save her, but if I do, I would ask for her hand in marriage.”
“If you can save her, you can have anything you like,” said the king, “But all the doctors have said it is hopeless. She will be dead by morning.” The king buried his face in his hands.
“If I may, your majesty?” The king gestured towards a door at the back of the throne room.
Cuội walked through the door, and saw a bed at the back of the room, which was being fanned by a servant with a huge palm leaf. He approached the bed and saw the princess lying in the bed, her skin yellowish and pale, with a sheen of icy sweat. The room smelled like death was crouching in the shadowy corners, waiting to pounce. It was true that she would be dead by morning – unless Cuội could save her.
Cuội chewed the banyan leaf he had brought with him and put it onto the princess’ slick forehead. A guard looked on in disgust, his hand resting threateningly on his sword hilt. Cuội grinned at him nervously, and got a scowl in return. He looked back at the princess.
“Alright, you’ve had your chance”, said the guard, and began to move towards Cuội, obviously glad of the opportunity to cause some mischief. He took Cuội roughly by the shoulder and began to march him towards the door.
“Wait,” said a small voice behind them. They both turned back to see the princess sitting up in bed rubbing her eyes. The guards jaw dropped open, and he released his grip on Cuội. He bowed quickly to the princess and hurried off to find the king.
“I was in the shadows. And something brought me back. Was it you?”
“Yes, your majesty”, smiled Cuội. “There’s no way I could allow such a beautiful light to be extinguished too early.”
The princess smiled demurely. “Well, you may be assured we owe you much gratitude.”
Although it was probably not the gratitude she was thinking of, the king was true to his word, and awarded Cuội her hand in marriage, overjoyed at having his daughter brought back from the brink of death. History does not record her reaction, but there were reports of linen, plates and curtains needing replacement and that one large porcelain vase, which was completely irreplaceable, was reduced to a thousand pieces before being deposited outside the palace gate.
Cuội and the princess were married, and the king granted him land and money to build a smaller palace, which would befit Cuội’s new station. Cuội and his new wife, did not share a happy beginning to their marriage, as her haughtiness and his uncouth ways meant that they seldom felt comfortable in each other’s company. Over time, though she softened towards him, and they started to enjoy spending time together a little more.
As the only daughter of a king, the princess, whose name was Thảo, had grown up having every whim met, constantly the centre of attention. Cuội, though, did not lavish her with the same amount of attention as she had been used to, and she became gradually more and more annoyed at the time he spent in the garden, gazing up at the big old banyan tree which he had had planted in the centre of their palace grounds.
She began to hate the ugly old thing – who would want something like that in their garden! And he cared so much about it, reminding her every day to water it three times a day while he was out talking with the king, to whom he had become a trusted advisor.
“Once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once in the evening, with only purest of water. Remember that my dear. Only the purest of water from the purest of hands,” he would say, stroking the back of one of her elegant hands. He insisted she water it personally, and not one of the servants. This insistence was something which she neither understood or accepted. That this uncouth former woodcutter would tell her to water something like a common servant! Thảo became more and more disgruntled about the tree, and resented the importance Cuội gave it, when by rights, she should be centre of his world.
One evening, she had had enough, and when Cuội was home late, she went out into the garden to look more closely at this tree. Night was almost upon her as she walked around the tree’s circumference, marvelling at its ugly thatch of branches. That a tree like this should be so revered just didn’t make sense. With a sudden pout, Thảo realised that she had to go to use the bathroom – perhaps she had taken a little too much tea this afternoon. She turned to walk back to the house, but then she stopped. She looked back at the tree, and then around her. The garden was deserted. She looked back at the tree and smirked.
“Only the purest of waters, hey, my dearest Cuội?”
Cuội was walking through the main entrance of his palace, swishing his silken robes. Today had been a very successful day at court, and he and the other members of the king’s retinue had solved some thorny administrative issues. He strolled through to the gardens at the rear of the house, to see his banyan tree. As he stepped outside, though, he felt the ground begin to shake. His heart beating, he broke into a run towards the centre of the garden.
As he ran, he took in the scene that emerged before him. His wife was lying on the ground, with a look of shock on her face. The ground was still shaking, but what made his heart leap higher than anything was the sight of his beloved banyan tree slowly rising, inch by inch, out of the ground. As he looked on the roots came free from the soil, and the tree began to rise rapidly. He reached the tree just in time, and leapt to grab one of the roots to bring it back down to earth. However, the tree continued to rise. His wife, scrambling to her feet, grabbed hold of his ankles, but the tree continued to rise, the pair of them dangling from the roots of the magical banyan tree.
Thảo looked down at the ground, now several feet below her and shouted “Cuội, let go!”
Cuội, though, shook his head and gripped the tree even harder. “No, we have to get it back down!”
The princess looked up at the man who she had never truly loved and the tree of which she had become jealous. She let go, and fell to the earth, yelping as she twisted her ankle landing on the ground. She looked back to see Cuội rising higher and higher.
“Goodbye, Cuội,” she whispered
Cuội could feel the air getting colder as he reached the height of the distant mountains. He was now too high to let go even if he wanted to, so he gripped the tree tightly and looked at the world spread out below him, the houses and forests like toys, and the people like ants. The tree kept rising and took him into the clouds. Soon, the clouds were far below, and as he looked up, he saw the moon drawing near.
The tree reached the moon and floated down the surface, where its roots delved down into the purity of the moon’s soil. Cuội had let go as they reached the moon, and landed on its soft white powder. He looked back and could see the world far below him. He tried to jump off the moon, but he fell back with a bump. He couldn’t get away – he was trapped there.
Cuội sat down heavily against the trunk of his magic banyan tree and began to weep. He had left everything good in his world behind, and was now trapped on the moon. After a little while, he reached inside his robes, and took out his little bamboo flute, which he still kept with him at all times. He began to play the saddest of all possible melodies, and dreamed of one day finding his way back to Earth.
Every year, children light lanterns and take them outside, shining their light towards the moon and stars, hoping to show Chú Cuội the way back to Earth. And at night when children look out of their bedroom windows and up at the moon, they can see sad old Chú Cuội, sitting under his banyan tree, playing a sad tune on his old bamboo flute.