Monday, July 8, 2013

Vietnamese Child

Peering into age old family albums while visiting my Vietnamese grandmother in France revealed a treasure trove of historical wonders.

It was on one afternoon during May this year, that I found this wonderful photo of my grandmother, Phuong Lan.

Phuong Lan at ten

I was blown away, partly by the intensity of her gaze and by the exoticism of the Vietnamese setting. I love the way her hand is reaching out to caress that leaf. It is a hauntingly beautiful photo. You must know that my grandmother's mother, a princess, had eloped with a French man when Phuong Lan was only an infant. She disgarded her baby, leaving Phuong Lan with her father, never to return. Maybe I am imagining this but my grandmother's expression in this photo is so solemn that I can't help but feel that she would have deeply resented being abandoned as a child.

She is ten years old in this photo and you will notice that her hair is completely shaved. I asked her why. In response, she gave a shy smile and answered, "That is the way we did things."

Since my return from France, I did a little research and I found that it is common practice in traditional Vietnamese communities to shave off a baby's head. A newborn's hair is considered 'dirty' or not as healthy. It is thought that by shaving it off, one gives better chance for new, healthier hair to grow later. From a rational viewpoint, this practice would at least inhibit the growth of lice and other disease carrying agents to grow in the hair. Another interesting finding is that Vietnamese parents traditionally resort to practices that aim to 'confuse the evil spirits' who could potentially harm their child. It is best for example to call a child with an unpleasant name rather than use words to praise how beautiful it is. The idea is that spirits would not be attracted to an 'ugly' child. Similarly a girl, with a shaved head might look less attractive to the evil spirits hence ensuring that she is safe.

I mentioned in a post years ago, that when she married my grandfather, Yves Candeau, one of the conditions placed on my grandmother by her mandarin father was that she ought to never cut her hair. At this time, when she was twenty-four, her hair had grown long and healthy, down to her ankles. I ignore whether the shaving tradition she had followed as a child had paid off but she certainly had an abundant bunch of gorgeous hair as an adult!

And here she is in all her glory. 
She told me this is one of her favorite photos. 


  1. Beautiful story Laura.

    Yes, I can confirm that Vietnamese parents refer to their children as 'ugly' and other unpleasant names as a way to avoid having them taken away by the devil.

  2. Thank you, Hung. I am very pleased that you liked it. :)

    It is a fascinating practice! Interestingly in Mediterranean settings, including my Lebanese family, there is the same tendency to say "You are ugly" to child, in order to ward off the evil eye.

    Thank you for reading.