Vietnamese Kitchen Gods: A love affair retold

By VnExpress   January 18, 2017 | 09:00 am PT
Vietnamese Kitchen Gods: A love affair retold
A worker in central Vietnam paints a small relief sculpture of Vietnamese Kitchen Gods. Millions of them are made every Tet. Photo by VnExpress
The fated woman and her two husbands are beloved household gods in Vietnam.

There’s probably never a happy ending to a love triangle, especially one that ends in the sorrowful demise of the star-crossed lovers.

In Confucianism-dominated Vietnam, where fidelity is usually something to value, especially among women, a love triangle between a woman and two men has yet been worshipped for generations.

Vietnamese people give them the beloved title “Kitchen Gods” and regard them as the guardians of the most important part of the house.

According to culture author Huu Ngoc, the legend of the Kitchen Gods started as the story of a couple who were very much in love. However, the relationship turned sour after they were unable to have a child, so the wife moved away and remarried in another region.

After an age spent in solitude and sorrow, the old husband went to look for his wife. He spent all he had and eventually resorted to begging just to get by. By chance, he arrived at the house of the woman's second husband, who was out working in the field at the time.

The woman recognized him immediately and took him in and fed him, but by that the stage the man was unable to recognize his former wife as hunger and illness had made him partially blind. After he had drunk some wine and was feeling sleepy, the woman took him into the courtyard and hid him under a heap of straw to avoid embarrassing questions from her new husband.

The new husband came back in the late afternoon and set fire to the straw to make fertilizer from the ashes. Before the wife could intervene, her first husband had been engulfed in the flames.

She threw herself into the flames in sorrow, and in despair her new husband also jumped into the fire.

The Emperor of Heaven, moved by the feelings that united the three people, made them household gods.

Vietnamese people believe that the trinity travel to heaven once a year on the 23rd day of lunar December, or January 20 this year, to report the family’s affairs to the emperor.


Vietnamese families believe the trinity protects them during the year. Photo by VnExpress

Many families hold big feasts on that day to bid the gods a nice farewell. There’s no saying whether bribing the gods works, but it's at least one delicious way to start the Lunar New Year season.

Now we need one final touch for the grand journey: red carp.

Thousands of sparkling fish can be found at markets across Vietnam around ten days before Tet.

Many villages in rural Vietnam spend half of the year raising red carp to send them on their heavenly travels, which takes one week until the gods come back to join their families to ring in the Lunar New Year.

So if you spot someone releasing a red carp into a river or lake, some of them probably still stuck in plastic bags, you know there’s a big love story behind it.


A little girl is about to pour three carps from a bowl into a lake. Photo by AFP


Red carp raised at a village in the northern province of Phu Tho to serve the Kitchen Gods' heavenly journey. Photos by VnExpress


A family catch red carp in their pond in Phu Tho. It takes the family six months to raise the fish.


After harvesting, the fish are put into small ponds and starved for two days as well-fed fish easily fall tired and can die during transport.


A motorbike carrying two bags of carp and an oxygen cylinder set off on their holy journey.

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