The storyline of this year’s Ao Dai Festival show is based on the stories of “Sơn Tinh – Thủy Tinh” and “Trương Chi – Mỵ Nương”, two popular tales in Vietnamese mythology.
These two tales are distinct and unrelated; their combination is merely a product of the show producers designed to provide the storyline with a more contemporary twist.
“Sơn Tinh – Thủy Tinh” is a story of vanity and its destructive consequences. The object of desire in this tale is the beautiful princess Mỵ Nương, daughter of King Hùng the 18th of the Hồng Bàng dynasty (2879 BC – 258 BC), the first dynasty of Vietnam, then known as Văn Lang. When the beautiful princess reached her age of majority, the king decided to hold a contest to select a worthy son-in-law. Two candidates stood out from the pool of contestants: Son Tinh, the Lord (Spirit) of the Mountain and Thuy Tinh, the Lord (Spirit) of the Water (Sea). Unable to choose, the King proposed a final contest: he who was the first to bring wedding gifts to the Princess the next day will become her husband. Son Tinh would be the first to do so and thus became the Princess’s husband. Unwilling and unable to accept defeat, Thủy Tinh launched a full scale war against Sơn Tinh by causing rains and tidal waves. Sơn Tinh, in defense, would caused mountains to rise and forests to stop the floods caused by the rains. This war would last for days before Thủy Tinh decided to stop. However, he remained bitter and vengeful and would renew his war every year. This tale is in a way a romantic interpretation and explanation by the Vietnamese people of the tropical monsoon that ravaged the country every year.
“Trương Chi – Mỵ Nương” is a story of rejection and regrets. Trương Chi, a fisherman, is the most gifted flute player in the land. He played his flute every night and the sound of his music reached the chamber of Mỵ Nương, the beautiful princess. She fell in love with the flute player, imagining him to be a handsome gentleman. She summoned him to her pavilion only to be totally disappointed because his appearance was nowhere near her imagination and expectation. The fisherman musician, however, fell in love with the princess at first sight. He became lovesick, fell ill, and eventually died of a broken heart. His heart became a crystal holding the image of the princess. Upon hearing the story, Mỵ Nương asked her attendants to bring her the crystal. She cried shed tears on the crystal when holding it in her hand. Upon contact with her tears, the crystallized heart melted.
In our production, we turn the contest of wedding gifts into a contest of Áo Dài. The King in our storyline proclaims the contest winner, and thus his son-in-law, he who presents to the princess the most beautiful Áo Dài. We deem this type of contest most appropriate for our Áo Dài Festival. Also, our story does not end as in the traditional version of the folk tale. As the King announces the winner, Mỵ Nương, in the spirit of the modern woman, would reject the King’s choice. Rather, she would desire to make her own choice, and would consider Trương Chi, valuing his musical talent over his look. However, as a person who is fully aware of her responsibility towards her people, she also will not marry Trương Chi in the end and will not marry until she fulfills her responsibility to her people and her nation.
The Trương Chi twist is a way for the show producers to give Mỵ Nương an active role in the decision making process. Vietnam during the Hồng Bàng dynasty remained largely a matriarchal society in which the woman often was the decision maker. The ancient tradition also looked down on musicians, and by considering Trương Chi, Mỵ Nương would restore the value of the artist.
In the end, however, Mỵ Nương of our Áo Dài Festival would remain single, as she herself represents Vietnam. She is neither leaning toward the East (represented by Thủy Tinh), nor toward the West (represented by Son Tinh). She briefly contemplates her individual interests (represented by Trương Chi) but has to forgo such interests because in the end, she is the embodiment of the country and its people, which has fiercely fought for independence from generations after generations. She, as her country, must remain independent.