The word minh, body, has wide application in Vietnamese. It is sometimes used as a first person pronoun, as in “body has lived here for a long time,” or “body does not know him.” Body is I. It is also we or us. As in: “Body eat rice; they eat bread.” Body is also used to address one’s spouse. As in: “Body, what would you like to eat today?”
A spouse can also be referred to as “my house.” As in: “My house is not home at the moment. Please call back later.” To be married is to live in a new house, to be engulfed in another body.
The core of the Vietnamese body is not the heart but the stomach. Instead of saying “I don’t know what’s in his heart,” a Vietnamese would say, “I don’t know what’s in his stomach.” To be in contentment is to have a happy stomach, vui long. To be in grief is to have a rotting stomach, thui ruôt. To be in extreme anguish is to have one’s stomach chopped into pieces, dut ruôt.
Eating is the body’s primary function. Whatever else the body does, it must an, must eat. To dress is to an mac, eat and dress. To talk is to an noi, eat and talk. To have sex is to an nam, eat and lie down with somebody. To be married is to an o, eat and live with somebody.
To win at anything, a bet, a soccer match, is simply to an, to eat, an echo back to the days when to win is to swallow one’s opponent whole, perhaps. To dominate or decisively defeat someone is to an song, eat raw.
To indulge in pleasures is to eat and play, an choi. To celebrate is to eat with happiness, an mung. To go to a party is to eat at a party, an tiec. One doesn’t celebrate the New Year, one eats during the New Year, an Tet.
To look for work is to look for something to eat, kiem an. To work is to make and eat, lam an. A good business prospect is described as having something easy to eat, de an. To do well in business is to eat customers, an khach.
To spend money is to eat and digest, an tieu. To take a bribe is to eat money, an tien. To work an illicit job, thievery, prostitution, is to eat dew, an suong. To steal is to eat in secret, an trom.
Eating, and how one eats, becomes a metaphor for nearly everything, as these proverbs testify:
A magpie, starved, eats banyan fruit. A phoenix, starved, eats chicken shit.
Fish eat ants, ants eat fish.
Have vegetable, eat vegetable. Have rice gruel, eat rice gruel.
The smart eat men, the stupid are eaten.
Tailors eat rags, artists eat paints.
Father eats salty food, son's thirsty.
Eating new rice, telling old stories.
Eat in front, swim behind.
Eat for real, fake work.
Arrive late, gnaw on a bone.
Ate rice gruel, pissed in the bowl.
A bowl of sweat for a bowl of rice.
A piece of meat is a piece of shame.
Selling ass to feed mouth.
Two hands, two eyes are just enough to feed one stomach.
Better to die sated than to live hungry.
To be homeless is to eat the wind and lie with the dew, an gio nam suong. This phase used to refer to the hardships of a long journey, a concept similar to the English “travel,” a variation on travail, from the French travailler, to work.
To inherit property is to eat fragrance and fire, an huong hoa, which refer to the incense and oil lamp on the ancestral altar present in most Vietnamese homes.
A remote place is described as where “dogs eat rocks, chickens eat pebbles,” chơ ăn đa gá ăn sôi.
To be primitive is to eat fur while living in a hole, an long o lo.
To die is to eat dirt, an dat.
A common Vietnamese greeting is, “Have you eaten yet?”
One should always answer: “After eating dew all night, I’m more than ready to eat and to lie down.”