Week 12: Ba bị, mẹ mìn, and ngáo ộp – Vietnamese trinity of child kidnapping Bogeymen

This week on #VNmyth, we take a break from the usual folklore and fairytale, to dive into the more urban legends type of myth with the Vietnamese versions of the Bogeyman

Ma Quỷ Dân Gian Ký: Kho tàng chuyện ma Việt Nam
Ba bị in a recent depiction

I. The lore:

Every Vietnamese grows up scared shitless of three Bogeyman figures. Whenever a child misbehaves or even takes too long to finish a meal, either ngáo ộp or ba bị would be invoked to “motivate” us to behave; whereas mẹ mìn serves as a warning for children to be wary of strangers who are nice to them.

The scariest part about ba bị and ngáo ộp is the fact they have no concrete descriptions. Parents purposely left that part blank so that children’s imagination would take over and create scarier monsters than they ever could. Meanwhile, mẹ mìn was very real and could literally just be any woman you meet on the street.

Of the three, mẹ mìn, being somewhat based on real kidnappers, do not eat the children they kidnap, only sell them for money. While the other two would actually feast on their prey.

Of the lore that bothered to describe ba bị, he’s a type of humanoid monster who would stalk in the darkness and kidnap children to eat. In some modern depictions of the creature, they were drawn with 12 eyes on the face and carrying 3 sacks, each with 3 handle straps. Another way to visualize these “three sacks”–which is definitely more modern than the rest–is that they are pouches in the creature’s mouth, where they would keep the children to eat later. You know, like those of monkeys. Ngáo ộp, on the other hand, is just a generic colossal monster with a huge mouth filled with sharp teeth.

Con "ngáo ộp" khiến trẻ con Việt Nam sợ chết khiếp là con gì?
A possible depiction of ngáo ộp

II. Names meaning and potential origin:

“Mẹ” in “mẹ mìn” means mother, while “mìn” is basically how Vietnamese shortened and changed French’s “Croque Miltaine,” which is what they call their version of the bogeyman–women who kidnap children. However, when Vietnamese children hear “mìn,” they’re more likely to think of “bom mìn” (Vietnamese pronunciation of bombs and mines), I know I did. This, essentially, serves to trigger a flashing danger alarm in our head that says:

Basically, “mẹ mìn” is how Vietnamese parents teach “stranger danger.”

“Ngáo” in “ngáo ộp” refers to a huge man from legend. However, nowadays, “ngáo” primarily means “dumb/stupid” or “high (on drugs).” “Ộp” has no meaning in Vietnamese (other than the sound a frog makes, which would make no sense here), so it’s suspected to be our pronunciation of “Ogre.”

“Ba bị” has two possible meanings. The first one is “three sags,” which is rumored to be the tool that that monster uses to kidnap children. The saying: “ba bị chín quai mười hai con mắt” (three sags, nine handle straps, and twelve eyes) is describing them. The second potential meaning is that it’s our pronunciation of “Barbe-Bleue,” based on some of the similarities in their descriptions, which raised all kinds of red flags and give a whole new meaning to how they supposedly “prey on children.”

III. My comments:

_ Regarding the origin of ba bị, there are at least three hypotheses (not counting the “Barbe-Bleue” one), and the debate is still on.

  • First: They are active pirates in the Middle – Northern Vietnam during the 17-18th century. They deal in human trafficking and would often kidnap children to sell abroad. They worked in groups of six, carrying three big sags, each with 3 handle straps. So three sags, nine handles, twelve eyes in total.
  • Second: They are beggars during the famine in the 17th century that would even kidnap children to eat/sell as a desperate method to survive.
  • Third: It’s simply a way of counting (12 eyes here could mean stitches in the sags).
  • 3.5: It could be about Phạm Đăng Hưng, an officials in the Nguyễn Dynasty. However, no reputable sources support this hypothesis, so I’ll classify it as a 0.5 only.

_ A possible explanation for why “ba bị” sounds and looks similar to Barbe-Bleue is that Vietnamese don’t just assign old names to new concepts; we sometimes borrow words and pronunciation but create or change the lore to better integrate it into our culture.

_ In times when child-kidnapping doesn’t occur too often, “mẹ mìn” has also taken on a new meaning, referring to the women who sweet talk, trick, and otherwise kidnap and force young girls into prostitution.

_ Ba bị makes an appearance in Chapter 6, 7 (and perhaps more) of Book 1 of the Half-Dead Series.

As always, if you’d enjoyed reading these, like and share. See you next week!

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