The Earliest Myths, the Aquatic Traditions
The ancient legends play the important roles in the existence of the Vietnamese History. Dr. Keith Weller Taylor wrote in "The Birth of Vietnam," (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983, Preface.):
The earliest traditions of the Vietnamese people, as revealed in the Linh-Nam Chich Quai, an accumulation of lore edited in the fifteenth century, are associated with the Hung kings who ruled the kingdom of Van-lang. The Hung kings claimed descent from Lac Long Quan, "Lac Dragon Lord," a hero who came to the Hong River plain in what is now northern Vietnam from his home in the sea; he subdued all evil demons in the land and civilized the people, teaching them to cultivate rice and to wear clothes. Lac Long Quan returned to the sea after instructing the people to call on him if they were ever in distress. Eventually, a monarch from the north, China, entered the land and, finding it without a king, claimed it for himself. When the people cried out to Lac Long Quan for deliverance from this alien ruler, he heard them and came back from the sea; he kidnapped Au Co, the wife of the intruder, and took her to the top of Mount Tan-vien, which overlooks the Hong River as it enters the plains. Failing to retrieve his wife, the northern king departed in despair. Au Co eventually gave birth to the first of the Hung kings, and Lac Long Quan returned to his home in the sea after again promising to return if needed. Lac Long Quan, a prince of the sea, and Au Co, a princess of the mountains, are regarded by the Vietnamese as the progenitors of their race.
The mythical traditions surrounding Lac Long Quan and the origin of the Hung kings reveal a sea-oriented culture (coming to terms with a with a continental environment.) Civilization arrived with a culture hero from the sea who foiled a continental power by seizing his foe's wife and making her the mother of his heirs. This theme of the local culture hero neutralizing a northern threat by appropriating its source of legitimacy foreshadowed the historical relationship between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. The mythical origin of the Hung kings reflects a maritime cultural base with political accretions from continental influences. This idea was later elaborated by Vietnamese literati into a genealogy of Lac Long Quan and Au Co that brought together the southern aquatic line and the northern continental line.
- Golden Age of Viet Nam under the Hung Kings
Viet Nam was 4852 years old on April 28 (the tenth of the third lunar month) since Prince Loc Tuc came into power in 2880 B.C., according to Viet Nam’s legend.
When he succeeded in grouping all the vassal states within his territory into a unified nation, Loc Tuc proclaimed himself King Kinh Duong Vuong and called his newly-born nation Xich Quy. Loc Tuc inaugurated the earliest monarchical regime in Viet Nam with the Hong Bang Dynasty, as the first ruling family by heirdom in Viet Nam’s history. The Hong Bang Dynasty lasted for 2622 years till 258 BC.
All the 18 kings who made up the Hong Bang Dynasty made admirable headway in their efforts to organize Viet Nam into one of the most stabilized, prosperous and civilized nations in Asia at the prehistoric stage. This is the reason why Vietnamese people as a whole now consider Hung kings as their patron saints and founders of Viet Nam as a nation right at the period preceding the human being’s recorded history.
Under the reign of King Kinh Duong Vuong, the Xich Quy kingdom fully stretched along the Bien Dong (Eastern Sea) from the near bank of the Yang Tse Kiang to the southernmost area now called Quang Tri, adjacent to Ho Ton (Champa), including the Yunnan, Kweichow, Hunan, Kwangsi and Kwangtung provinces of China.
Succeeding King Kinh Duong Vuong was the latter’s only son, Prince Lac Long Quan who married Au Co of the fairy lineage. Of this union, legend said, Queen Au Co laid a 100-egg pouch giving life to 100 sons who looked just alike, physically and ethnically as well.
Later, when the children came to years of discretion, King Lac Long Quan suggested to Queen Au Co to live apart, each with 50 of their children.
"As you are of the fairy lineage, and mountains and highlands are of your domain while I am of the dragon descent and lowland and, rivers and seas are my field of action, we had better depart from each other for the sake of the future of Xich Quy," the King said.
Queen Au Co accepted the suggestion and went westwards along with 50 children while King Lac Long Quan was bound down east with 49 of his beloved, Hung Lang, the King’s heir remaining in Phong Chau, Xich Quy’s capital, and reigning over the whole kingdom.
Under the Hong Bang Dynasty with Hung kings as rulers, the Van Lang population really enjoyed for long peace and prosperity and moral excellence. Particularly, King Lac Long Quan devoted much of his time to the dissemination, among his subjects the practice of tattooing as one of those measures against the threat of river and lake monsters, and of using knives and mattoxes made of stone for the promotion of cereals cultivation. He also taught the Van Lang people how to behave as good citizens and practice good morals.
Successors to King Lac Long Quan still put into effect other innovations in the field of agriculture and administration for the improvement of the Vang Lang inhabitants’ welfare. For example, they urged their subjects to make the most of irrigation for the development of cultivated areas, and divided the national territory into departments, and set up a clear-cut administrative channel with Lac Hau (civilian ranking officials) and Lac Tuong (military officers) helping the rulers in administrative and military affairs.
Hung kings also pushed ahead the promotion of diplomatic ties with China in an effort to better ensure the independence of Van Lang. (On two occasions, Hung kings appointed ambassadorial delegations to visits of good will to China. Chinese annals acknowledged that at one time, the Bach Viet King from the South offered through a visiting delegation a giant turtle to Emperor Ti Yiu and at another time a white pheasant to Emperor Tcheou Chen Kwan.
Hung kings’ outstanding achievements resulted not only in the founding of Viet Nam of yore as a nation but also in the establishment of well-defined institutions, administrative, social and economic which made up a civilization of the Viets own, entirely different from that of the Chinese. (Pham Tang, The Asian Student, May 6, 1972. Article was reprinted from Vietnam Press, the offical news agency of the government of the RVN.)
- Chu Dong-Tu and Princess Tien Dung
The third King Hung Vuong had a beautiful daughter named Tien Dung (Divine Beauty), who, although of fairylike loveliness, was endowed with a whimsical nature. Despite her father's entreaties, she rejected every offer of marriage, preferring, as she said, to remain single in order to satisfy her passion for visiting the many beautiful sites of her father's kingdom, known as Van Lang. As the king loved his daughter tenderly, he tried to please her in every way possible, even placing at her disposal a number of vessels including the royal barge, so that she could navigate the rivers of the realm.
At that time, in the village of Chu Xa (Hung Yen province), lived Chu Cu-Van and his son Chu Dong-Tu (Marsh Boy). They were poor fishermen whose home had been ruined by fire. They had lost all their clothing except a single loincloth, which they took turns wearing. When Chu Cu-Van fell seriously ill and felt death approaching, he called his son to the side of his mat.
"After my death," he said, "keep this loincloth for thyself."
But Chu Dong-Tu was a pious son and could not let his old father be buried without shroud. He attended the funeral in borrowed clothes and then found himself without a garment of any kind. The poor young fisherman was obliged to do his fishing at night. During the day he would attempt to sell his catch to the people in the boats passing along the river, remaining immersed in the water up to his waist.
One day, Princess Tien Dung, then in her twentieth year, accompanied by a brilliant suite, happened to approach the very place where Chu Dong-Tu was standing in the water. When the young fisherman heard the sound of gongs and bells and perceived the wonderful array of parasols and banners, he became frightened and took cover behind some bulrushes.
Then he quickly dug a hole in the sand and covered himself so completely that only his nose was exposed.
Taking a liking to the picturesque surroundings, the princess expressed a desire to bathe there. A tent was set up on the shore. The princess entered, disrobed, and began to pour water over her head and shoulders. As the water trickled to the ground, it washed away some of the sand, exposing Chu Dong-Tu in all his nakedness.
"Who are you?" asked the princess. "What are you doing here?"
"Your Royal Highness," replied the frightened youth, not daring to raise his eyes, "I am only a poor fisherman. Having no garment with which to clothe myself, I was forced to hide in the sand at the approach of the royal barge. Will you not pardon my error?"
Princess Tien Dung dressed in haste and threw a remnant of cloth to the young man so that he could cover himself. Then she questioned him in great detail about his past life. Hardship had not marred Chu Dong-Tu's handsome features, and the princess was not displeased with his demeanor. After some deliberation, she reached a decision.
"I had not expected to marry," she said with a sigh, "but Heaven has ordained this meeting. I cannot oppose Heaven's Will."
She immediately ordered all her officers and ladies to come forward.
When they had assembled, she told them of the extraordinary adventure that had just befallen her. Then she announced that it was her intention to marry the young man.
"But Your Royal Highness," cried Chu Dong-Tu on hearing these words, "how can I, a penniless fisherman, be the husband of a royal princess?"
"It has been predestined," replied the young woman; "therefore, there can be no reservations about the matter."
"Long live Their Royal Highnesses." cried the officers and ladies in chorus.
Chu Dong-Tu was properly clothed and groomed and the royal wedding took place that same evening with great pomp. But when King Hung-Vuong learned of it, he became furious and shouted angrily at his courtiers.
"In marrying a vagabond," he said, "Tien Dung has dishonored her rank of royal princess. She is to be disinherited and forever banned from my court."
The princess had no desire to face her father's wrath. In order to provide for her husband and herself, she decided to go into business.
She sold her junks and her jewels, bought some land at a crossroads near the village of Chu Xa, and established a trading post. Visited by merchant vessels from the entire kingdom of Van Lang and from countries overseas as well, the village prospered and in time became a great emporium.
One day, a foreign merchant advised the princess to send an agent across the sea to purchase some rare merchandise that could then be sold at a tenfold profit. Chu Dong-Tu was charged with this mission and together with the foreign merchant left by sea. On reaching the island of Quynh Vien, they met a Taoist priest who immediately recognized the sign of immortality on Chu Dong-Tu's forehead. The former fisherman then entrusted his gold to the foreign merchant and remained on the island for one year in order to be initiated into the secrets of the Way (Dao).
On the day of Chu Dong-Tu's departure, the priest gave his disciple a pilgrim's staff and a conical hat made of palm leaves. He advised him never to be without them.
"This staff will give you support," he said, "but it is worth much more.
The hat will protect you from the rain and also from harm. Both have supernatural power."
On returning to Chu Xa. The couple repented their earthly sins, abandoned their possessions, and left in search of a deserted place, where they would be able to devote themselves entirely to a study of the True Doctrine.
All day they stumbled on through the wilds and at last fell to the earth exhausted. But before lying down to sleep, Chu Dong-Tu planted his staff in the ground and on it hung the conical hat.
The couple had been asleep only a few moments before being awakened by a crash of thunder. They sat up between flashes of lightning and saw a magic citadel suddenly rise from the earth. It was complete with jade-and-emerald palaces, public buildings, and houses for the inhabitants.
Mandarins, both civil and military, courtiers, soldiers, and servants came forward to welcome them to the city, begging them to rule over the new kingdom. Chu Dong-Tu and his wife entered their palace and began a reign of peace and prosperity.
When King Hung-Vuong learned of the existence of the magic citadel, he thought that his daughter had rebelled against his authority and was desirous of founding a new dynasty. He assembled an army and ordered his generals to destroy the rival kingdom. The people of the citadel urged the princess to give them weapons so that they might defend her territory.
"No," she said, "I do not intend to defend this citadel by force of arms. Heaven created it and Heaven has sent my father's army against it. In any case, how can a daughter oppose her father's will? I must submit to the inevitable."
That evening King Hung-Vuong's army camped on the bank of the river opposite the magic citadel. His generals planned to attack the following morning. But at midnight a terrible storm arose and the entire citadel with all its inhabitants was seen to rise into the air and disappear. The next morning the royal army found only a marshy pond and a sandy beach at its former sight. The pond received the name of Dam Nhat Da, which means "Pond Formed in One Night", the beach was called "Spontaneous Beach", or Bai Tu-Nhien. (A Vietnamese Legend Adapted by George F. Schultz, Vietnam Bulletin, Vietnam Embassy to US., October 5, 1970.)
According to the tales that are told, the couple became fairies. Vietnamese people believe Chu Dong Tu and Tien Dung have risen up to Heaven. The couple of immortals eventually live happily together for ever.
This legend is one of the oldest of Viet Nam, reputedly going back to the early years of the semi-legendary Hong Bang dynasty.
The legend told us the real prosperous oversea trading of the ancient time, even the Princess could decide to go into business and established a trading post. Visited by merchant vessels from the entire kingdom of Van Lang and from countries overseas as well, the non-class society of Van Lang prospered and in time became a great emporium with foreign merchantmen across the sea. They purchased the rare merchandise that could then be sold at a tenfold profit.
It is probably of Vietnamese inspiration and affirms a belief in water genie (and forest genie, as well) and … immortals.
- The Battle Between The Ruler Of The Mountains And The Ruler Of The Seas.
Many years ago King Hung Vuong XVIII ruled Vietnam. During his reign the country was at peace, and the people were prosperous. King Hung Vuong had a daughter named My-Nuong. My-Nuong was famous for her beauty. Many rulers and princes wanted to marry her.
When the princess was old enough to be married. King Hung Vuong sent out messengers. The messengers told the rulers of nearby lands that the king was ready to select a husband for his daughter.
Several kings and princes presented themselves to King Hung Vuong. They all wanted to marry My-Nuong. The king, however. was very strict in judging them. He wanted only the very best husband for his daughter. After seeing many men. the king decided that only two met his qualifications. One was Son Tinh. the Ruler of the Mountains. The other was Thuy Tinh. the Ruler of the Seas.
The Ruler of the Mountains reigned over all the mountains. He was handsome. rich. powerful and quiet. The Ruler of the Seas commanded all the seas. He was also handsome. rich. and powerful. But he was not quiet. He had a bad temper. He easily became angry if he did not get his wishes.
Since they both had equal qualities and talents. King Hung Vuong did not know which one to choose. He did not want to make one angry by selecting his rival. He finally determined a way of choosing between the two rulers. He said to them, "Go home, both of you, and come back tomorrow morning with wedding presents. I will give my daughter to the one who arrives first with his gifts."
Son Tinh returned to his mountain palace, and Thuy Tinh went home to his ocean castle. They both collected precious jewelry and rich presents to take to King Hung Vuong.
The two rulers woke early the next morning and hurried back to King Hung Vuong's palace. The Ruler of the Mountains arrived first with his gifts. The king was very pleased, and gave Son Tinh his permission to marry Princess My-Nuong. They were married immediately. They left at once to go to live in the palace of the Ruler of the Mountains.
As soon as they were gone, the Ruler of the Seas arrived. King Hung Vuong told him what had happened. When he heard that the princess was already married, Thuy Tinh became furious. He stormed out of the palace. He decided to go to war against the Ruler of the Mountains and win the princess for himself.
All the sea kingdom helped him. The seas swelled, the wind blew, and the water rose until it covered the whole land. Meanwhile the Ruler of the Mountains tried to protect his wife and himself. He called on the mountains to grow higher so that the waters could not reach them. The battle between the rulers lasted for days. At last, the Ruler of the Seas became tired of war. He withdrew his forces. The sea became calm.
But Thuy Tinh still wanted My-Nuong for his wife. So every year since then, the Ruler of the Seas has warred against the Ruler of the Mountains. And every year the people of Vietnam suffer the loss of property, crops and lives when Thuy Tinh goes to war against Son Tinh. (Legends from Vietnam, A Language Arts Program; University of Iowa, 1983, pp. 15-17.)
7 - The magic crossbow
After ending the Hung Vuong dynasty, King An Duong Vuong unified the two countries of Au Viet and Lac Viet into a single country that he named Au La.c. An Duong Vuong settled in Phong Khe (now in the district of Dong Anh, province of Phuc Yen). In 225 BC he decided to build the spiral-shaped fortress of Co Loa.
However each time they were just about to complete the walls of the fortress, they crumble. The King set up an altar, fasted (an chay - went on a vegetarian diet to purify oneself) for three months to appeal to the Heavens. On the 7th of March, an old man appeared at the Western gate and commented:
The fortress will never be finished!
The King invited him to his court, bowed himself and in tears asked:
Each time I almost finish this fortress it falls down. This is proving very costly to my people. Can you give me an explanation?
The old man replied
You will need the help of the Thanh Giang (Blue River) angel. Only he can help you finish this fortress.
Then the old man bid his good-byes.
The next morning the King went to the East gate. Suddenly he saw a golden turtle emerge from the water in the sunrise direction. The turtle said:
I am the Thanh Giang angel. I am all knowing.
The King was very happy because this fulfilled the prophecy of the old man yesterday. He had a golden chariot transport this honored guest to his court. He asked him about the reason for the fortress falling down. The turtle replied:
The spirits of the mountain and the river in this area have been subverted by the departed spirits of the Hung Vuong descendants to take revenge on their loss of their kingdom. There is also a thousand year old white rooster that has been transformed into an evil spirit that now inhibits the That Dieu mountain. The ghost of a musician that was buried in these mountains, is also haunting it. By the side of the mountain, there is a small inn, whose owner, Ngo Khong, has a daughter and a white rooster. They are the evil spirits haunting these mountains. Each night they will reveal themselves under their evil forms and kill travelers. You need to catch the white rooster and the daughter of the inn owner, kill them both. Only then will the evil spirits be done with.
However, before these evil spirits disappear, they will draft a petition to the Heavens to destroy the fortress. An owl will be used to transmit the petition. I will bite the owl and it will drop the petition for you to catch. Then that will be the end of these spirits and you can finish your fortress.
The turtle then instructed the King to disguise himself as a traveler and go to the inn and ask to stay the night. The King followed the instruction and came to the door of the inn. He put the turtle on top of the entrance. The inn owner Ngo Khong told him
These parts are haunted. These evil spirits kill travelers. So, please move on while the sun is still up.
The King smiled and replied:
Life and death are one's destiny. Ghosts cannot change my destiny. I am not afraid.
Then he spent the night there. The night came and the evil spirits came to the door of his cabin and called out:
Whoever is in there, open the door immediately!
The golden turtle shouted back:
The door is locked. I dare you to come in!
The evil spirits used fires and other means to try to break down the door but they were unsuccessful thanks to the magic of the golden turtle. When the rooster crowed, the spirits retreated. In the morning the inn owner brought an undertaker with him. He was very surprised to find his guest alive and laughing. He prostrated himself and said:
You must be an angel. Please use your magic to deliver us from these evil spirits.
The King said:
You must kill the white rooster to destroy the evil spirits.
As Ngo Khong killed the white rooster, his daughter also fell dead. The King had his people dig up Mount That Dieu. They found an old music instrument and a skeleton. They incinerated everything and threw the ashes in the river.
At sunset, the King and the turtle went up Mount Viet Thuong. They saw the evil spirits transforming themselves into an owl up the big teak tree with a petition in its beak. The turtle transformed itself into a mouse and rushed after the owl up in the tree. The mouse bit the owl, which dropped the petition. The King picked up the petition and ripped it to shreds.
From then on the evil spirits were finished. The fortress was finished in less than a month. Its perimeter was over ten thousand feet, in the shape of a snail, thus its name Loa Thanh.
After three years, the golden turtle bid his farewell. The King asked:
Thanks to you I have been able to complete my fortress. Do you have any strategy for dealing with foreign invaders.
The turtle replied:
The fate of a nation is in the hands of Heaven. Only the virtuous can hold onto his kingdom for long. But since you asked, let me give you this to help you.
The turtle then gave the King one of his claws and said:
Use this claw in a crossbow. You will have nothing to fear from any invader.
The King had Cao Lo build a crossbow with the claw as the trigger.
A few years passed. Trieu Da (a general of Tan Thuy Hoang who decided to move south to strike out on his own) decided to invade. The King took out his magic crossbow and took a shot at the enemy. In one shot he killed thousands of the enemy. Trieu Da retreated to the Trau Son mountain range. He learned about the magic crossbow of An Duong Vuong.
So, he had his ambassadors sue for peace. The King was very happy to let Trieu Da govern the land to the north of the Tieu Giang (small river).
Shortly after, Trieu Da sent his son, Trong Thuy, to the King's court to ask for the hand of Princess My Chau. The King approved and Trong Thuy came to live at the King's court.
Trong Thuy asked My Chau to let him have a look at the magic crossbow. He substituted the magic trigger with a fake one. After this devious trick, Trong Thuy asked for permission to go back and visit his parents. Before he left, he told My Chau:
Our love is immense but I cannot forget my duties with my father. As I am about to go back to my father I am worried that should there be a conflict between our parents, we will be separated, me in the North and you in the South. When I am able to come back and look for you, how can I find you?
I am only a helpless woman. However I have this goose down blanket that I keep with me all the time. In the unlikely event I have to leave the palace, I will drop goose feathers at crossroads so you can follow me.
Trong Thuy bid his farewells and took the magic claw with him back to his father. Trieu Da was very happy and raised his army for a sudden attack.
When he heard the news, the King calmly continued his chess game and said:
Didn't Trieu Da learned his lesson from my magic crossbow?
When Trieu Da's army arrived at the gate of his fortress, the King took out his magic crossbow and fired at the invader. But nothing happened!
The unprepared army and the court just fled in panic.
The King had to flee on a horse in the southern direction. When he reached the seashore, there was no ship in sight. In desperation he cried out:
The gods cannot let me die. River angel, where are you! Please come to my rescue!
The golden turtle emerged out of the water and shouted to the King:
The person on the back of your horse is your enemy. You must kill her before I would rescue you.
The King pulled out his sword and beheaded My Chau. Before she died she vowed:
I am a female. If I have been unfaithful to you then let me turn into dust. If my faith has been constant and I have only been tricked then let me turn into a pearl so that this humiliation can be washed.
Her blood flowed down the ocean floor where oysters swallowed it and the blood transformed itself into pearls.
The golden turtle took the King below the waters and disappeared.
Trong Thuy with his pursuing troops following the goose feather trail arrived at the seashore shortly after. He only found the body of My Chau.
In grief he took it back to Loa Thanh where he buried her. The grave became a deep well with crystal clear water. Trong Thuy fell sick from grief and in a moment of despair he jumped down the well to kill himself.
Legend has it that if one were to wash a pearl from the eastern sea (Bien Dong) with water from this well, its brilliance will increase tenfold. (Vietnamese Culture - A 1970's Perspective - Adapted by AnDinhTon.)
Further Reading: George Schultz. Vietnamese Legends. (Rutland Vermont: Tuttle, 1965).