The Power and Relevance of
Vietnamese Myths

Article written by Nguyen Ngoc Binh for the Asia Society's Vietnam: Essays on History, Culture, and Society, 1985, pp. 61-77.

Ask any Vietnamese about the origin of his people, and most likely he will tell you that they were born of a dragon and a fairy ("con rong chau tien"). Certainly this is an unscientific explanation, and one that can hardly be sustained or demonstrated historically, yet the power of that myth is such that no Vietnamese, no matter how much scientific training he has received, would ever deny believing in it at least to a certain extent. The Vietnamese myth of origin then, is a matter of belief, of faith, that mountains of evidence to the contrary cannot change.

Historically, Vietnam has served as a fertile ground for all kinds of beliefs and religions. Yet regardless of religious belief, whether Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism, or animism, Vietnamese share the conviction that they came from the same source, originating from the same womb -- hence, they call one another dong-bao ("born of the same womb"). It is this power of myths that sustains the Vietnamese throughout their history, that keeps them together despite their other differences. Let us then travel backwards in time to when these myths originated, a time predating recorded history by centuries if not millennia, when the Vietnamese all shared a common set of beliefs, later on taken down as "the mythology" of Vietnam.

There exists no written record of how the first Vietnamese conceived of the world and its creation. The idea of the world being born out of a primeval egg appears later in Vietnamese literature of the 15th century but it does not seem to fit with the even more widespread traditional belief in the existence of an "August Heaven" (Ong Troi, in Vietnamese). "August Heaven" is a concept often interpreted anthropomorphically, but in actuality it is more like a first principle of sacred energy leading to the creation of the universe.

The prehistoric Dongsonian bronze drums, which date back to about 500 B.C., show many representations of the sun on their main surface. The Dongsonian civilization, one of the great bronze civilizations of the world, roughly corresponds to the first millennium B.C. It had as one of its great centers of development the location presently corresponding to the village of Dongson in Thanh Hoa province, Vietnam, after which the whole civilization is named. These drums have led to the speculation that the Vietnamese at the time were sun-worshippers. There is very little trace of sun-worship in Vietnam in historical times, however, and this raises the tantalizing possibility that the original sun-worship had been assimilated in the concept of "August Heaven," possibly an import from China, for in many ways the concept of "August Heaven" is conterminous with the Chinese concept of T'ien.

At any rate, the Vietnamese "August Heaven" is credited with creating everything that we know to exist on earth. "Troi sinh voi, troi sinh co," for instance, is a typical statement of fact to the Vietnamese: "Heaven creates the elephants, it creates [also] the grass" that serves as fodder for these animals. "August Heaven" is omnipresent and omniscient ("Troi co mat," "Heaven has [all-seeing] eyes"). Furthermore, it is like a child in that it sometimes causes damage to people on a vast, grand scale, without realizing it ("Troi hanh con lut moi nam," "Every year Heaven hits [us] with a great flood"). But "August Heaven" is also the principle of justice at work. It has an ethical role to play, as judge in the moral universe: "Troi phat," ("Heaven punishes"), "Troi quo," ("Heaven reprimands"), "Troi danh tranh bua an," ("Even Heaven avoids punishing people when they are eating"). But unlike some gods of other religions like Allah, the God of Islam, he is not unforgiving or even a very forbidding figure : apparently he does bend a little when he hears pleas or prayers. Thus a very well know little ditty goes: "Lay Troi mua xuong, Lay nuoc toi uong, Lay ruong toi cay...," ("I kowtow to Heaven that It send rain, so that I have water to drink and water for my fields..."). And also, Heaven at least is very approachable: a children's verse says, "Giung giang giung gie, Dat tre di choi, Den cong nha Troi, Lay Cau lay Mo, Cho chau ve que...," ("Let's hold hands/And walk, kids./Arriving at Heaven's Gate,/We'll say, 'Uncle! Auntie!/Allow us to go home..."'). In this sense, he is an eminently Vietnamese god. Because "August Heaven" is so much more important than every other god in the Vietnamese pantheon, the Vietnamese have been perceived by many as being essentially a monotheistic people long before the development of Christianity with its one and unique God.

Besides "August Heaven," the Vietnamese also have "August Moon" (Ong Trang) -- which seems to support the original interpretation of Ong Troi as "August Sun" rather than its later meaning of "August Heaven." When "August Moon" was later anthropomorphized into a male deity it was contrasted to the Chinese moon, which became Ba Nguyet, a female deity. But be it man, woman or an androgynous person, the moon in Vietnamese mythology is credited for being the source of the calendar, and f or providing much needed light at night, especially at harvest time when the reaping of the rice does not wait. The moon was also seen by the Vietnamese as an inspiration and a lover, possibly even before the introduction of the Chinese myth of Heng 0, a cold beauty living in the Ice Palace up there.

The Story of Cuoi

According to Vietnamese mythology, the person living in the moon is named Cuoi, a buffalo boy who lost his father at a tender age. He was raised by his mother with the help of an uncle, but proved to be a pest because of his constant lies. He lied to Heaven, he lied to Earth, and even to himself. He lied not in a malicious way, but mostly to get by, to survive.

There are many stories associated with Cuoi. In one of them he is sent to the hills to fetch some firewood. As usual, he soon forgets about his task when he encounters some tiger cubs. After playing with them for a while, he hits upon the wicked idea of breaking their necks. Right away, he hears the mother's roars as she comes running home. Scared out of his wits, Cuoi hastily climbs up a nearby tree. The tigress is beside herself when she discovers her injured cubs. She does not, however, just lament, but at once goes after some leaves of a nearby banyan tree. After chewing on the leaves, she applies the concoction to the cubs. Soon the little ones regain their color and are up on their feet. Mother and cubs then leave to go home. Cuoi can hardly believe his eyes. When he is certain that the tigress is long gone he carefully climbs down from the tree, grabs a root from the medicinal plant and rushes home, and plants the root. Thereafter he becomes a famous doctor known for his miraculous cures. One day he even revives the dead daughter of a rich man who, in gratitude, gives Cuoi his beautiful daughter in marriage. The two of them live happily as husband and wife for a time, but soon the woman grows tired of her husband caring more about the tree than herself. Despite the fact that he has warned her on many occasions not to harm the tree, she nonetheless becomes so mad one day that she goes out and urinates on it. Apparently it is a very clean tree, for it uproots itself and flies up to heaven. Cuoi comes home in time only to see the tree take off. Having no time left for explanation, he merely throws his axe at the tree which keeps flying up and takes him along. To this day the Vietnamese believe he still lives on the moon.

Cuoi is not a deity, even to the Vietnamese. But he is very Vietnamese in the sense that his life story reflects a deeply felt belief in fatalism. Despite his lies and mischief, he is "fated" to be happy. Cuoi, by most standards, is not a very worthy character, but he is humane, he is fun to be with (he is not so much a liar as a bluffer whose white lies are often seen through by sagacious people), and in many ways he is harmless. Despite all his faults, Heaven still smiles on him, revealing the Vietnamese people's basic optimism, and he still proves to be a useful person (a miracle-working doctor) after all.

Heroes and Heroines

Compared to the brilliant drama of Cuoi's tale, most stories regarding other characters in Vietnamese mythology are less well-developed. There are stories about minor deities like Ong Sam ("August Thunder") and Ba Set ("Goddess Mrs. Lightning") as well as various tales about the stars, also considered minor deities. But these stories never struck the imagination of the Vietnamese to the same extent that inspired them to create memorable story cycles as in the case of Cuoi. One minor deity , Ong Sam or "August Thunder," for instance, is seen as more noise than substance. He is depicted as a rather chicken-hearted fellow, almost the opposite of thunder gods elsewhere. Sent down to punish an evil character on earth, he blunders through the whole mission, slips on the roof of the house and falls on his behind, hears what he thinks to be a dire threat and flees in terror.

Vietnamese myths about heroes and heroines have been better preserved than myths about Vietnamese deities, but seem to have been somewhat altered by outside influences as they were handed down through the generations.

There are several explanations for this. For one, the recording of Vietnamese myths began rather late, only in the 13th century at the earliest, long after the so-called "Age of Myths" in Vietnamese literature (which one 16th century authority defined as the Hung "dynasty" of 2879 to 256 B.C.). By comparison, the Japanese started recording their myths in the eighth century: at such an early date many of the myths were still vivid in people's minds. Secondly, by the 13th or 14th century also, the Vietnam ese had been greatly influenced by the rationalist thinking of Chinese Confucianism; thus the authors of the Viet Dian U Linh, the first collection of Vietnamese myths, for instance, deliberately left out many details of the stories of the gods which seemed unrealistic to them. The second major collection of Vietnamese myths, the Linh Nam Chich Quai ("Strange Stories Picked Up in Lingnan"), is somewhat more respectful of tradition but note that the myths and stories "picked up" and recounted therein were still perceived as "strange."

A third explanation, of course, is simply that the Vietnamese did not have a mythology worth talking about. But this seems unlikely since what remains today is impressive enough that it must have come from a much richer body of myths, a body that we are now reduced to getting only tantalizing glimpses of.


Myth of origin of the Vietnamese Race: The Dragon and the Fairy

Instead of speculating, however, let us turn to a myth that all Vietnamese are familiar with, the myth of origin of the Vietnamese race.


King Minh [Chinese, Ming], a third generation offspring of Than Nong [Chinese, Shen Nong] or the Viem Da [Chinese, Yen Ti] clan, begot King Nghi [Chinese, Yi]. One day, as he was touring the South he met with the daughter of Immortal Lady Vu [Chinese, Wu ] in the Five Range Mountain and he married her. On coming home, she gave birth to Loc Tuc [Chinese, Lu Xu].

Tuc had a noble face, was intelligent and generous in nature. King Minh was delighted and wanted Loc Tuc to inherit his throne. Loc Tuc refused and asked that the honor be given to his brother. King Ming therefore made Nghi inherit his northern throne, invested Loc Tuc with the title of King of Kinh Duong [Chinese, Jing Yang] and made him rule the South, which became the country of Xich Quy ["Red Demons"].

The King of Kinh Duong had the gift of going underwater. He married the daughter of the Dragon King under Dongting Lake and begot Sung Lam, whose title was Dragon Lord of the Lac [People], to whom he left his throne. It was not known where the King of K inh Duong went after that. The Dragon Lord of the Lac taught the people agriculture and sericulture; he established the various ranks of officials and the ways of parents and children, husbands and wives. [He did it so well that] sometimes he would go ba ck to the Underwater World and the hundred name clans would still be at peace, unaware themselves of how that was done. When the people had some business [to solve] they would loudly call to their Dragon King: "Father, why aren't you here to save us?" T he latter would immediately appear, his sacred communion with the people was something that nobody could understand.

This story is worth examining for several reasons. First, this myth contains much more detail than most other Vietnamese myths. Secondly, the clear explanation of the lineage of Loc Tuc, the first king of the south, is reminiscent of the concise genealogies found in the Bible in Genesis. This may be a Chinese influence, for the Chinese love lineages, real or putative, but one should also note that many of the names are given in the Vietnamese word order: De Minh (King Minh) , Than Nong (God of Agricultu re), and De Nghi (King Nghi) rather than Minh De, Nong Than, and Nghi De, which would be the normal Chinese word order. The title of this tale, "The Hong Bang Family," further reinforces this Chinese-influenced effort to trace back as far as possible the lineage of the Vietnamese people. Hong and Bang are two eagle-like mythological birds figuring prominently in the very earliest Vietnamese religious beliefs, beliefs which were totemic. By giving their myth of origin such a title, the Vietnamese are si gnalling their intent to prove that their history is at least as long as China's.

Thirdly, the very first myth of Vietnam is a political myth; it clearly divides the north, associated with the Chinese, and the south, associated with the Vietnamese. But more than that, it asserts an irreconcilable cultural difference: Loc Tuc, as the K ing of Kinh Duong, i.e. the south, "had the gift of going underwater," which allowed him to marry the daughter of the Dragon King, traditionally the lord of the Water World. In this way Loc Tuc differed from his northern father and half-brother Nghi. No rtherners, especially Chinese, have traditionally been perceived as coming from the inland, the mountains, who were afraid of the sea. Finally, this myth asserts that Sung Lam is the Dragon Lord of the Lac People: thus the name of the ancestral tribe of the Vietnamese is given as the Lac, a tribe thought to be related to the Lolo of modern times.

In the generation of Sung Lam, the Dragon Lord of the Lac, the North was ruled by King Lai, the son of King Nghi. One day, Lai left the kingdom to the care of others and headed south to visit the sights. At one point he left his wife Au Coo the Princess of Au (or maybe, of the Au, name of a tribe) , and her attendants in one of his temporary palaces and went into the woods, forgetting to return. Because he left his realm unattended, ... the southern people suffered depredations from the northern people, they were not allowed to live in peace as they used to, so they called on the Dragon King: "Father, where are you, why do you let the northern people harass and attack us, your people ?" The Dragon King suddenly appeared, and what he saw was Au Co with her fantastically beautiful features. He felt glad in his heart and transformed himself into a very handsome young man, accompanied right and left by numerous attendants who sang and b eat on their drums as they went. Palaces rise up out of nowhere. Au Co willingly followed the Dragon King, and he hid her at the Dragon Platform Rock.

When King Lai came back from his wanderings, Au Co was no longer there. He sent out parties in every direction but because his uncle the Dragon King had the capability of "changing himself into all kinds of shapes, from devils to demons, dragons and snakes, tigers and elephants, he scared away all the search parties, which dared not venture too far." Then follows the narration of how King Lai's descendants lost their throne, ending the line of Shen Nong in China. The story goes back to the Dragon King and Au Co:

The Dragon King took Au Co for wife and she bore him a bagful [of eggs]. Considering this to be an ill omen, he had the bag thrown away in the field. After six or seven days, however, out of the bag hatched one hundred eggs and out of each egg was a boy ; only then were they brought home to be raised. These boys needed no breast-feeding or mouth-feeding, they just naturally grew up into fantastically handsome young men, blessed each one of them with great mind and courage. Everybody respected them, thinking they were an unusual breed auguring well [for the country].

But as the Dragon King liked to stay long in the Underwater World, his wife and children yearned to go north. When they got to the frontier Huang Ti [the Chinese Emperor] heard about it, he got scared and had troops sent out to hold the pass. Unable to proceed further, Au Co and her children came back south and called out to the Dragon King: "Father, where are you, why are you leaving us alone, unprotected so that day and night we are in this terrible plight?" The Dragon King at once appeared and they met at Tuong [Chinese, Xiang]. Au Co said: "I originally came from the north and after living with you, I bore you one hundred sons. You left me and did not raise the children with me, and I became like a widow. All I could do was to pity myself." The Dragon King answered: "I am of the dragon breed, the king of the aquatic breeds; you are an immortal living on land, and though we have children born of the combination of yin and yang elements we are, like fire and water, not meant for each other, we are different breeds. I am afraid our union cannot last, we must now separate. I will take fifty boys with me down to the Underwater World and divide it up for them to rule, let the other fifty follow you on land and you can divide the land up for them to rule. Though we may go up to the mountains or down to the sea, if anything happens we should let each other know. Don't forget." The one hundred children obeyed, said farewell to one another and parted.

Au Co and her fifty sons went up to Phong Chau. The sons established their suzerainties and vassalities while they raised the eldest son to be their king with the dynastic name of Hung Vuong and they called their country Van Lang.

The story concludes by recounting the extent of the Van Lang country, its 15 subdivisions (with their names), the feudal system obtained under the Hung kings, the division of officials' ranks into military and civilian ranks, the names of ranks corresponding to princes and princesses within the royal family, and the establishment of a patriarchal system of royal succession. The myth provides a long listing of the various customs associated with the ancestral Vietnamese, including the custom of tattooing one's body and that of "ploughing with knives and growing [plants? rice?] using fire," clearly a reference to the slash-and-burn method of the present-day highlanders of Vietnam. "Thus," the story ends, "the hundred sons [of Au Co and the Dragon King] are the ancestors of the Hundred Viet [tribes]."

Several observations are in order here. The last sentence of the story shows that the story of Lac Long Quan, the Dragon King of the Lac, and of Au Co is not merely the story of the one tribe or group that eventually became the present-day Vietnamese. Rather, the story purports to tell the ancestral story of all the Viet groups (the Hundred Viet) in the area corresponding to southern China and present-day northern Vietnam. The names given to the 15 subdivisions of Van Lang should be seen also in this light. The direct ancestors of the present-day Vietnamese, however, can claim to be primi inter pares since it is recorded that the capital apparently was established at Phong Chau, in the vicinity of present-day Tam Dao in northern Vietnam, and that the first Hung king was established here. Many of the customs given as identifying the Viets show them to be very much like the modern-day Thai minorities of northern Vietnam with a good number given to fishing and diving, possibly for pearls, hence the custom of body-tattooing. (Ancient Vietnamese pearl-divers used to tattoo themselves with all sorts of phantasmagoric figures in the hope of scaring away sea monsters they feared to encounter in the waters.) This, incidentally, gives a possible interpretation of Van Lang, the name of the country, as "[Country of the] Tattooed People" -- which bears out the earlier name of Xich Quy "[Country of the] Red Demons."

But the most contemporary note sounded in this Vietnamese myth of origin is its mention of divorce, or at least separation; the first that we have in Vietnamese history. Thus is destroyed the stereotypic view that divorce is almost unknown among Vietnamese.

The Celestial King of Phu Dong

The Vietnamese myth of origin is so rich that it established many of the great themes of later Vietnamese history: the North-South dichotomy between the Chinese and the Vietnamese; the acknowledgment by the Viets that they belong to a minor lineage, owing respect to the Chinese but still extremely jealous of their independence; the assertion of an independent line of cultural development (for example, Sung Lam, the Dragon Lord of the Lac, was the culture hero who taught agriculture and sericulture to the Vietnamese and not some Chinese administrator, as recorded in history); the implication that the Vietnamese are a mixed race (born of the marriage of a Southerner, the Dragon King, with a Northerner, Au Co); and the oblique assertion that the South can be of such influence that Au Co, originally a Northerner, after her sojourn in the South was no longer recognized as Chinese when she tried to go north with her children.

But another great theme of Vietnamese history was only hinted at in the Vietnamese myth of origin, the theme of resistance to foreign invasion. This was, however, the main theme of the "Story of Phu Dong Thien Vuong," the Celestial King from Phu Dong. Many of the story's events defy common belief: a miracle birth on a lucky number day (the seventh of the first month), the sudden transformation from what appears to be retardation to superhuman intelligence and strength, and then disappearance into the sk y after a smashing victory over foreign invaders.

The story tells of a year in the reign of Hung Vuong VI when the Yin in China attacked Van Lang. The king was anxious to find a general who could withstand them. He sent search parties all over the country.

When they got to Phu Dong village, Tien Du district, Bac Ninh Province, they found a rich man over sixty years old who had a son born in the middle of the day on the seventh of the first [lunar] month. The boy was now three years old but he still could not speak, nor could he sit up. When she heard of the search party the mother said jokingly: "Well, I gave birth to this child and he-knows only how to eat. He does not know how to fight the invaders for the court awards so as to return some of my trouble breast-feeding and mouth-feeding him."

When he heard his mother say so, the boy suddenly said: "Mother, please call in the royal envoys." Flabbergasted, the mother started telling the neighbors about what happened. The latter were overjoyed and immediately went after the royal envoys, inviting them to come at once. The envoys said: "You are a child that barely starts to speak, why do you ask us to come?" The child sat up straight and said: "Please go back to court at once and make your presentation to the king asking that an iron horse eighteen feet tall, a seven-foot long iron sword, an iron whip and an iron helmet be smithed for me. I will ride that horse with my helmet on, the enemy will run in fear, and the king will not have any worry left." The envoys were overjoyed and rushed back to make their presentation to the king. Totally surprised but happy, the king said: "I no longer worry."

... When the envoys came back, the boy's mother was very scared and thought that this time misfortune had overtaken them. She conveyed that thought to her son who merely laughed and said: "All you have to do, Mother, is to give me a whole lot of food and wine. As for the fighting, don't worry, leave it up to me."

Then he grew and grew, and consumed tons of food; the mother was at a loss as to how to feed him. The neighbors also chipped in by killing buffaloes and bringing wine, fruit and cakes galore but the young man did not have his fill. Silk and damask were brought out roll after roll but they barely covered him, people finally had to go and take sedge flowers to tie all the material up so as to cover him.

By the time the Yin troops reached the foot of the Trau Mountain in Vu Ninh, the young man stretched his legs and stood up. He was now over ten feet tall, he turned up his nose and let out more than ten sneezes, unsheathed his sword and yelled: "Here I a m, the General from Heaven!" Then he put on his helmet and rode his horse. The horse reared up, let out a long and powerful neighing, then flew out. In a twinkling both master and horse were in front of the king. The man tapped on his sword and went ahead, followed by the king's army. Soon they were close to the enemy camp. The enemy fled in terror, those that were left all kowtowed to the Celestial General and pleaded for their lives as they surrendered. The Yin king himself died at this battle.

When he reached Soc Son in the district of Kim Hoa the Celestial General shed his armor and rode his horse into the sky. That was the ninth day of the fourth month, and there are still traces left of him on the rocks in the mountain. The Hung King remembered his feat and invested him with the title of Celestial King from Phu Dong.

The Beach Boy
Not all Vietnamese myths are about war and divorce and politics, however. In fact, many of the most beautiful Vietnamese myths are about love. A favorite among Vietnamese must no doubt be the story of the Beach Boy, a story set in the reign of Hung Vuong III during the third millennium B.C. To him was born a princess by the name of Tien Dung ("Immortal Features").

When she reached eighteen she was very beautiful but she did not care to marry anyone, she only wanted to have fun and wander around the world. The king did not want to contradict her in any way. Each year, around the second or third lunar month, she would have boats rigged up so that she could roam over the seas, forgetting even to come home.

At that time, in the village of Chu Xa near the river estuary there lived a person named Chu Vi Van who had a son called simply the Chu Boy. The father was a kind man and the son a filial person, but their home caught fire and they had nothing left except a loin-cloth that father and son had to take turns wearing when they went out. As he fell ill and was about to die, the father told the son: "I am going to die, you should bury me naked and keep the loincloth for yourself." The son, however, did not h ave the heart to obey, he used the loincloth to wrap the father's corpse.

After that, he had nothing to wear, and was constantly ravaged by hunger and cold. He would stay on the river bank and whenever he spotted a merchant boat going by, he would stand deep in the water to beg for food, or he would fish to find food for himself.

Little did he expect one day that Tien Dung's boat would come his way all of a sudden, in the midst of gongs and drums and beautiful music and with a huge attendance. The boy was terrified. on the sand bar there was a band of sedge and reed, hardly enough to hide him, but the Beach Boy still had to hide there. While there, he scraped up some sand to make a hole and used the sand to cover himself.

Soon after, Tien Dung's boat anchored right by and she came down to take a stroll on the sand. She then ordered her attendants to curtain off an area amidst the sedge and reed for her to take a bath. She stepped inside, took off her dress and started pouring water on her body. The sand went away with the water, revealing the Beach Boy. Tien Dung was totally taken aback for a while before she realized that he was a boy so she said: "I never had a mind to have a husband. Now I met you here with both of us naked in the same spot: this must be the doing of Heaven. Stand up, then, and wash yourself. I will give you clothing to wear, then let us go down into my boat to celebrate." Everyone in the boat agreed that this was an unprecedented miracle meeting. The Beach Boy demurred: "How dare I?" But Tien Dung brushed away his protests and forced him to become her husband. The Beach Boy again refused, Tien Dung said: "This is an union decreed by Heaven, why do you refuse it?"

This conversation was at once reported to the king by the attendants. The king said: "Tien Dung does not care about her name and chastity, she does not care about her inheriting my wealth, she goes on wandering away from home and lowers herself to take a poor man for husband. How will she have the courage to face me?" When this was reported to her, Tien Dung got frightened and did not dare go home. She stayed on the spot to establish a river market and a small town with her husband to trade with other people. Gradually this became a large market-city.

"Rich merchants from abroad came to trade in great numbers, and they worshipped Tien Dung and her husband as their leaders," the story continues, relating Tien Dung and her husbands eventual conversion to Buddhism, which brought them miraculous powers. T he King, Tien Dung's father, seeing them become powerful, thought that Tien Dung was planning a rebellion. He sent troops against her, but Tien Dung only smiled: "Life and death are matters in the hands of Heaven. How dare I fight against my father? I only beg to follow the right path. Let the knives and swords kill as they will." However, night descended as she spoke and the attack by the king's army was delayed till the next day. "In the middle of the night, a great wind arose and created a sand storm, uprooting even the trees, causing total confusion in the king's army. Tien Dung and her followers, together with their fortress, in no time flew up into the sky while the earth where they stood sank down to form a large pond. Later on, the people set up an altar to worship Tien Dung all year round, and they called the pond the 'Overnight Pond.'"

In some respects, this story sounds more like a legend than a myth since it is historically dated (in the reign of Hung Vuong III) and happens in historical times. Actually these historical references are merely the result of Chinese influence in the recording of the myth (Chinese naturally gave dates or pseudohistorical dates to myths to give them more credibility. The historical references contradict each other; Hung Vuong III is traditionally thought to have lived in the third millennium B.C., some 2 ,000 years before the birth of the historical Buddha, which would make it impossible for Tien Dung to convert to Buddhism. Putting aside the reference to Buddhism, what one is left with is a beautiful myth dealing with the traditional Vietnamese belief in Heaven, whose power must transcend even the power of the King on Earth. Like the story of An Tiem, the story of Tien Dung and the Beach Boy is the story of an unshakable faith in a providential god named Heaven: "Troi sinh voi, Troi sinh co," says a Vietnamese proverb. "Heaven creates the elephants, He creates also the grass" that serves as fodder for the elephants.

The Pearl of Love

Like the story of Tien Dung and the Beach Boy, another story, the story of Truong Chi, also depicts the problems of class difference and class consciousness. But if the story of Tien Dung and the Beach Boy ends happily, the story of Truong Chi has a tragic ending.

Truong Chi was a fisherman who was also a gifted flutist. In the evening he would take out his flute and play beautiful melodies on the river, sitting in his boat. The melodies were carried away to the ear of a princess, Mi Nuong, who lived a sequestered life in a palace. Imperceptibly, she found herself falling in love with the flutist, and one day she fell seriously ill when the flutist was no longer heard.

All the doctors in the realm seemed powerless against the sickness that ate away at Mi Nuong's health and took away her color. Her father was at a loss as to what he could do when finally her nurse revealed her secret: she was in love with the man whose beautiful flute melodies used to be heard in the evening and only way to make her well would be to convince him to play for her again.

Since this was no difficult matter, it was soon arranged for the fisherman to come to the palace and play for her. At the sound of the flute Mi Nuong recovered at once, and her curiosity led her to seek the flutist who played so well. But great was her disappointment when she discovered that the man she had been in love with was no more than a poor and ragged fisherman. She laughed in his face and was cured for good, but the encounter left the man so love-stricken that he went home, became ill and died soon after.

Three years after Truong Chi's death, the time came to unearth his bones for cleaning and removal to another spot. But when his grave was opened nothing was found except a precious-looking stone, shaped like a heart, and shining like a pearl. This was such an unusual thing that it was soon brought to the attention of the father of Mi Nuong, who had the stone made into a teacup. When tea was poured into this teacup, the image of a man going in his boat around the cup would appear and his flute could be heard faintly. When she saw this, Mi Nuong regretted her cruelty in laughing at the man and shed one tear of love for him. At that the cup melted and Truong Chi's flute playing was never heard again.

No tinh chua tra cho ai
Khoi tinh mang xuong Tuyen-dai chua tan.

When a love debt has not been returned
Even in the Yellow Springs it cannot be dissolved.


The Areca Nut and Betel Leaves

Until not too long ago in the cities of Vietnam, and I am sure to this very day in the countryside, betel leaves and areca nuts have been vital props in the institution of marriage. Thousands of popular folksongs and many more folk sayings mention them a s indispensable in various stages of courtship and marriage, needed at the first visit between the two families, at betrothal time, at the actual wedding ceremony. Their use was so common that their usefulness was wrapped in a pithy saying: "Mieng trau la dau cau chuyen," "A betel cud is the very first conversation starter." The betel and areca combination -- forming the so-called "betal cud" for chewing -- long ago became a symbol of marital union. Thus a folk poem started:

Small, small the areca nut, checkered, checkered its skin.
One day you attend a nearby school, the next, another, miles away.
We married when I was thirteen ...

Another poem tells of the regrets two former lovers exchange when both have grown up and gone their different ways. To the man's expression of regret that they could not become husband and wife the woman replies:

A bunch of betel leaves costs only three coppers:
Why didn't you ask for my hand when I was still free?
Now I'm married,
Bird in a cage, fish on a hook.
How can a hooked fish escape?
How can a caged bird fly away?

Betel leaves and areca nuts, however, were not always essential to a Vietnamese union. The Vietnamese myth of origin, for instance, revealed this about wedding customs of the original Vietnamese: "[At that time] betel leaves and areca nuts being unknown, the union between men and women relied on a bag of salt as introductory offer; only afterwards did people [learn to] kill buffaloes so as to have sacrificial offerings, to prepare sticky rice so that the newly wed could eat together in their nuptial room before they came to 'know" each other."

Where, then, did the offering of betel leaves and areca nuts originate? The story is told of two brothers, the older of whom was married to a beautiful girl. They lived very happily together until one day when he had to leave and apparently did not return. Following the custom of the levirat, an ancient custom known in Biblical times and still practiced in some parts of India and Central Asia today, the younger brother became the husband of his dead brother's wife.

Tragedy, of course, struck when the older brother, after a long absence, came back. Though he did nothing wrong -- that is, by the standard of his time and the customs of his society -- the younger brother could not help seeing the awkwardness of the situation. He therefore left home to seek a new life elsewhere. He did not succeed, for he soon died on the road and was transformed into a rock by the roadway. The older brother, who loved his younger one dearly, set out to look for him when the latter d id not come home. Midway on his search, he became very tired and sat down on a rock by the roadside. There he died and became a tall areca tree whose fronds wafted in the breeze and kept the rock somewhat shaded. Upon not seeing her husband return, the woman set out to look for him. Again, the search was in vain and, exhausted, she sat down on a rock by the road-side under an areca tree. Here she too died and became a betel vine that wound around the slender trunk of the areca tree. The place became such a pleasant spot that it soon became famous.

One day, Hung Vuong IV happened to come by, and attracted by the site, he sat down on the rock to rest. Suddenly, out of curiosity he tasted a betel leaf with one of the golden areca nuts that shone in the sun. He felt a little bit dizzy -- the combinat ion is slightly narcotic -- but the feeling was gorgeous, especially when a tiny bit of lime from the rock on which he sat was added to it. Inquiring, Hung Vuong learned the beautiful if tragic history of the love triangle that gave birth to the tree and the rock and the vine. He was so inspired by the story that he decreed then and there that henceforth at all weddings in the realm gifts of areca nuts, some lime and betel leaves should be exchanged.

Traditionally, this story was given a Confucian twist making it more acceptable to a society influenced by the Chinese, which had come to reject the institution of the levirat. But this twist makes the story nearly incomprehensible. In the Confucian version, the brothers are twins, indistinguishable except when subjected to some kind of test. The young woman mistakes the twin as her husband -- a very unlikely event, but required to fit the story to the rather puritanical standards of Confucianism, which rejected the levirat practice. Even if one were to accept the Confucian version, one would be hard put to explain why the lime (i.e. the younger brother) is needed to make the union of the woman (represented by the betel leaves) and the o lder brother (the areca nuts) become a red hot, passionate union. Clearly, the Confucian version does not stand, even if one were to accept the explanation that the younger brother is needed in the story to show that conjugal love can be harmonized with brotherly love.

In recognizing the institution of the levirat as behind the story of the areca nuts and betel leaves, one sees a perfect example of cultural conflict: the imposition of the Chinese (or Confucian) way of life on the Vietnamese who persisted in thinking that their own, including the levirat system, was perfectly valid.

Furthermore, the levirat provides a rationale for other myths of Vietnam. A case in point would be the apparently contradictory acceptance in a polygamous society of the existence of the Kitchen God (Ong Tao or Tao-guan in Vietnamese) who i s in actuality a trinity of gods consisting of a Lady Tao and her two husbands. Once, a female deity married a male deity, and one of them served as the kitchen God, watching over the hearth of every Vietnamese home. But the husband was so poor that he decided to travel abroad to seek his fortune and make a living. When he did not return, the wife married another deity, and the two of them prospered. One day, the first husband came back, still as impoverished as ever. The wife took pity on him and gave him some food to eat. When the second husband suddenly came home, the wife hid the first in a stack of hay, fearing a great misunderstanding should she be discovered with him. Unaware of what had happened, the second husband set to his chores, lighting a fire by burning the stack of hay. The first husband never dared come out, and he died as a result. The levirat system provides a legitimacy to the story's events which could have prevented the tragic death of the first husband: the first hus band (an older brother?) would not have to be burned because he was afraid to be seen with the woman when the second husband (a younger brother?) came back. But in the eyes of the Confucians, the whole system of the levirat would have to be done a way with (i.e. burned) if the Vietnamese were to be "civilized," according to Chinese culture. Hence, the creation of the Kitchen God myth was merely an attempt by the Chinese to eliminate for good a Vietnamese institution, the levirat.

Yet ironically, the Vietnamese themselves perpetuated the story, making it one of the most intimate gods in the Vietnamese pantheon (for there is simply no Vietnamese home without a kitchen and no Vietnamese kitchen without a Kitchen God, who is in charge of keeping track of all that happens in the household so that at the end of every year he may go up to Heaven to report on the happenings of the household under his supervision), precisely for the purpose of never allowing a good Vietnamese way, the levirat, to pass into oblivion.

Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh

Besides such myths as we have recounted above, the Vietnamese also have ones that are similar to many Greek and western myths. The story of Da Trang, who was transformed into a sand-crab to roll sand in-perpetuity without ever achieving his goal, is evocative of the myth of Sisyphus; the many trials and tribulations of Thach Sanh are reminiscent of Hercules' labors; Cuc Hoa's descent into hell is comparable to similar experiences found in western classics (Dante, Orpheus). But Vietnamese myths do not just recount what may be called the universal condition. They also have myths to explain their own situation in a tropical and monsoon land, and the most beautiful such myth no doubt must be the story of Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh.

Son Tinh was the spirit of the Mountain and Thuy Tinh the spirit of the Waters. The king, Hung Vuong VI, had an extremely beautiful daughter, and he did not wish her to marry just any prince who came her way. He consulted with his court and hit upon the idea of sending out a proclamation far and wide to the effect that he was seeking a suitable party for his daughter. Princes came from far and wide but none was considered to be a good match for the king's beloved princess. Finally, one day there came at the same time two very handsome young noblemen asking for the princess' hand. Upon inquiry and examination, they turned out both to be equally distinguished, talented, and powerful. The king was in a quandary as to how to choose. Finally, he decided to send them both away, saying that whoever turned up the next day first with the proper wedding gifts would be given the princess in marriage.

The next day, Son Tinh, the Mountain spirit, at the break of dawn was already there with all the proper wedding gifts. He was-therefore given the hand of the princess. Barely had the proceedings been completed when Thuy Tinh, the Water spirit, turned up with his gifts. Having promised his daughter to Son Tinh, the king could not go back on his word. Being of a fiery disposition, Thuy Tinh could not accept his defeat. He sought to challenge Son Tinh to a contest to see who was the stronger and therefore more deserving of the princess. But Son Tinh simply ignored him, strong in his conviction that right was on his side. Furious, Thuy Tinh called on the waters of the rivers and brooks to overflow their banks and flood the land. In no time the whole l and became a stormy and raging sea that rose day by day and hour by hour, ruining all the crops and ravaging the land.

But Son Tinh was imperturbable in his palace in the mountains; all he needed to do was to get his mountains to rise a little bit higher when the waters threatened to flood them. After several days and weeks of trying to overcome his rival by raising the waters, Thuy Tinh finally had to concede defeat and order the waters to withdraw. This happened at the end of the monsoon but Thuy Tinh was never fully reconciled to the loss of the beautiful princess. Every year he tries to reenact the battle and that was how monsoons came to Vietnam.

Conclusion: Vietnamese Myths Through the Ages

Many traditional Vietnamese myths were originally conceived as instruments of protest, as weapons in the struggle against foreign invaders and foreign ideologies, especially the Chinese Confucian ideology. This form of protest is found again and again in later centuries in Vietnamese history: in the 13th and 14th centuries (through the reaffirmation of old Vietnamese myths); in the 18th century with the protest literature represented by Cong Quynh (or Trang Quynh) and Chang Lia; in the 19th century with the creation of new myths, in the 20th century with the creation of new religions incorporating a great deal of myths (such as Hoa Hao and Caodaism in South Vietnam); and even in the present day with the spontaneous creation of a vast folk literature of protest. The current authorities propose their myths to the population, such as the inevitable decline of capitalism and conquest of the world by communism, the necessary rise of proletarian dictatorship, the absolute necessity of a guiding light as represented by the collective wisdom of the Party and illuminated by Marx and Engels, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh. But the people do not always meekly accept such myths. They come up with their counter-myths, their protest literature which, because it is not officially condoned and has no way to get into print, necessarily has to be an oral literature for the most part. In other words, a new age of myths is right now being born in Vietnam because of the people's limited access to the truth.

It is times of ideological conflict like today that foster the birth of myths. Myth creation is a response to searing questions that obsess the mind. And when such questions are the concern of whole populations or whole nations, they lead to the creation of myths and counter-myths -- which of course are also myths.

It is clear, even from the very incomplete record of ancient Vietnamese myths, that at one time the ancestors of the present-day Vietnamese asked some very searching questions regarding the nature of the universe and the human condition, both in its universal dimensions and in the dimensions particular to Vietnam. That some of the answers, in the form of myths, were quite successful is clearly evident in some of the tales we have retold.

Since the language of myth is close to the language of poetry and does not belong to the genre of rational and reasoned-out discourse, it takes a different disposition from the common, run-of-the-mill prosaic mind of 20th century man to understand it full y. But the power of the mythopoetic mind of ancient Vietnam was such that we can still feel its reverberations. An understanding of Vietnamese poetry is very inadequate if one does not understand the body of myths that forms its very foundation. A rounded understanding of Vietnam and its culture must include its myths, as they loom very large in the Vietnamese psyche and to a certain extent predetermine their behavior and perceptions.


Further Reading
George Schultz. Vietnamese Legends. (Rutland Vermont: Tuttle, 1965).