Marco Polo, Vietnam in the thirteen-century

and the art of tattoo.


Marco Polo (1254-1334), the famous Venetian adventurer, started to travel to the East in1271, went through Asia via Mongolia and came back to Europe via Sumatra after spending thirteen years in the service of Kublai Khan  (1216-1294). In Vietnamese Kubai Khan is known as Hot Tat Liet. He was the founder of the Mongol dynasty in China (Dai Nguyen). His grandfather Genghis Khan is known in Vietnamese as Thanh Cat Tu Han.

Marco Polo’s book Description of the World (Il Milione in Italian or also translated as The Travels of Marco Polo) told of his adventures to the East.  At the time of Marco Polo’s departure from Europe in 1271, Vietnam was under the reign of King Tran Thanh Tong  (1256-1278). Most of what constitutes modern central Vietnam belonged then to the Kingdom of Champa under King Indravarman. Champa’s capital Indrapura would be ransacked by the Vietnamese in the 15th century and Champa annexed to Vietnam.

That same year of 1271, Kublai Khan conquered China from the Sung dynasty, and sent emissaries to request the Vietnamese King to go to China to attend the Chinese imperial court as a sign of submission. Tran Thanh Tong declined the invitation under the pretext of poor health.

War erupted between the two countries in 1284 under King Tran Nhan Ton; Vietnamese forces were under the command of the famous general Hung Dao Vuong Tran Quoc Tuan. The Chinese offensive was under the command of General Thoat Hoan; another front against Champa was under General  Sogatu (Toa Do) who was later killed in battle.

Marco was a member of a Chinese delegation that went to Champa and possibly Vietnam after the unsuccessful war campaign of 1287-1288. Alain Cheneviere referred to Marco Polo’s  Kaucigu as the Kingdom of Tonking and Amu as Anam in the following excerpt but according to the Encyclopedia Britannica Kaucigu corresponds to  an area situated in the southern part of modern China. So it is clear that Marco Polo went to Champa (which now is a part of Vietnam) but it is debatable whether his travel involved Tonkin or thirteenth century Vietnamese territory.

Regarding the art of tattooing that Marco Polo described in his book, it is known as a Vietnamese custom dating back to prehistoric times. The dragon is a totem in Vietnamese mythology and the Vietnamese think of themselves as descendants of the dragon (Con Rong Chau Tien, children of the Dragon and grand children of the Fairy). The religious and spiritual meaning of tattooing is probably related to the wish to assume its form and therefore the strength and power of the totem animal. Another goal, more practical, was to scare away the underwater predators (thuong luong in Vietnamese, and possibly alligators (ca sau)) by tattooing oneself into a monster look-alike. It is interesting to note that tattoos were made on every part of the body in Kaugigu (Giao Chi?). In contrast, in Amu (Annam?), Marco Polo did not see the tattoos on the natives. We can assume that either they did not practice at all that custom or the practice was restricted to certain hidden parts of the body and was not seen in public. It may also be conjectured that people in Amu were more Sinicized and as tattoos were not a tradition among the Chinese; their practice had been more or less abandoned among this population.

         As a tradition, all the Vietnamese princes and kings had to be tattooed on their thighs (dui), but not all over the body. According to Tran Trong Kim in Vietnam Su Luoc, it was abolished since the reign of another King from the Tran dynasty, Tran Anh Tong (1298-1314). As an adolescent prince, he eluded that practice that had been obligatory among the royal family. He grew up to be one of the most enlightened rulers in Vietnamese history and his reign was a period of economic prosperity and cultural achievement.

        The following excerpt is from Travels in The Orient In Marco Polo’Footsteps by Alain Cheneviere, pp 208-209.

        “When Marco entered the kingdom of Tonking and Anam he was struck by the rugged mountain of northern Vietnam, as well by the dense forests that cover them even today. Over the course of history this inhospitable region has often served as a refuge for Indochinese guerillas…Marco was less impressed by the political power of the King than the appearance of the many ethnic groups which composed his kingdom. (King Indravarman of Champa). The inhabitants of the two provinces he visited, Kaugigu and Amu, surprised him by their appearance; the bodies of both the men and women of the Kingdom of Tonking were decorated with tattoos. Marco Polo marveled at the art of the master tattooers who’’using a needle, covered all the flesh with pictures of lions and dragons and eagles and cranes (…) they are made so skillfully with needles that they are indelible, whether in water or otherwise. They make these on their face, their necks, their bellies, their hands, their legs and every part of their bodies.’ This practice was first forbidden by the French colonial administration, then by the Communists, but reappeared in the 1960’s. Today the ethnic groups of the high plateaus such as the Bana, the Jarai and the M’nongs proudly display their traditional tattoo. In the province of Amu, the people Marco met were not tattooed, instead they wore heavy gold and silver bracelets enhanced with precious stones and pearl on their arms and legs.’’

Hien V. Ho, MD