The dragons of Vietnam.
Growing each year from the past of war, colonization and rebellion, Vietnam has not only shared and lost its people in the brutal war, but also stories; stories from the hidden Himalayas, the sacred and equally secretive temples, labyrinths and the muddy roads to town. The town which has been connected to the village, along the river, recently with a road built through the curvy mountain passageways.
This beautiful country is Vietnam, the thin and long country in the Southeast Asia, along the pacific border. Like a farmer grows old with the field he sows in; growing wrinkles on his face like the soil losing nutrients with every harvest, the same way Vietnam has grown trying to cope up with the world. Its process of growing up, though, has been ungraceful, but it is this process that has incorporated so much that now it is the pillar it rests on. Vietnam was known as ‘Nam viet’ back in the 2nd Century B.C. and the little variation in the name is not the only variation it has gone through over the years. The city is busy and filled with bustle, dealing with the world but the country hidden between the mountains, its own Himalayas, is the place that still recites the tale of the dragon and the princess; whose descendants the Vietnamese believe they are; the seeds of the dragon and the descendants of the fairies.
The story starts with the two clans of dragon. The mythical character Kinh Duong Vuong (King Duong) married the descendant of another dragon clan, Long Nu. They had a son, the dragon prince as told in the stories, Lac Long Quan. The immortal dragon from the Eastern Sea falls in love with a fairy of the mountain. When they first met, the fairy, in form of a crane, was escaping from the chase of a demonic bird. The dragon watching attentively decided to rescue of the innocent crane and hits the head of the demonic bird with a stone. The fuming bird, now in anguish, morphs into a tiger and there begins a struggling battle between the two. After the demonic bird is prevailed and the white crane is safe, the dragon is taken by surprise when he realizes that the white crane is a beautiful fairy, the immortal fairy of the mountains. Love presides over them and they marry each other. They gave birth to hundred sons, starting a new clan born with the blood of the dragon and the charm of the fairies; the new clan whose first heir becomes the King Hung. 18 King Hungs took their time to make the first state and civilization of Vietnam that we know today. This place is nearly 90 kilometers to the northwest of Hanoi, around Nghia Linh Mountain where the two genies, worshipped as the mother and father of Vietnam, marked their existence which can still be found around the mountain.
No structure from the Hung era has survived, but the temple stands there. A pilgrimage for any Vietnamese person, this is the holiest place of the country. The temple was home to the 18 kings that lived and died there. The temple was buried in the wilderness but now a road takes you there. The mountain and the forest are still untouched, unexplored by the world as being protected by two genies at the entrance marked by the red gates of the temple.
The low roofed temple standing in harmony with the temple is divided into three temples- lower, middle and upper, with the shrine of Buddha and tomb at the top. The lower holds the small temples representing the rich architecture made by wooden poles and beams and the history it holds. It is the place where Mother Au Co laid her sack of eggs that bore the hundred sons. Trekking through the forest, like the Kings used to, we reach the middle area where the ministers discussed the affairs and made the decision that shaped the Vietnam we see today. The mountains form a scenery that one could get only when he is there being surrounded by the topography. As the locals say, the shape of the mountains resembles the kowtowing elephants and the crouching tigers. On the upper part of the mountain is the main shrine where the King made temples to worship the heaven and the good crops. The main temple is a testament to Au Duong Vuong’s pledge to build and defend the country after the last Hung King handed over the power to him. The tablet is placed on the glided throne covered by the strips of red cloth. Visitors are not allowed to read the tablets as it would disrespect the king.
The stone tomb next to the Upper Temple is the resting place of the sixth Hung King, where he wanted to be buried so that even after death he could “overlook and take care of the territory for prosperity.” Beside the Lower Temple is the Thien Quang Buddhist Temple. Built with exquisite accuracy are the nine intertwined dragon carved beautifully on wood, supporting the small statues, lanterns and the cycad still standing gloriously for more than 800 years now.
Adjacent to the mountain is another hill with Gieng Temple on its peak. This temple was said to be dedicated to Princess Tien Dung and Ngoc Hoa, who taught the people around how to transplant rice and deal with floods. The legend has it that they usually look at themselves in the well in the front of the temple.
The most sacred part of the temple is the chamber at the back which is opened only on the (common) death anniversary of the 18 Hung Kings that falls on the tenth of the third lunar month. This is the national anniversary of the people of Vietnamese. The day celebrates their unique ethnicity of being united by blood and the land inherited to them. ‘Dong bao’ as people address each other, derives its meaning from the story which means that ‘from the same sack of eggs’. The quiet mountains are crowded by people from all over Vietnam demanding their share of blessings from the ancestors and thanking for the previous. The glowing town remembers the old secrets and re-tells them, but silently crawls back to the quiet ambiance again with the people returning, slowly, taking with them the stories to tell their grand-children.
The origin of the country lies here and one can easily visualize the 4,000 years old view. Amidst the mountains, genies fly and the Kings trek in the deepest forest. The place has strongest connection with the past which is secured by the dragon on the Ha Long Bay, literally meaning ‘bay of the descending dragon”. The dragons were sent by the gods to save the place from invaders who began spitting jewels on the sea. The jewels turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay, connecting together to form a large wall against the invaders. The shape of the bay from above is said to be that of the shape of a dragon. Being lured by its beauty, the dragon planned to stay on the bay and the place where the mother dragon first descended was Ha Long.
The place where the dragon’s children attended upon their mother was called ‘Bai Tu Long Island’; the place where the dragon kids wriggled their tail way too violently was ‘Bach Long Vy Island’, present day Tra Co peninsula, Mong Cai. This city in the northern Vietnam, sharing the border with China, is one of the wealthiest cities of Vietnam. Other places include Cuu Long along the Mekong River meaning nine dragons; Ham Long Bridge, Long Bien Bridge. The city of Da Nang has a bridge shaped like dragon facing the sea.
Ha Noi, with the original name ‘Thang Long’ also tells us of a dragon. This dragon was spotted by King Ly Thai To in 1010 when he moved the capital from Hoa Lu to Dai La. He then saw a yellow dragon flying gloriously in the blue sky and then changed the name from Dai La to Thang Long, meaning “Vietnam’s bright and developed future.”
The future that he saw, today’s present has now learned to grow from the wars it has faced, winning each one; from the French to the Chinese and then the United States. The blood of dragon still flows in the people of Vietnam, saving them from the invaders. The power of fairies bind them, and together they make this beautiful country.