land of fantasy and imagination
Vietnam has an enormous treasury of myths and legends, both
ancient and recent. As the language developed, it often
used poetic imagery to describe and narrate through metaphor
and allegory. The country’s strong animist tradition produced
a wealth of anthropomorphic symbols.
legends don’t exist, the Vietnamese feel an urge to invent
them. In the caves of Ha Long Bay, for example, local guides
narrate many ‘legends’ related to stalagmites and stalactites
that vaguely resemble animals or people. Charming and imaginative
they may be, but nearly all have been composed in the last
legend of the Lake
Other legends have a more respectable record. The name of
Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake means ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’,
a reference to a local legend. It is said that Le Loi, who
became the great Emperor Le Thai To, was awarded a magical
sword by the spirit of the Lake to help him drive invaders
from the land.
later, after victory, he sailed out on the Lake to express
his gratitude by making a sacrifice to the spirit. Suddenly,
a giant turtle appeared and the sword flew from the Emperor’s
scabbard. The turtle seized the sword in its mouth and plunged
to the depths to return the sword to its rightful owner. Even
today, people believe that the lake is inhabited by large
turtles, and periodic sightings are claimed as omens of good
Vietnamese creation myth
An ancient Vietnamese creation myth abounds with animist symbolism.
Lac Long Quan, the son of a mountain god and a water dragon,
was given the land of Lac Viet by his parents. He built two
palaces, one in the mountains and one in the ocean. Later
he fell in love with a beautiful fairy, Au Co, and transformed
himself into a handsome young man to win her over. They married,
and a year later, she laid a hundred eggs that hatched into
human babies that quickly matured into adults.
Lac Long Quan remained in his water palace while Au Co lived
on land. She became lonely and pined for her homeland, so
much so that she took her hundred children to visit it. It
became obvious that the couple should separate. They agreed
that half the children would go with their father to the land
next to the ocean, and the others would follow their mother
to the mountains, thus creating the Vietnamese race – the
dragon and the fairy’s grandchildren.
Mythology is also prevalent in European countries. There,
however, myths tend to be built on specific events, and often
have a Judeo-Christian moralistic element – pride coming before
a fall, the weak overcoming the strong through virtue and
purity, and goodness appearing in disguise to test the virtue
of humans, being common themes. Similar themes appear in Vietnamese
myths, but a far greater emphasis is placed upon sentiment.
Star-crossed lovers are very popular myths, often ending in
unrequited love and tragic death, in a context of arranged
to the spirit world
In European mythology, the ‘Gods’ are usually powerful figures
who sit in judgement or intervene in human affairs from a
distance, and evil often comes in distorted human form (ogres,
trolls, goblins, and so on). In Vietnamese mythology, spirits
and ‘fairies’ are everywhere and are much closer, often living
among human beings. The concept of ‘evil’ is unclear – the
human characters are usually the authors of their own misfortunes.
Domestic issues are quite common in folk stories: hardworking
husbands and lazy wives, false friendship and virtue rewarded,
myths and cautionary tales
There is also a strong tradition of folk fables where the
protagonists are the common people and authority represented
by the local mandarin – the theme is often a variation of
the native wit of the peasant overcoming the erudition and
pomposity of the mandarin.
old anonymous collection of cautionary tales akin to Aesop’s
fables may have originally been moral lessons for young children
to teach them the principles of correct Confucian behaviour.