Vietnamese Mythology

Thanh Giong or Phu Dong Thien Vuong

In the reign of Emperor Hung-Vuong the Sixth, Vietnam was a peaceful and prosperous country. The Red River was always crowded with boats. Paddy fields extended to the horizon. People were happy.

Then suddenly, from the North came the An invaders. On their war paths, they burned down cities, murdered innocent people and committed all kinds of cruel acts. They destroyed most of the country and made life miserable for the people.

The army of the emperor could not stop the enemy. Emperor Hung-Vuong sent messengers everywhere, trying to find someone who could drive the An invaders out. Young men gathered around those messengers, and listened to the appeal of the emperor. But nobody seemed to be able to save the country.

At the time, in the village of Phu-Dong, lived an old couple with their baby son. Their son was already three years old, and yet, he could neither sit up, nor could he say a word. His old parents were very unhappy.

One day, the emperor’s messenger came to the village. He started to read the appeal out loud. Giong, as the boy was named, sat up. He called out his parents and told them he wanted to talk to the messenger. Although the old father was greatly surprised at his son’s sudden ability to talk, he rushed out to ask the messenger to come inside.

Before the messenger could say any thing, Giong asked the man to return to the capital and told the emperor that he needed an iron horse, an armor and an iron rod to fight the An invaders. The words from the little boy sounded so clear and so powerful that the messenger quickly obeyed and went back to the imperial court.

At the request of the messenger, the emperor ordered that all iron from the imperial warehouse be made available He called in every blacksmith of the country to the capital. There, they worked day and night melting down the iron. Then they made a huge horse, a large armor and a long rod of iron.

During this time, at the village of Phu-Dong, Giong started to eat. He ate more and more each day and he grew up very fast. People in the village had to bring more rice to feed Giong who finished one large pot of rice after another. He finally grew up to be a giant.

Then came the day when the imperial guards brought the iron horse, the armor and the rod to Phu-Dong. Giong stood up, stretched his arms and put on the armor. He seized the rod and quickly mounted the iron horse. Soldiers and young men from the village followed him to the front.

Giong rode off on his horse. The iron horse roared like thunders and breathed fire from its nostrils Behind were soldiers carrying swords and lances vowing to fight the enemies.

When he saw the enemies, Giong sped forward, charging straight into to the An invaders. The fire from the nostrils of the iron horse burned many enemy soldiers to death, Giong struck at the enemies with his iron rod. The enemy soldiers soon broke ranks and fled, leaving behind their dead and wounded.

The enemies were reinforced with their best generals. Giong again rode into the battle and killed most of the An generals. As a result, the iron rod in his hand broke and became useless.

Giong pulled scores of bamboo trees from a nearby forest and used them to fight the enemies. Then the trees broke, he pulled up others along the way. The last enemy general was killed with those bamboo trees. The invaders were defeated.

Giong ordered his soldiers to return to the capital to bring the victorious news to the emperor. Then Giong rode his iron horse up the Soc sÖn mountain where he removed his armor and disappeared. People believed he went up to heaven.

Emperor Hung-Vuong thought it was God who had sent Giong down to save the country. He gave orders that a temple be built in memory of Giong. He also awarded Giong the title of Heavenly King of Phu-Dong. A temple can still be found not far from the place where he ascended to heaven, and every year there is a festival to honor Giong.


The Tiger

In one of the better-known folktales it is told about a fisherman who cared for his aging mother. Every evening he would cast his nets into the river, and every morning he would collect the fish that had been caught in them, and this is how they lived.One morning he discovered that one of his nets had been torn open and was empty of fish. That day he repaired the net and in the evening cast his several nets into the river as usual. The next morning he was alarmed to discover that all of his nets had been rent and twisted, and there was not a single fish in any of them!He carefully repaired all the nets, and set them out in the evening. But the next morning he came upon the same dismal scene of torn and empty nets. This same situation occurred day after day until, seeing that his dear mother was weakening from lack of food, he determined to spend an entire night hidden in the shadows beside the river and to capture whoever was responsible for this.The next morning his body was found, lacerated and lifeless, beside the flowing river.To the villagers, this was clearly the work of a tiger — the most feared of animals! They walked the forest paths in fear.The fisherman’s mother grieved profoundly for her only son, and visited his grave daily. One evening, lost in grief, as she was returning home from the graveyard she came upon a tiger. Distraught as she was, she challenged him directly: “Are you the one who killed my son? What am I to do now? I shall soon die of sadness and hunger.” The tiger just stood there, rather meekly for a tiger. “Will you provide for me? Will you do for me as my son did?” The tiger nodded slightly, but the woman simply turned her back on him and slowly proceeded home.The next day, and every few days after, she found a deer or a boar laid before the threshold of her house. She would quickly cook and eat her fill, then sell the rest of the meat at the market. For two months this went on before she decided to find out who was being so generous to her. She stayed awake the whole night until, toward dawn, she saw the same tiger she had spoken to near the graveyard come along dragging fresh game, which he laid at her door. She invited him in, and it wasn’t long before a friendship developed between them.Now they visited every time he brought game, and once he came to her when he was ill and she kept him in her home and nursed him until he was well enough to return to the forest.And so it was until the woman lay dying. “Please promise me you will no longer kill people,” she said. The tiger hung his head low and nodded. He remained by her side all through the night.Soon afterwards the villagers found enough wild game piled before her front door to pay for a big funeral. And during the funeral the forest was filled with the roaring of a tiger.It was a tradition in all of the villages thereabouts for people to gather on the thirtieth day of the last month of the year, bearing offerings for the spirits of their ancestors so that they might spend time together again. And ever after it was always noticed and admired that on that very day, the loyal tiger returned with an offering of wild game.

The Worm and the Snail

In the mountains overlooking the Red River Valley it is told of a good family with two fine daughters who seemed always to be doing their duties; yet one day, by and by, while returning home, they stopped to eat some figs and that evening felt very strange.In time, both sisters gave birth, one to a worm and one to a snail. The midwives fled the house, screaming, “Demons! Demons!” Everybody in the village, including the sisters themselves, shared the same fear and believed the worm and the snail to be actual demons! So they all ran away, leaving the worm and the snail to wander about the abandoned village on their own, and this they did for many lonely years.Eventually, after crossing paths a number of times, the two creatures decide to live together to ease their loneliness, and they become husband and wife. And it is soon after this that one night an incredible rainstorm flies over the village, with howling winds and raindrops that seemed to circle round their house.The next day, the snail sees a handsome man in the house. She asks him who he is, and his reply surprises her: “I am your husband.” And he drops his shriveled worm skin on the floor.Later that same day the man sees a beautiful woman enter the courtyard. “My wife is not at home,” he calls to her. The woman holds out a snail shell and replies, “Yes she is, for I am she.”They stare at each other, bemused and pleased, and figure that there was something about the eerie storm of the previous night that has transformed them into people.And life goes on and they do their chores and farm the land. The fields are fertile and the crops grow strong and plentifully. While working together at the harvest one morning they hear two crows gabbing about local conditions, decrying the dry fields and failed crops of the next village over. The husband and wife decide to help these people out, to share their abundance with them. So they journey forth, and when they arrive they are discovered to be the very snail and the very worm whom the people of this village fled from some years ago — now transformed into ordinary people like themselves!The end result is that the villagers-in-exile, as it were, move back home and share in the abundance, and all is peachy from there on out.


Story of Banh Chung and Banh Day (Traditional Viet rice ‘cakes’ wrapped in leaves)

There was a time when an emperor named Hung ruled the land. This king had come to old age and had been on the throne for many years. The king noticed that his health was weakening as each day went by and he wanted to pass on the throne. All of his wives had given birth to a total of twenty two sons.

Each child has already grown up to full adulthood and the king thought, “If you talk about talent there are numerous among them that surface. For this reason I have to be very careful about who is chosen. I need to especially find a way to prevent the kids from fighting for the throne.” Those are the thoughts that occupied the emperor.

In the end, the king remembered what he had learned during his long life and decided that he would start a competition. He decided that the winner of a contest would get the throne. Emperor Hung immediately gathered all the princes together. When the princes finally came together, the king proclaimed,

“Father knows that he is getting nearer the dirt and farther from the sky (he is getting near his death). I want to give my throne to one of my children. Now each of you has to find or make a unique food dish as a tribute to the ancestors. Whoever has the best food with a meaningful description, I will choose that person.”

After hearing their king father say this, all the princes that were competing with one another sent their people everywhere to find the most prized dishes. They searched from the highest mountains to the depth of the oceans, not leaving any place untouched. Any dishes that were well known and strange, the princes would go out of their way to find them.

Within the twenty two princes there was a prince named Lieu, the eighteenth son. Because he lost his mother at a young age, Lieu spent most of his time alone. During the whole time when all of the other princes were running around rampantly trying to find a delicacy Lieu was lying around his house since there was no one to help him with this case.

There were only three more days until the deadline and yet Lieu still did not have anything. That night, Lieu lay back with his arm across his forehead trying to remember each meal he had ever come across in the past. Lieu kept concentrating on the matter until he fell asleep without even realizing it.

Lieu drifted off into sleep and noticed that he and his twenty one other brothers were each making his own cake in a contest. Each person has his own individual small house that the king had built by the pond. Lieu found himself not knowing where to start when suddenly a goddess descended from the sky, flying down just to help him make his cake.

“Big or small on this earth cannot even be compared to the heaven above; the most treasured jewel in this world is not as valuable as rice. You do not have to do much; only two meaningful cakes will be enough. Take all the rocks and anything that are with the rice out so that I can start preparing the rice and then go and find me beans.”

Then Lieu watched the goddess slowly keep pulling out some boat-like green leaves. The goddess began to explain as she instructed him:

“This cake is from the earth. There is dirt and there is green; from the color of the farm to the forest there should be a rich green color; and its shape should be a perfect square. Within the cake there should be meat; along with it are beans so it would have the meaning of the earth and its creatures, and also the tree (Banh Chung).”

“Then take the rice and place it over so it will have a light chewy texture. Roll the cake out so that it represents the heavens: the color has to be white, the shape has to be round and long like the sky (Banh Day)”

When he woke up, Lieu began to bake with the idea of the cake from his dream.

The day when all the princes came and brought their food home for the contest was a day that was most festive in Phong Chau. There were crowds of people packed in one place. People from across the land used this opportunity to come and attend a very festive Tet (Lunar New Year) that had rarely taken place. To set things off there would be a contest of the dishes, and in the end there would be a celebration and the inaugural ceremony of the new king.

Exactly at the time of sunrise is when the emperor Hung got in his carriage to go and begin the ceremony to the ancestors. The waving flags and sounding of drums echoed everywhere, causing the people’s ears to tremble and their eyes to ache. Everyone was waiting with anticipation as the judges evaluated each of the royals’ dishes.

The time of waiting had arrived. All the dishes that the princes brought with them, such as nem cong (peafowl meat), cha phuong (pork paste in shape of phoenix), bear claw, and gan te, were nothing compared to the two old fashioned cakes of Lieu. Each person who looked at his dishes would shake his head in disapproval and mock the prince in his face.

However, after everyone tasted Lieu’s dishes, each person completely changed his opinion and would than praised the food. Old Lac praised:

“This is a delicacy that is unique and simple, made from everyday ingredients.”

King Hung himself was taken by surprise at the meaning of the cakes that he had just eaten. The emperor paced back and forth examining each of the cakes that had not been touch. He then summoned Lieu up to the throne to question him on how the cakes came to be.

The prince truthfully told the king about every detail of his dream. A little past noon, King Hung announced the contest results to his sons, “The eighteenth prince won first place and will have the throne.” Then the king held the two cakes up for everyone to see and proudly told everyone what made him choose these above everything else.

“This isn’t just delicious and precious but it brings a lot of special meaning. The dish expresses the fidelity of a child, honoring his parents like the heaven and earth; it holds the sincerity of the nation’s land. It is very easy to make and comes from single precious jewel in this whole heaven and earth, and each of these jewels everyone can make and obtain. Only a gifted person can think of cakes like these…”

After that, each year the city would have a custom on Tet that each person would make two different kinds of cakes called banh chung and banh day to pay tribute to the ancestors. Prince Lieu was known as Tiet Lieu Vuong after he became king, which means Hung Vuong the Seventh.

Soon after that there were many princes who became jealous and began to become hostile with Lang Lieu. For that reason, when the old king passed away, each of them began to claim part of the land as his own. Each prince would build a fence around their area and guard themselves with the intention of being again Tiet Lieu Vuong.


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