Hà Nội will celebrate its 1,000th anniversary in the 10th year of the 21st century. In the year 1010, the founder of the Lý moved the capital from the mountain region of Hoa Lư to Thăng Long (now Hà Nội) in the heartland of the Sông Hồng (Red River) Delta.
The king named the new capital Thăng Long (Rising Dragon) because, it was said, he saw a dragon rising into the air above his royal boat while he approached the site.
The name of Hà Nội was bestowed in 1831 by the Nguyễn Dynasty which had made Huế its capital.
Hà Nội (Hà : river + Nội : beyond, bend or between) means: province (originally it was a province before becoming a city) inside a bend of the Red River, or between the Red River and one of its tributaries.
Such are the facts.
At the end of 1977, the review Người Cao tuổi (The Elderly) rekindled a discussion, which had caused some noise, following national reunification in 1975.
Then, some historians including Văn Tạo, held that the name Hà Nội should be dropped in favour of the ancient name of Thăng Long. A request for this to happen was even submitted to the National Assembly which responded that it was not the moment to raise such an issue.
In reality, Hà Nội has many names:
Tống Bình: under the Chinese administration of the Sui.
La Thành: under Chinese administration.
Đại La: under Chinese administration (the citadel was erected in 863-866)
Thăng Long: 1010
Đông Đô: (Eastern Capital, 15th century, given by Hồ Quý Ly, opposed to Tây Đô, Western Capital, in Thanh Hoá)
Đông Quan: (1407-1427): under Chinese occupation.
Đông Kinh: (Eastern Capital, 15th century, opposed to Lam Kinh (Indigo Capital), Tây Kinh (Western Capital) in Thanh Hoá under Lê Thái Tổ)
Hà Nội (1831)
Among these names, the favourites remain Thăng Long, Đông Đô and Hà Nội. But it is Hà Nội and Thăng Long that are most frequently mentioned in poetry and music.
The advocates of the return to the name of Thăng Long for the capital’s 1,000th anniversary cite its antiquity and its glory.
Professor Trần Văn Giàu, who is 87 at that moment, a historian and veteran revolutionary says: “The word Hà Nội says nothing. It appeared only at the beginning of the Nguyễn Dynasty while Thăng Long, which was born 800 years before Hà Nội, witnessed historic national exploits.”
“It broke the invading armies of the Chinese feudalists, Tống, Nguyên, Minh and Thanh. The Lê kings named it Đông Kinh but for the people, it was always Thăng Long.” – (Người cao tuổi, Tết issue 1998).
“Thăng Long, City of the Dragon, fits it perfectly with the capital of a people issued from the Dragon and the Fairy. It conforms with history and our sentiments.” – (Đan Tâm - Người Cao Tuổi, December 1997).
“Moreover, the word Hà Nội evokes the loss of our country.” – (Hoàng Tiến – id – December 15, 1996).
The arguments put by the defenders of the name Hà Nội are not glib either.
Hà Nội was the head and the heart of the liberation revolution in 1945, of the two victorious wars of resistance.
“Hà Nội bears in it all the glorious past of Thăng Long, but Thăng Long does not tell anything of Hà Nội.” – (Nguyễn Dũng Viện - Người Cao Tuổi – December 1997)”
“In my view, at the end of this century, Hà Nội is an impressive capital, a symbol for quite a number of nations and states (id).” “The word Hà Nội has been imprinted in the mind and heart of millions of people in the country and abroad. We cannot erase it in the name of some sentimental retrocentrism.”
To celebrate the millennium of the capital city, the President of the Việt Nam Association of Historians, Phan Huy Lê, says: the word Hà Nội should be kept together with the word Thăng Long in brackets.
The debate continues.
Hữu Ngọc, 15 March 1998
2. Between myths and history As early as the first millennium before Christ, during the Bronze Age, the Vietnamese people settled themselves and affirmed their identity in the valley of the Hồng (Red) River. More than one myth deals with the existence of a long line of sovereigns, all named Hùng, descendants of the Sea Dragon and the Mountain Fairy, whose one hundred sons divided themselves into two equal groups, the one following their mother back to the mountains, and the other joining their father in opening up the plains.
The French geographer Yves Lacoste sees in this story the formation of the Vietnamese people. A people who began conquering the marshy delta of the Hồng River at a relatively late date – only after the population of the foothills became big enough for the daunting task of dyking the river.
The myth of the dragon ancestor is now lost, but the cult of his offspring continues. Every year, pilgrims from all parts of the country and abroad flock to Phú Thọ Province North of Hà Nội to pay homage to the Hùng kings at the province’s sprawling temple complex.
Another myth reflects the unending struggle against seasonal floods in areas along the Hồng River. It tells of the eternal conflict between Sơn Tinh, the mountain genius and Thuỷ Tinh, the water genius. In competing for the hand of Princess Mỵ Nương, the favourite daughter of one of the kings of the Hùng lineage, Sơn Tinh was the winner. The wrathful Thuỷ Tinh retaliated by unleashing a deluge and his legion of water-dwelling monsters against his rival. But Sơn Tinh proved his superiority by causing his mountain to rise and rise, always above the raging flood. Thuỷ Tinh was forced to retreat, but kept returning year after year. Sơn Tinh lives on in poplular memory as one of the Four Immortals, Tứ Bất Tử, worshipped at a temple perched on Ba Vì Mountain, sixty kilometres northwest of Hà Nội.
The strong independent spirit of the nation is a historical constant perpetuated in these myths.
One tells of a wonder child who was conceived after his mother accidentally stepped on a set of giant footprints. For three years, the infant just lay on his cot without uttering a single word. One day, a court herald arrived with royal orders to mobilise the population against an invasion from across the northern border. As the king’s edict was being read aloud, the recumbent child got up, stretched himself, and instantly grew into an enormous size. He called for food, in amounts sufficient for four men, which he devoured. Then he ordered a suit of armour and an iron horse. Thus equipped, he bore down upon the invading army and exterminated it.
This story is set against the backdrop of the semi-legendary dynasty of the Hùng, and the memory of the mythical toddler-giant is preserved at a temple in Gióng, his native village, north of Hà Nội. VNS
3. A panoramic view of Hanoi Emerging from a subway in Times Square, Joseph Campbell was caught up in the crowd waiting at a stoplight and believed to see more than one ancient myth coming to life right before his eyes. According to this eminent mythologist, in our presumably “demythified” world, myths are essential to understanding the history, as well as modern aspirations of a society.
It is where all the inventions of the common people’s
imagination meet up with archaeology and history.
Hanoi, whose history is intertwined with that of Vietnam, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The Dragon King, forefather of the Việt people, the Mountain Genie conqueror of annual Red River floods, the child with herculean strength beating back the hordes of the North, the Soaring Dragon in all his glory presiding over the birth of the capital, the Dark Guardian of the North... all such myths of great national significance continue to live on in our city and village streets and to resurface in our country’s landscapes, beings and things, as well as in the everyday activities of Hanoi.
Tens of millions of years ago, the Red River Delta, origin of the Việt country dating from the Bronze Age, was nothing more than a deep gulf gradually being filled up by the river deposits coming from the neighbouring hills and mountains. This immense lagoon turned into a marshland covered with many streams, lakes and ponds, and with vast forests inhabited by wild animals, elephants, crocodiles and turtles. Man, through much patience and toil, cultivated the land converting into the Red River Delta, a major component of the Delta of the North.
In what is now Hanoi, man’s presence has left visible vestiges dating from the Neolithic period the Bronze Age, during which the first two Việt States, together with the Việt cultural identity were born (1,000 B.C.). Following the more than one thousand –year-old Chinese domination (from 179 B.C. to 938 A.D.), the Việts defeated their enemy to regain their independence. At the beginning of the 11th century, they set up their capital at Thăng Long (City of the Rising Dragon) which has since become Hanoi.
The city of Hanoi itself is composed of three parts: the Old Citadel to the west, the Old Quarter to the north of the Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoàn Kiếm) and the former French Quarter (known to the French as the ville française) south of this same lake, beyond the old citadel towards the west.
The Old Quarter Although today the last two areas mentioned have completely merged together, it is easy to recognize the Old Quarter, baptized “Hanoi with thirty six streets and guilds” whose actual layout took shape in the 15th century. In reality, “guild” is a misleading translation since the term “phường” designated, rather, the smallest administrative unit which is inhabited by people practising the same profession, dealing in the same trade or coming from the same village. Throughout the ups and downs of history, the heart of the city of the Soaring Dragon has remained like a mulberry leaf, whose main vein would be the artery Silk Street leading the Đồng Xuân Market. And from this artery radiate a multitude of streets and alleys extending as far right as the Red River dyke and as far left as the Old Citadel. The tourist should dedicate several days to become acquainted with this charming labyrinth. I sometimes jokingly tell my foreign friends: “That is the time it will take you, the silkworm hungry for the exotic, to nibble at the Hanoian mulberry leaf”.
The streets have evocative names: Silk Street, Hemp Street, Cotton Street, Veil Street, Coffin Street, Paper Street, Bowl Street, Votive Object Street, Grilled Fish Street...
Rarely do streets still conserve remnants of their activities of yesterday. However, due to the transition to a market economy, these thirty six streets and guilds have become the streets dedicated to developing the latest business activities and all different style houses, unfortunately risking to ruin the old-fashioned charm of the City of the Rising Dragon.
The rural belt A thousand years ago, the embryo of Hanoi was nothing more than a mass of villages. Some twenty years ago, in spite of urbanization endeavours first brought about by the colonial regime at the beginning of the century and later by the national government following the First Indochina War, the city managed to keep its rural feel. Many tourists would say it was like a “big village”.
There is nothing surprising about that. The streets of the Old Quarter with its thirty-six streets and guilds whose lay-out took shape in the 15th century still bear evocative names brought from the inhabitants villages of origin: Phất Lộc, Tô Lịch, Chân Cầm..., or from the villages founded by people practising the same profession, the same trade: Silk Street, Leather Street, Dyers’ Street, Vermicelli Street... Today traces of that village mentality are apparent in the more or less anarchistic character of its inhabitants and in their behaviour in the street, in particular. This character has become more pronounced with the social and economic upheaval over the past ten years of the economic renovation (adopting a market economy, opening the door to foreign investment) that gave rise to an astonishing economic effervescence and a veritable construction boom (of buildings, hotels, restaurants, factories). At intersections people in a hurry run red lights. At rush hour there is a mad siege of bicycles, Honda motorbikes, cars. In soldering times, peasants living in the suburbs look for provisional work in the city. The sidewalks are overrun with pedlars, especially women from lower working-class villages. Traffic guards go hoarse reminding people not to throw their trash away on the sidewalks as one does in village streets.
According to the latest administrative modifications, the city proper is made up of nine urban districts and the rural suburbs of five suburban districts.
This structural overlapping of this city-village explains the complexity of the economic as well as human acculturation. There was a time during an extreme point of agricultural collectivization and during the war against the Americans that forced citizens to live in the country, when one would speak of “ruralizing” Hanoi: the country person’s lifestyle was infiltrated into the city. For the past thirty years, an inverse process has been taking place with the development of reurbanization. The face of the traditional suburban village has completely changed. The classic thatch-roofted huts have almost disappeared in favour of houses built in a sturdy hybrid style. The race for money is raging while it digs the trenches between the rich and the poor. The process of urbanization has reduced agricultural surfaces, the land being used for the construction of factories, State facilities and residential housing. Flooded surfaces have increased (due to the flooding of lakes and seas), as well as pollution of the environment. But there is a positive side to urbanization: it creates a market for agricultural products, more especially as suburban agriculture reported encouraging results at the end of the 1980s (an increase of the coefficient of the use of land, of yields of rice and other crops, of revenues per hectare in addition to the improvement of the peasant’s standard of living). Urbanization creates a demand for manual labour (with the appearance of the farming merchant, an impulse for animal rearing, especially fish farming, and the development of provisional jobs).
The reurbanization of Hanoi should seek harmony with agricultural development and should also take into account the cultural and ecological heritage of villages.
The Citadel The Old Quarter, located north of the Lake of the Restored Sword, stretches east to the Red River dyke and west to the citadel. Quadrilateral, with each side being one-kilometre long, the last citadel was built in Vauban style in 1803 by King Gia Long, the founder of the Nguyễn Dynasty, according to maps made by French officers at his service. Today, the four walls correspond to streets Phan Đình Phùng (north), Hùng Vương (west), Trần Phú (south) and Phùng Hưng (east). The citadel replaced the Lý Trần Royal citadels that it was only able to partially roof.
The citadel of 1803 no longer ruled the court as Gia Long had transferred the capital to Huế in order to flee from hostility of the literati and of the population of the North still loyal to the legitimate Lê Dynasty. It should have become the most important place in Hanoi province created in 1831, which comprised the ex-Thăng Long and other neighbouring districts. It was reserved for the provincial mandarins, their attendants and the garrison. All of the ancient palaces and other monuments were demolished except for the Kính Thiên Temple. The Flag Tower, still in existence today, was built in 1812.
During the time when Thăng Long was the country’s capital (11th – 18th centuries), it was composed of three divisions encompassed within the same walls, yet each with separate enclosures. The vastest division was called the Capital City (Kinh Thành) or civil city which contained the next division, called the Royal City, (Hoàng Thành) within. The Royal City in turn embodied in its interior the smallest division, the Forbidden City (Tử Cấm Thành), which was the official residence of the King and his family. The area, located between the remains of the Nguyễn Citadel, that we can still see today, and the Tô Lịch River, the western boundary of Hanoi, was occupied by the citadels as well as the Royal Cities and Forbidden Cities of the successive dynasties. The first citadels date back to the period of Chinese domination, the La Thành (8th century) and the Đại La (9th century), in particular. The following testimony of Samuel Baron, British businessman, gives us an idea of how beautiful the ancient Thăng Long must have been: “Ruins of the triple walls of the ancient city and the ancient palace gives us an excellent idea of what they must have concealed in the time of their splendour. The Palace alone encompassed in its circumference a surface of six or seven square miles. Its courts paved in marble, its doors and ruins of its apartments bear witness to its magnificence and make one lament the destruction of one of Asia’s most beautiful architectural structures”.
Throughout the ups and downs of time, foreign invasions, civil wars, fires... nearly all the palaces and other monuments within the royal walls have been destroyed.
The Westerner’s quarter At the time of colonization, any Vietnamese person, who stepped foot in Khu phố Tây (the Westerners’ Quarter) popular expression designating the French Quarter (ville française), felt not without bitterness as if he were a foreigner in the capital of his own country. The central artery Paul Bert with its large Grands Magasins Réunis, its cafes and live music, its luxurious hotels and restaurants, its chic cinema, its majestic theatre, its spacious avenues bearing French names (Gambetta, Félix Faure, Carreau...) and adorned with magnificent trees and lavish villas, neoclassical palaces and monuments completely contrasted with the indigenous city absent of greenery with its narrow and compacted streets teeming with people and a dubious cleanliness.
At the end of the First Indochina War in 1954, Hanoi reclaimed the Westerners’ Quarter. But the country soon had to face the war against the Americans. It was not until after this war in 1975 that the collective conscience could really develop – in Vietnam and in the world – the collective conscience conveying the urgent necessity to preserve the global architectural heritage of Hanoi, which comprises not only the citadel and the Old Quarter, but also, the modern quarter built during the colonial period as well. Many governments, organizations and foreign friends, French and American included are participating in this effort.
The military concession obtained by the French in 1875 on the Red River banks after their first occupation of Hanoi, makes up the east of the Westerners’ Quarter. This modern quarter gradually extends to the south of the Old Quarter, spreading in a check pattern to the west and to the east of Hoàn Kiếm lake until it reaches the Red River dyke: thus today’s Hoàn Kiếm district’s southern section takes form. The western section is going to cover a vast territory beyond the citadel (which was nearly dismantled between 1894 and 1897) limited to the North by West Lake and to the west by the Tô Lịch River: this extension is today’s Ba Đình district.
The Ba Đình district is the political, diplomatic and cultural centre of the country (Hồ Chí Minh’s Mausoleum, the President Palace, Office of the Prime Minister, Embassies, Botanical Garden, One Pillar Pagoda). Hoàn Kiếm district’s modern quarter brings together remarkable architectural works (Saint Joseph Cathedra, Municipal Theatre, Ngọc Sơn Pagoda, Government Guest House, Former Railway Company of Yunnan, Palace of Justice, former Louis-Finot Museum, Pasteur Institute, magnificent villas...). It is the hub of administrative economic, commercial and public service activities.
Mutations With the whole country, Hanoi has experienced profound socio-cultural changes throughout its contemporary history beginning in the middle of the 19th century. These changes were manifested particularly in thought, manners and customs, lifestyle, individual and collective behaviour...
We could indicate at least three major turning-points in history to help illustrate this subject.
The first took place in 1858 and thereafter, 1858 being the date of the bombing of Đà Nẵng Harbour by the French gunboats. The colonization that ensued would completely overturn a “Việt” aboriginal culture originating in the Bronze Age and enriched by contributions from Chinese culture (Hán). The confrontation between the East and the West carried away a harrowing revision of traditional values to the benefit of Occidentalism, and instilled in the Vietnamese national identity many tendencies, sometimes contradictory, from neo-Confucianism to pragmatic Marxism, passing through pragmatic monarchism, bourgeois republicanism, reformism, colonist collaborationism...
The August Revolution of 1945 marked the second turning-point with the reconquest of independence and national reunification at the cost of two wars and the incorporation of Vietnam into the Socialist bloc.
The last turning-point was announced by the break-up of the Soviet bloc – Eastern Europe. The Đổi mới (renewal policy) adopted in 1986 promotes the market economy and the policy of open-door to foreign countries, including the West. The economic boom that resulted together with aftershocks of thirty years of war and invasion of foreign cultures put the ethical, cultural and national values back into questions. On the verge of the 21st century, Vietnam is in search of a means of development which will not alter its national identity but allow it to carry out its desire of a rich people, a strong country and a just and civilized society.
All changes on a national throughout contemporary history are visible in Hanoi, its capital, better than anywhere else.
4. How was Hanoi dubbed Thăng Long, the City of the Rising Dragon
In 938, Ngô Quyền put an end to 1,000 years of Chinese occupation. At first ruler of independent Vietnam, he founded the Ngô Dynasty (939 – 965). The 950s and early 960s was the period of the Twelve war lords (Sứ quân). Đinh Tiên Hoàng re-unified the country and became King, marking his capital at home town Hoa Lư in a mountain area (about 90 km2 south of Hanoi). Hoa Lư remained capital of Vietnam under the following first Lê Dynasty. In 1010, Lý Thái Tổ came to the throne, founding the Lý Dynasty (1010 – 1225). He moved the capital from Hoa Lư to Thăng Long (now Hanoi). Lý Thái Tổ had an obscure origin. He was a foundling, brought up in a pagoda in the village of Cổ Pháp, in Bắc Ninh. It was through the influence of the Buddhist bonze who had trained him, Văn Hạnh, as well as his own ability, that he came to the court of Hoa Lư, and rose eventually to the post of commander of the royal guard, and in the crisis arising from the failure of the (first) Lê Dynasty, was advanced to the kingship. These connections led him to promote the Buddhist interest, already a major force in Vietnamese society, once he had achieved power. Indeed, the close relations between the monarch and the Buddhist clergy, often themselves great landlords, were one of the factors making for the increased stability of the regime under the Lý Dynasty. But one needs to ask the more general question – How was it that Đại Việt, as the state was renamed by Lý Thánh Tông in 1054, was able to achieve this new, more centralized kind of internal organization in the eleventh century after the long drawn-out struggle for power between military leaders in the tenth century? The simple answer to this question would seem to be – the creation of an effective framework of institutions, under the first three Lý rulers especially – Lý Thái Tổ (1009 – 1028), Lý Thái Tổ (1028 – 1054) and Lý Thánh Tông (1054 – 1072).
Lý Thái Tổ’s first step towards the strengthening of the central administration was the transfer of the capital from Hoa Lư to Đại La (modern Hanoi) a very important historical event, symbolizing the break with the ill-fated Đinh – Lê dynasties and the decision to establish a strategically and economically well-placed centre of feudal power. The need for a more northerly capital from which the national minorities in the mountain region could be controlled was another consideration. Here is a quotation from the famous edict in which Lý Thái Tổ announced and justified his decision:
Đại La, the ancient capital of His Excellency Cao (Kao Plien, the ninth-century Chinese Governor), is situated at the very heart of our country. Its position suggests that of a coiling dragon or a squatting tiger. It is at an equal distance from the four cardinal points and stands in a favourable relationship to mountains and rivers. There the site is sufficiently vast and flat, the ground sufficiently high and open. The population is sheltered from inundations and floods. Everything there is flourishing and prosperous. It is the best possible site, where men and wealth come together from the four cardinal points. It is equally an excellent capital for a royal dynasty for ten thousand generations. I wish therefore to take advantage of this favourable site and fix ma capital there. What do you think, mandarins of the court? Đại La, having been the country’s capital during the later phase of the Chinese occupation, had already, by 1010, a sizable population, a network of streets, each with its appropriate crafts and shops (every phố, street, being related to its own phường, guild). As the royal junks, sailing up the Red River, approached Đại La, say the Annals, Lý Thái Tổ saw a golden dragon rise out of the clouds and hover above the capital, which is why it acquired the name Thăng Long (the rising dragon).
5. Cruise on Red River is a delight for Hanoi visitors
Visitors who want a glimpse of Vietnam’s traditional culture will find no better opportunity than a cruise along the Red River. A few well-chosen stopovers in this river delta dotted with sleepy thousand-year-old villages will provide the most curious tourist with a satisfying taste of Vietnamese customs, handicrafts, architecture and religious practices.
Every Saturday and Sunday, a boat of the River Management Board leaves Hanoi Port on tours lasting from 8 to 17 o’clock, including stops.
The boat heads downstream through picturesque landscapes, and after three hours reaches Đa Hoà village, Hưng Yên province. There, an extremely beautiful sight awaits. The Chử Đổng Tử Temple, rebuilt at the end of the last century, offers a haven of peace and verdure with its quiet paved lanes; with its eighteen boat-shaped roof, it offers sanctuaries replete with finely carved wooden statues gilded in red and gold.
Here, the water ritual is held on festival days. This is a tradition common among wet rice farmers and aims at petitioning Heaven for fertilizing rains. Hundreds of people hold a solemn procession along the riverbank, then dozens of boats take them to the middle of the current. An old man uses a scoop to fill a porcelain vase with water, which is to be used for the ritual ablution of the statues of God Chử Đồng Tử and his two wives.
Chử Đồng Tử is the hero of a myth born at the dawn of our history, sometimes in the first millennium before Christ. He was a poor fisherman, so poor that he had nothing to cover his body. One day, Princess Tiên Dung moored her boat on the riverbank to take a bath. Pouring water on the sand, she uncovered the healthy young man buried underneath. Against the will of her father, she married him. The couple earned their living through small trade. Then they learnt the secret of immortality and ascended to Heaven.
This legend reveals many things about the formation of Vietnam’s cultural identity during the Bronze Age (first millennium BC) in the basin of the Red River. First, it calls for pre-Confucian behaviour before the adoption of the austere Confucian ethic. Second, it is a hymn to sensual love, the recognition of free love conceived outside paternal authority, of the rebellion against the monarch and Son of Heaven. Finally, the legend shows how an autochthonous belief has been blended into an imported religion: at the end of their lives, Chử Đồng Tử and the Princess converted to Taoist and Buddhism.
The next stop on the tour shows another aspect of religious syncretism in Vietnam. Disembarking at Ninh Sở village (Đại Lội hamlet, Thường Tín district, Hà Tây province), visitors may visit the Lộ and Đầm temples. After passing through the gate of the first temple, we find a big bronze bell newly cast with donations from the faithful. To the left is a small shrine dedicated to General Trần Hưng Đạo, victor over the Mongol invaders in the 13th century.
The principal temple lying in the background honours the memories of four goddesses of Chinese origin. According to legend, they were members of the imperial family of the Sung Dynasty, they fled from the Mongol invasion. The four – the queen, her two daughters and their nurse – survived a shipwreck. A bonze saved and took them ashore in Vietnamese territory.
A few months later, the latter fell in love with the queen. Ashamed by her reprimand, he took his own life by jumping into the sea. Aggrieved by the death of their benefactor, the four women also jumped into the sea and became protectors of navigators in distress. Today they are called Nam Hải Tứ Vị Thánh Nương (The Four Goddesses of the South Sea), a title bestowed by King Trần Anh Tôn. Thus, they joined Vietnam’s popular cult devoted to the Pantheon of Mother Goddesses.
This syncretic cult is also illustrated by the Đầm Temple, which lies about 200 metres from Lộ Temple. This new construction of a dubious style is devoted to the cult of the Mother Goddesses, which combines popular animist beliefs dating back to prehistory with Taoism.
Following the stop at Đầm Temple, the boat starts back upstream. After half an hour it lands at Bát Tràng, the village of bowls (“Bát” means “bowls”, “Tràng” means “workshop” or “guild”). The village has long been well known in the Sông Hồng (Red River) Delta for its popular bát đàn (large bowls). More than four hundred years ago, villagers here were already manufacturing high quality enamels, magnificent art objects, incense burners, chandeliers and goblets.
With the construction of the Bắc Hưng Hải irrigation works in the late 50s, the old village almost completely disappeared and the remaining villagers have moved to another site. It has become a small township of brick and cement houses, stores and semi-mechanized workshops, where craftsmen work for themselves, or for export companies. Such villages specializing in traditional crafts are a characteristic trait of the Sông Hồng (Red River) delta.
After its stop in Bát Tràng, the riverboat chugs upstream to allow its group of visitors to disembark, tired but now better informed about many aspects of Vietnam’s culture.
Huu Ngoc, December 1997
6. The God of the Waters and the floods of the Red River
Sơn Tinh, the Healer A very long time ago there lived in the forest a woodcutter of the family of Lạc Long the Dragon-King. Of noble origin, but very poor, he cut down trees to earn his living.
One day he brought down a tree much taller than the others and returned to his straw hut.
Great was his surprise the next day on seeing that the tree that he wanted to saw up was again upright in front of him. He set to work. His axe struck hard and the wood shavings flew into splinters, and soon the giant was lying down again. But, oh miracle, the following morning it was upright again, without any injury on its smooth trunk.
Three times the woodcutter started again. A waste of time! He must solve this mystery. After cutting the tree down once more he decided to camp near it under a light shelter of bamboos and creepers. He soon saw a marvellous woman whom he judged to be a Tiên fairy approach and touch the giant with a light tap of a wand. At this contact the tree slowly stood upright and the wounds in its bark were obliterated while the sap revived anew its lower hollows.
Leaving his shelter the woodcutter approached the Tiên.
“I work hard, but you deprive me of my labour”, he politely but firmly told her.
“I’m a fairy”, replied the apparition, “and this tree is my favourite resting place. I know that you’re poor and I wish to compensate you. Take this wand which has restored the tree. It can also heal human wounds and sickness. Thanks to it you can become the greatest healer in the country. Only remember your days of poverty and be charitable towards poor people”. On saying this, the fairy disappeared.
The woodcutter abandoned his trade and left in search of all those who suffered. He performed miracles. Soon his fame, and the gratitude of those he had delivered from their suffering, extended throughout the country.
One day when he was following the river bank, he saw a group of young buffalo boys around a snake which they had killed. The healer, seeing the character Vương (King) on the reptile’s head, touched it with his wand. Immediately the restored snake glided as far as the river and disappeared.
Some time later, the healer was resting at home when a man of noble bearing came to see him, offering him precious objects of pure gold, clear jade and shining gems.
“My father is Long Vương, the Dragon-King of the Southern Sea. It is I whom you saved the other day and I have come to thank you.”
The old woodcutter refused the rich presents but accepted the invitation of the young prince to his submarine palace where, thanks to a rhinoceros horn which had the power to part the waters, the generous healer could follow him.
In the kingdom of the Southern Sea the welcome which Long Vương reserved for his guest was sumptuous, in a fairyland of a coralline architecture. There the healer again refused the rarest presents but accepted an antique book of magic for wishes and hopes.
Returning home he deciphered the manuscript which showed him the formulas to have his wishes granted instantly. His new power allowed him to disentangle the most inextricable situations and to thus increase its benefits.
Finally, he again followed the course of the Red River towards the Highlands where he thought he would settle down. The air there was healthy, the people simple, generous, and well-mannered. He crossed Thăng Long, old Hanoi, but did not feel attracted by the corrupting pleasure of the city. Thus he went on his way as far as Phủ Lỗ, from where he saw the Tản Viên with its three peaks.
He hoped for a route which would skirt the mountain mass on the south. It immediately appeared.
To rest he only had to hope for a palace and it rose from the ground.
He settled on Mount Tản Viên, but he wanted to descend to the edge of the river, and to scale the mountainous spurs from where he admired the countryside. He was called Sơn Tinh (the Genie of the Mountains) or the Genie of the Tản Viên.
The eternal conflicts King Hùng the eighteenth reigned over the country at this time. His daughter, Princess Mỵ Nương, was of a remarkable beauty.
But it came about that the Genie of the Mountains and the Genie of the Waters both fell madly in love with the Princess.
The double request for the hand of this daughter in marriage plunged the King into perplexity. “One single woman and two men! What to do?” Both were handsome and very talented. The Genie of the Mountains had only uttered his wishes and they were granted. The Genie of the Waters had the power to unleash the wind and the rain.
The King did not know which of the suitors to choose and no one could advise him. Then he said:
“Both of you equally meet my requirements, it is therefore impossible to decide which of you deserves to be my Son-in-law. I will therefore give my daughter to the first one who, tomorrow, will bring me a hundred plates of sticky rice, two hundred rice cakes, an elephant with nine tusks, a cock with nine spurs and a horse with nine red hairs.
This was easy for the Genie of the Mountains who arrived first at the Palace with the required presents. He also led the Princess to his castle on the mountain.
The Genie of the Waters, who had had more difficulty in procuring the tribute, on arrival found the object of his love gone.
He became violently angry and let loose typhoons which shook heaven and earth. Giant forest trees were uprooted, men’s houses carried away, the harvests destroyed. Torrential rains carried away everything in their wake, harvest and villages. The Genie of the Mountains displaced the hills and raised up mountains to stop the waters. The inhabitants came to the aid of their threatened benefactor. They dammed up the mounting waters with wattle. Armed with harpoons and lances, they struggled against the assault. Tigers and bears of the forest also came to the rescue of the good Genie. A merciless struggle unfolded in a storm of wind and rain which made the day as dark as the night. When it grew light the flotsam and bodies confirmed the defeat of the Prince of the Waters and his troops.
But the anger of the defeated suitor never grew less. He still returns to the fight every year at the time of the monsoon. It is the reason why Hanoi has been protected by his dykes while the Genie of the Mountains continues his protective mission.