Myths and history

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EMERGING FROM A SUBWAY in New York’s Times Square, author Joseph Campbell was caught up in the crowd waiting at a stop light and thought he saw 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 history as well as a society’s modern aspirations:

It [mythology] is where all the inventions of the common people’s imagination meet up with archeology and history.

Hà Nội, whose history is intertwined with that of Việt Nam, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The Dragon King as forefather of the Việt people, the Mountain Genie as 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 objects, as well as in the everyday activities of Hà Nội.

Tens of millions of years ago, the Red River Delta, which became the base of the Việt country dating from the Bronze Age, was nothing more than a deep gulf gradually filling with river deposits coming from neighboring hills and mountains. This immense lagoon turned into a marsh with many streams, lakes, and ponds and with vast forests inhabited by elephants, crocodiles, and turtles. Man, through toil and patience, cultivated the land, converting it into the Red River Delta, a major component of the Northern Delta.

The area that is now Hà Nội has vestiges dating from the Neolithic Period to the Bronze Age, during which the first two Việt states together with the Việt cultural identity were born (c. 1000 B.C.). After over a thousand years of Chinese domination (c. 200 B.C. to 938 A.D.), the Việts defeated the Chinese to regain their independence. In the beginning of the eleventh century, the Việts established their capital at Thăng Long (City of the Soaring Dragon), which has since become Hà Nội.

A Difficult Choice: “Hà Nội” or “Thăng Long

Ha Noi celebrates its thousandth anniversary in the tenth year of the twenty-first century.

In 1010, Lý Thái Tổ, founder of the Lý Dynasty (1009–1225) decided to move the capital from the midland 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” (Soaring Dragon) because, it is said, he saw a dragon rising into the air above his royal boat when he approached the site.

In the name “Hà Nội,” “” means “river,” and “Nội” means “beyond,” “bend,” or “between.” Thus, “Hà Nội” means a province (Hà Nội was a province before it became 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 1997, Người Cao Tuổi (The Elderly) rekindled a discussion that had caused some noise following the reunification of Việt Nam in 1975.

At that time, some historians held that the name “Hà Nội” should be dropped in favor of the ancient name, “Thăng Long.” A request was even submitted to the National Assembly, which responded that this was not the appropriate time to raise such an issue.

In reality, Hà Nội has had many names:

  1. “Tống Bình” while under occupation by the Chinese Sui Dynasty (580–618).

  2. “La Thành” (Lowland City) while under occupation by the Chinese Tang Dynasty (eighth century A.D.).

  3. “Đại La” (Great Lowland) while under occupation by the Chinese Tang Dynasty, during which the Citadel was erected (from 863–866).

  4. “Thăng Long” (Soaring Dragon), named in 1010 by King Lý Thái Tổ (reign: 1009–1028).

  5. “Đông Đô” (Eastern Capitol), named by King Hồ Quý Ly (reign: 1400–1401) in contrast to “Tây Đô” (Western Capital) in Thanh Hoá Province.

  6. “Đông Quan” (1407–1427) while under occupation by the Chinese Minh Dynasty (1368–1644).

  7. “Đông Kinh” (Eastern Capital) a term used during the time of Lê Thái Tổ (Lê Lợi, reign: 1428–1433), as opposed to “Lam King” (Indigo Capital) and “Tây Kinh” (Western Capital) in Thanh Hoá Province.

  8. “Hà Nội,” first used in 1831.

Among these, the favorite names are “Thăng Long,” “Đông Đô,” and “Hà Nội,” while “Thăng Long” and “Hà Nội” are most frequently mentioned in poetry and music.

Those advocating the return to “Thăng Long” for the capitol’s thousandth anniversary cite the name’s antiquity and glory. Prof. Trần Văn Giàu, age ninety-seven, a historian and revolutionary notes, “The word ‘Hà Nội’ says nothing. It appeared only at the beginning of the Nguyễn Dynasty, while ‘Thăng Long’ came into being 800 years before ‘Hà Nội’ and witnessed many more historic national exploits. … Thăng Long City broke the invading armies of the Chinese feudalists—the Tống (Song), Nguyên (Yuan), Minh (Ming), and Thanh (Qing). The Vietnamese Lê kings [1428–1788] named the city ‘Đông Kinh (Đô)’, but ordinary people kept the name ‘Thăng Long.’” (Người Cao Tuổi [The Elderly], Tết issue, 1998).

Đan Tâm, a reader, had expressed his views a month before: “‘Thăng Long’– “Soaring Dragon” fits perfectly for the capital of a people who originated from the Dragon and the Fairy. It conforms with history and our sentiments.” (Người Cao Tuổi [The Elderly], December, 1997).

However, those defending “Hà Nội” are not glib.

Hà Nội was the head and heart of the liberation revolution of 1945 and of the two victorious wars of resistance, the first against France and the second against the United States. As Nguyễn Dũng Viện, another reader, noted, “‘Hà Nội’ bears all the glorious past of ‘Thăng Long,’ but ‘Thăng Long’ tells us nothing about ‘Hà Nội.’ … 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. … The word ‘Hà Nội’ has been imprinted in the minds and hearts of millions of people in this country and abroad. We cannot erase it in the name of some sentimental retro-centrism.” (Người Cao Tuổi [The Elderly], December, 1997).

Prof. Phan Huy Lê, president of the Việt Nam Association of Historians, notes that in celebration of the capital city’s millennium, the word “Hà Nội” should be kept, with the word “Thăng Long” in brackets.

The debate continues.

The Royal Edict on the Transfer of the Capital to Thăng Long in 1010
In the tenth year of the twenty-first century, Hà Nội will celebrate its millennium. In 1010 A.D., King Lý Thái Tổ, the founder of the first lasting national dynasty (the Lý) decided to transfer his old capital at Hoa Lư to Thăng Long, the present capital. Before the transfer, he sought the advice of his courtiers with this edict:

“In the old days, the Thương Dynasty up to the reign of Bàn Cảnh changed its capital five times, and the Chu Dynasty up to the reign of Thành Vương, three times.

“Could it be that, when moving their capital in this way, those kings of the period of the Three Dynasties obeyed an unjustifiable whim?

“No, they simply wanted to choose a center favorable to the edification of an immense undertaking for ten thousand generations to come.

“Bowing to the will of Heaven and meeting the aspirations of the people, they moved their capital whenever they deemed it necessary, thus ensuring the country’s destiny, its wealth and prosperity.

“On the contrary, because such is their will and pleasure, the two dynasties of the Đinh and Lê chose to ignore the will of Heaven and did not follow the example set by the Chu. They stayed obstinately in the same place. Their dynasties were short-lived and their fates, precarious. The common people were ruined, while untold resources remained unused. I suffer greatly from that and am compelled to move the capital to another place. The more so since Đại La, the former capital of His Highness Cao, is located in the heartland of our country. Its location evokes the image of a coiled dragon, a squatting tiger. It is situated at equal distance from the four points of the compass and corresponds to a favorable orientation of the mountains and rivers.

“There, the site is sufficiently vast and level, the grounds sufficiently raised and well exposed. The population is protected against floods, and its economy is well developed and prosperous. It is the most beautiful site, where men and a royal dynasty can assemble for a thousand generations. I, therefore, wish to benefit from this favorable location and to move the capital to this site.

“What do you think of that decision, you members of my court?”

This text, which dates back to the beginning of the eleventh century and is among the oldest written documents of Việt Nam, was recorded in Chinese ideograms (Hán), the script then used in the Far East for official, educational, and literary writings in the way Latin was used in Europe during the Middle Ages. This script was the only one used in Việt Nam for more than twenty centuries, not only during Chinese rule but also during the period of independent national dynasties (tenth to nineteenth centuries). French replaced Chinese as the official language during French colonialism (1883–1945), while the Vietnamese Romanized script became official with the 1945 Revolution.


The Việt national and cultural identity formed during the first millennium B.C. with the bronze culture. The first Vietnamese state established its capital at Bạch Hạc, the apex of the delta triangle of the Red River on the demarcation line between the hilly uplands and the swampy, barely cultivated lowlands. The second state moved its capital to Cổ Loa (eighteen kilometers from present-day Hà Nội) in the plains, where rice was already being grown.

During the thousand years of Chinese rule, imperial proconsuls first established their administrative seat north of present-day Hà Nội in Luy Lâu and Long Biên before building the citadel of Đại La on the site of present-day Hà Nội in the ninth century. Meanwhile, the heads of victorious insurrections against the Chinese stayed in power for brief periods. They preferred to install their headquarters in their native regions. The exception was Lý Nam Đế (sixth century), who used Hà Nội (then called Long Biên) as the capital of his short-lived kingdom.

In the tenth century, the Ngô Dynasty broke the Chinese yoke and established its capital at Cổ Loa, but anarchy soon followed. King Đinh Tiên Hoàng restored order and, for security reasons, installed his capital in the hilly region of Hoa Lư. The capital remained there for the ensuing dynasty.

Lý Thái Tổ asserted the location of present-day Hà Nội for the country’s capital. Geography surely dictated his choice. Việt Nam soon asserted its independence. Central power was consolidated, and economic and cultural conditions allowed the kings to build a prosperous, powerful kingdom that enjoyed prestige in Southeast Asia for four centuries. Lý Thái Tổ needed to move his capital to a site favorable for such prospects.

Hà Nội seemed to fit that need. A glance at the map shows that mountain ranges and waterways converge at Hà Nội, and the waterways continue to the sea like the fingers of one hand. Both river and land routes are favorable. Mountain ranges on its northern flank protect the site from possible invasions, while rivers allowed the city’s residents to reach the sea and overseas cultures.


Of course, Lý Thái Tổ probably felt rather than analyzed the geopolitical reasons vindicating the choice of Hà Nội as capital, for he was obeying two cultural commands: The Confucian concept of “heavenly mandate” (Thiên Mệnh) and principles of geomancy.

Lý Thái Tổ reproached his predecessors, the Đinh and Lê Dynasties, for disobeying the will of Heaven by staying on in Hoa Lư, which was inaccessible. This is an unjust reproach, for security compelled those dynasties to act as they did. King Lý Thái Tổ would move his capital to “follow the will of Heaven” and the “aspirations of the people.”

Once the decision was taken, King Lý Thái Tổ had to conform to the rules of geomancy. He would locate his capital “in the heartland of our country. Its position evokes that of a coiled dragon, a squatting tiger. It is situated at equal distance from the four points of the compass and corresponds to a favorable orientation of the mountains and rivers, … where men and a royal dynasty can assemble for a thousand generations.”


This edict illustrates the dialectical play of repulsion and attraction that governed the ambiguous character of relations between Việt Nam and China. On one hand, the Vietnamese repulsed all that emanated from the invader; on the other, they were attracted to this richer culture, which often served as a model. Thus, Lý Thái Tổ cited examples set by Chinese dynasties (Thương, Chu, and the Three Dynasties) and honored the memory Proconsul Cao Biển.

The king called his capital Thăng Long (“Soaring Dragon”), showing that he remained deeply Vietnamese, for the Việt believed they had descended from the union of Rồng and Tiên (the Dragon and the Fairy). The mythical animal was thought to bring rain to the rice fields and represented both royalty and nobility.


Thăng Long or Long Thành (Dragon City) has been called “Hà Nội” since 1831. The Nguyễn Dynasty had already moved its capital to Huế. Hà Nội resumed its status as capital with the Revolution of 1945.

The White Horse, Hà Nội’s Protector God
Đền Bạch Mã or Temple of the White Horse on Hàng Buồm Street is the oldest religious building in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter. Since September 1986, the Government has recognized Đền Bạch Mã as a historical site of national importance. Hà Nội residents still use the temple as a place of worship.

From 170 B.C. until 938 A.D., Việt Nam had a turbulent history marked by long periods of Chinese domination. In 866 A.D., Chinese Governor Cao Biền established his citadel, called Đại La, in the area now occupied by Hà Nội. The Tô Lịch, Kim Ngưu, and Red Rivers bordered the citadel area, which had a small mountain called Nùng Sơn (Mount Nùng) in its center. Legend held that ancient Việt Nam was shaped like a dragon with Nùng Sơn forming the dragon’s navel. Thus, people thought that Nùng Sơn was connected to the dragon’s blood and could draw on the dragon’s power and energy. Cao Biền wanted to block ancient Việt Nam’s development. Using the laws of geomancy, he chose Nùng Sơn for his citadel and temple.

Việt Nam regained its independence from China in 938. In 1010, King Lý Thái Tổ, founder of the Lý Dynasty, had a vision of a dragon ascending to the sky from a bend in the Red River. He decided to move his capital from its previous site at Hoa Lư in a mountainous area about ninety kilometers south of Hà Nội to the site of Cao Biển’s former Đại La Citadel. King Lý Thái Tổ believed that building a citadel on that site would enable him to use the dragon’s power and energy that Cao Biển had tried to block.

King Lý Thái Tổ tried many times to build the citadel’s ramparts, but the structures collapsed and crumbled. He prayed to Genie Long Đỗ for guidance. Later, the king dreamed about a white horse that circled the city from east to west, leaving its hoof prints on the earth. The horse paused at three places before disappearing. The ramparts King Lý Thái Tổ built along these tracks withstood invaders and floods alike. He completed his new citadel and called his capital “Thăng Long,” meaning “ascending dragon.” To honor the White Horse Deity, Lý Thái Tổ changed the name of Long Đỗ Temple to Bạch Mã (“White Horse”) Temple.

Since the white horse symbolizes the sun and the sun rises in the east, the white horse became guardian of the city’s eastern borders, and Bạch Mã became the temple of the Protector of the East. To protect the city’s other borders, King Lý Thái Tổ also built temples at the three other points where the white horse had paused. The southern temple is Kim Liên (Cao Sơn Temple) not far from Lenin Park; in the west is Voi Phục Temple in the Zoological Gardens, and the northern site is Quán Thánh Temple (Trấn Vũ) near West Lake.

Hà Nội’s protector god took many different forms describing a single patron spirit worshipped in all its various guises at Bạch Mã Temple. The genie has received several names, but is best known by these three:

“Tô Lịch,” the name of the River God protector of Thăng Long and also the name of the river running through Hà Nội’s Old Quarter.

“Long Đỗ” (“long” = “dragon”, “đỗ = “navel”) is the point of contact between heavenly and earthly realms located at Mount Nùng in the ancient capital of Thăng Long–Hà Nội.

“Bạch Mã” (“bạch” = “white”, “” = “horse”) is the name King Lý Thái Tổ gave in the eleventh century to the genie who appeared in his dream as a snow-white steed galloping around the boundaries of the Thăng Long Citadel.

The Tô Lịch: Close to Hanoians
The Red River flows across several provinces of the northern delta and shapes their landscapes. It touches Hanoians’ hearts less than the Tô Lịch River, which has been reduced to a stream of which only a few stretches remain.

The Tô Lịch joins the Red River at Phố Chợ Gạo (Rice Market) in the Old Quarter. During the Lý-Trần Dynasties (the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries), the Tô Lịch and West Lake were part of a beautiful landscape spanned by graceful bridges and frequented by the pleasure boats of the court and aristocracy. Over time, the stream, which was more than thirty kilometers long, has almost completely filled up. At present, only three small sections remain.

“Tô Lịch” is the name of the River God, a tutelary spirit for Thăng Long (Soaring Dragon), the old name of Hà Nội. Việt Điện U Linh Tập (Collection of Tales about Gods of the Việt Kingdom), written in Chinese ideograms, is regarded as an accurate source of Vietnamese history. It says Tô Lịch was born in Long Đỗ Village on the bank of the river. The descendent of a virtuous family, he passed his examinations and was appointed mandarin chief of Long Đỗ District when the country was under Chinese colonial administration.

After his death, people gave his name to the stream flowing past his village. Deified, he appeared in a dream to Chinese Governor Lý Nguyên Hỷ (Li Yuan-his, ninth century) as an old man with a white beard who rode a white kite. The Chinese proconsul entrusted to him the guard of the Đại La Citadel on the site of present-day Hà Nội, which he had built on a bank of the Tô Lịch River.

More than fifty years later, in 864, Cao Biền (Kao Pien), another Chinese proconsul with the reputation of a great wizard, rebuilt and enlarged the citadel. He continued the wily colonial policy of his predecessor and, adopting the cult of certain indigenous deities, made a solemn sacrifice to Tô Lịch and gave him the title of Tutelary Spirit for the administrative seat.

Việt Nam regained its independence in the tenth century. In 1010, King Lý Thái Tổ, who transferred the capital from the highlands to the lowlands, honored Tô Lịch with the title “Quốc Đô Thăng Long Thành Hoàng Đại Vương” (Great Lord Tutelary Spirit of Thăng Long, the National Capital). Some believe that the sanctuary dedicated to Tô Lịch is the present-day Bạch Mã (White Horse) Temple at 76 Hàng Buồm Street in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter.

According to a more authoritative legend, that temple is dedicated to the god, Long Đỗ (Navel of the Dragon). Cao Biền (Kao Pian), the proconsul under Chinese rule in the ninth century, is said to have seen this god in a dream, where the god appeared borne by a golden dragon in the middle of a rainbow-colored cloud. Cao Biền built a temple to worship the god but also buried copper and iron to exorcize him. However, a typhoon accompanied by lightning destroyed the buried metals that were evidence of Long Đỗ’s vitality and power. The god took the form of the white horse that helped eleventh-century Vietnamese King Lý Thái Tổ define where to build the citadel.

The Vietnamese Dragon: Myth, History, and Geography
Since the end of World War II and the emergence of East Asia on the international scene, the media have frequent used of the dragon image in reference to China and countries under past influence of Chinese culture. Yet, although all those countries share the myth of the dragon, none has gone so far as to claim—as Việt Nam does-that the dragon is its ancestor or to give its capital the name of this mythical animal.

Several Vietnamese myths from as early as the Bronze Age in the Red River Basin describe the formation of the Việt culture and national identity before the impact of Chinese culture. Those persisting myths inspired Vietnamese resistance history during the past three millennia.

The Việt have always called themselves “con Rồng cháu Tiên” (children of the Dragon and the Fairy). The earliest extant records of this oral tradition are fifteenth-century documents: Lĩnh Nam Chich Quái (Collection of Strange Stories of Lĩnh Nam) and Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư (General Treatise on the History of the Đại Việt). The authors surely refashioned the plot to conform to the patriarchal and authoritarian concepts of Confucianism, whereas matriarchy and egalitarianism characterized the original pre-Chinese context. The myth of the Dragon and the Fairy was an effective reference during the struggle against both Chinese, French, and American foreign aggressors.

Here, briefly, is the popular version of the Việt people:

Long, long ago there lived in Lĩnh Nam (the country south of the mountain range on the border, that is, Ancient Việt Nam) a magician king, Dương Vương, who could walk on both earth and water. One day, in the course of a pleasure trip on a lake, he met a Dragon Maiden (Long Nữ), the daughter of the Dragon King (Long Vương), and married her. Their union bore a Herculean son who later mounted the throne as Lạc Long Quân (Dragon King of the Lạc, that is, of the Việt Country).

Lạc Long traveled all over Lĩnh Nam to restore peace and order amid chaos caused by evil monsters. He killed the gigantic Fish Demon in the South Seas, cutting it into three parts, of which the last—the tail—became present-day Bạch Long Vĩ (Tail of the White Dragon) Island in the southern part of Hạ Long Bay. Next, in a cave, Lạc Long Quân killed the Nine-Tailed Fox, which had often appeared in human form, seizing young women, carrying them off to its den, and raping them. Following destruction of the demon, the cave became Hà Nội’s West Lake. In another heroic exploit, Lạc Long Quân overpowered the demoniac Evil Tree, which fled to the southwest.

Then, a northern chieftain with his daughter, Âu Cơ, invaded the country. Lạc Long Quân drove the chieftain and his troops away and took the daughter as his wife. Later, his queen gave birth to a sack containing a hundred eggs, which hatched after seven days into a hundred baby boys.

Eventually, the boys grew into strong, handsome youngsters. Lạc Long Quân then said to his wife: “I am from the race of dragons living in the sea. You are from the race of fairies living in the mountains. We must separate. Go to the highlands with fifty of our sons. I’ll rejoin the sea with the other fifty.”

The divine spouses went their separate ways and created two domains—one along the coastal lowlands, the other in the highlands. The people in the highlands learned from their mother the art of clearing the slopes to grow upland rice and to raise mulberry trees and silkworms. The eldest son, who had accompanied the father to the lowlands, ascended the throne as Hùng Vương and inaugurated a line of eighteen sovereigns called the Hồng Bàng Dynasty. A temple to their memory is in Phú Thọ Province on the left bank of the Red River.

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