Myths and legends have existed for thousands of years; they weave a fabric of fables into the culture and history of a country and its people, with tales of great heroes, lost treasure and spellbinding worlds where anything is possible.
Vietnam is home to dozens of such legends.
Everyone knows about Hercules, El Dorado and King Arthur; but what about the Moon Boy, the Golden Axe and the Mountain God?
One of the most widely told stories concerns the origins of the Viet people.
Lac Long Quan, a god-king whose mother was a water dragon, spent many months travelling the country, then called Linh Nam, vanquishing evil wherever it was found.
Among those evils was the Nine-Tailed Fox, a Hugh Hefner-like demon, who could change into the form of a handsome man and lure away young girls to his grotto.
After a three-day fight, Lac Long Quan defeated the fox by cutting off its head. He released the prisoners and brought down a tempest of water and winds to destroy the demon’s lair; the deep abyss which remained was called the Sea of the Fox’s Body; today, it’s called Tay Ho.
After many peaceful years in his mother’s aquatic palace, Lac Long Quan returned once again to answer the call of his people; this time to deal with a northern invader who, captivated by the beauty of the land, had decided to build a castle there and occupy it.
However, when Lac Long Quan entered the invader’s castle, it was empty, except for a beautiful young girl and her company of guards and servants.
The girl, Au Co, was the daughter of the mountain chieftain who had invaded. She was enthralled by Lac Long Quan’s power, and the god-king soon fell in love with her; together, they retreated to a mountain fortress, from where Lac Long Quan summoned beasts to chase away the army of Au Co’s father.
Shortly after getting married, Au Co gave birth to a sack of 100 eggs. Their 100 children grew quickly, and were stronger, smarter and better-looking than their peers.
However, Lac Long Quan always longed to return to the ocean, as he bore the characteristics of his water-dragon mother.
“I am by nature like a dragon in the water, while you are like a fairy in the mountain,” he said to his wife. “Of all our children, half will go with me to the underwater palace, and the other half will stay on land with you.”
These children are known as the ancestors of the Vietnamese people, and explain why the Vietnamese refer to themselves as descendants of dragons and fairies, equally at home on the land and in the water.
If the story of Lac Long Quan explains where the Vietnamese people come from, the tale of Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh explains why they live in a land beset by monsoons.
The 18th Hung King had a kind and beautiful daughter, the princess Mi Nuong. When she came of marriageable age, two suitors presented themselves.
The first was Son Tinh, the God of the Mountains. The second was Thuy Tinh, God of the Sea. They each sought to impress the king with their powers; by making trees sprout from the ground, and by causing sudden heavy rainfall.
Unable to decide, the king decreed that the first man to bring a wedding gift the following day would win his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Thuy Tinh came before dawn, and felt sure to win; however, Son Tinh had already been and taken the princess for himself. Furious, Thuy Tinh sent floods and storms into the land.
Son Tinh raised the mountains higher, to protect the kingdom. Eventually, the God of the Sea accepted his defeat; but he returns every year to show his anger, a period now referred to as monsoon season.
Next up is a story about a little liar called Cuoi, the Moon Boy.
Cuoi was a clever young man who wasted his intellect on telling lies and playing tricks. His aunt and uncle bore the brunt of his deceptions.
One day, Cuoi ran into the fields and told his uncle that his wife had fallen from a ladder, and was bleeding to death. Cuoi then used a shortcut to beat his uncle home, where he told his aunt that her husband was dying in the field, after being mauled by a buffalo.
The couple ran to save each other, but collided outside. When they returned to the house, they imprisoned Cuoi in a bamboo cage, and floated him away up the river.
Undeterred, Cuoi tricked a blind man into freeing him from the cage by offering to cure the man’s sight.
When Cuoi later got married, he saw a tiger take leaves from an unusual tree, using them to cure its wounded pup. Cuoi took the tree home, named it Banyan, and warned his wife not to damage it, lest it fly to back to heaven.
His wife grew so jealous of the tree, that she dumped rubbish at its base; when Cuoi came home and saw the tree begin to shake and fly into the sky, he grabbed on to its roots. Unable to pull it down, the tree carried him to the moon.
It’s said that Cuoi can be seen sitting under the Banyan tree on the moon, and people still use the expression noi doi nhu Cuoi, or to “lie like Cuoi.”
All Vietnamese people know about Tao Quan, or the Three Kitchen Gods, who live in every home.
It’s said that these gods return to the Jade Emperor at the end of the lunar year to report their observations.
Their origin is something of a dark love triangle, however. After enduring an abusive marriage to a drunk, violent man, a woman fled her home and wandered through the forest.
With wounded feet and an empty stomach, she came across a cabin, home to a hunter. The man gave her food and let her rest. They fell in love and lived together for many happy years.
One day before Tet holiday, a decrepit beggar came to their door while the hunter was out. The woman prepared food for him, later recognising the beggar to be her ex-husband.
Panicked by the hunter’s return, she instructed her ex to hide under a mound of hay, which the hunter then proceeded to set fire to, in order to cook the New Year meal. Not wanting to get his ex-wife in trouble, the man kept silent as he burned to death.
Stricken with guilt, the woman leapt onto the fire to die with him — and was shortly followed by the hunter who preferred death to a life without her. The local people bowed their heads to the three noble individuals, who were later declared to be Tao Quan.
A Golden Opportunity
Our last story concerns a very poor lumberjack. One day, he dropped his axe into the river while cutting wood.
A river dragon came up and presented the lumberjack with a beautiful golden axe, and asked if it was his.
“No,” said the lumberjack, “that’s not mine. My axe was made of iron, with a wooden handle.”
Diving back in, the dragon came out again with a silver axe.
After again turning it down, the river dragon emerged with the lumberjack’s old wooden axe. To reward the lumberjack’s honesty, the river dragon gave him the gold and silver axes.
One neighbour grew jealous of the lumberjack’s new-found wealth, and attempted to trick the river dragon into gifting him a golden axe. However, the dragon cut off the liar’s head with a golden axe; proving once and for all that greed is punished and honesty is rewarded.
Vietnamese myths are no different to any others; good stories with a lesson to be learnt.