If you know anything about Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, you know that the Old Quarter is a hotbed of tourist traps, pricey souvenir shops, and hostels full of Tay- Westerns, and other international travelers. There are parts that the local Vietnamese do frequent, but according to Hữu Ngọc and Lady Borton, from whose work “Hanoi’s Old Quarter” I’ve drawn much of my insight, most avoid it like the plague. And who could blame them? But consider the hidden depths, the folklore and mythology, that lies just around the next corner, or at the bottom of a lake….
Thanks to Hữu Ngọc and Lady Borton’s little book, as well as some Sunday morning exploration, I found some hidden depths to the streets I’ve walked countless times- hidden histories and folkore that mesh myth and reality.
I began at Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, Hoan Kiem Lake, which translates to “Restored Sword Lake.” As the story goes, a fisherman named Lê Thận kept on catching this iron bar and tossing it back into the lake, until he realized that it was in the form of a sword blade, sans hilt! This took place during the posterior Lê Dynasty, under the rule of Lê Lợi, AKA Lý Thái Tổ, who was contending with the Chinese Ming Dynasty dominion (which lasted from 1406-1428 CE). Lê Thận heard the call: “God wants me to help save my country.”
Lý Thái Tổ got a good look at Lê Thận’s blade one night, and not only recofgnized it for what it was, but that it had mystical qualities to it- a magic blade, if you will. As the gods would have it, Lý Thái Tổ, camped on a Banyan tree branch, happened upon a similarly wondrous horn hilt, inlaid with jewels, glowing on a piece of rotten wood. Lý Thái Tổ and Lê Thận literally put two and two together, their own forces and the pieces of the magic sword, and the army proclaimed, “God has bestowed on you this magic sword!”
After a decade of warfare with the Ming Dynasty and presumably, this magic sword, Lý Thái Tổ’s army finally prevailed, leading to the extraordinary 99 year and 10 generation long Lê Dynasty, under which the emperors took pains to seek out the nation’s most accomplished intellectuals, restraining the spread of Buddhism (which I’m extremely curious about), and produced enough palace intrigue to make some Roman emperors blush. Just take a look at the incredible story of the talented Confucian scholar and poet Nguyễn Trãi and his equally incredible tragic fate, so pithily exemplified in his verses: My country, all I have to give you is my heart / Torments inside me have chased away all repose, / On my pillow I stay awake till dawn.
Once peace, unity, and stability was restored to the nation, Lý Thái Tổ was taking a walk around what is now known as Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, but formerly known as Luc Thuy (Green Water), and a tortoise, now honored in statue form in Đền Ngọc Sơn, or Temple of the Jade Mountain, very politely made a request of Lý Thái Tổ to “please return the sword to our God of the Waters,” which Lý Thái Tổ piously obliged.
I love this story- it’s interwoven with the history of the fascinating Lê Dynasty and its inception- it’s as if the god themselves favored the Vietnamese people in their struggle against the Ming Dynasty. Centered around and within what Hữu Ngọc and Lady Borton so poetically call “a large oval mirror at the heart of Hanoi” is an inseparable mix of folklore, archaeology, and the constant reminders of Vietnam’s rapid entry and evolution into the big, interconnected world.
In relatively recent history, we can see these changes emanating outward from Nguyễn Văn Siêu’s work on Đền Ngọc Sơn (he was a Confucian master and famous writer who made repairs to the temple in 1864) to the streets that once housed artisans and workshops, now catering to pizza-lovers and backpackers the world over. I’m not denigrating progress, but I sought out the few bits of history that remained relatively unchanged.
Of the 35 species of tree and over 775 individual trees surrounding the lake, I fortuitously found myself next to Lộc Vừng tree, one of the centuries-old trees that still stand next to the lake, and admired its nine, intertwined trunks, now home to sausage and trinket vendors.
Next, I sought out two of the three streets that have maintained their original trades since their construction years and years ago: Hàng Mã, which specializes in “ghost money” and other votive offerings for ancestors, and Hàng Quạt, which originally specialized in paper fans, but now primarily focuses on altar furnishings. I’ve traversed both these streets countless times, but this time, I spent my time to gaze up and down the road, trying to imagine how it would have looked, smelled, and felt in bygone eras. They’re as unassuming as any other street, if a bit more colorful, but hide a fidelity to their original purpose and trades.
Today was a day for me to step into the past, not to try and untangle myth, folklore from reality, fact from fiction- these attempts aren’t only fruitless, especially in Vietnam, but defeat the purpose of their very existence.
If I’ve learned anything from my study of Ancient Greek religion and “myth,” it’s that these stories, these folktales and legends passed down from generation to generation, don’t demand belief or encourage flights of fanciful thinking (although I do indulge that more often than not)- they are woven into the cultural tapestry. They are part of a way of thinking, a cultural pride, rationalization, and understanding of how and why things can happen the way they do. Did the turtle really beseech Lý Thái Tổ to return the sword? It doesn’t matter- he returned the sword because he had restored peace and order to his people and nation. Did a man favored and spoken directly to by the goddess Athena really single-handedly win the Trojan War with a plan that ridiculous? It doesn’t matter- the Greeks told the tale of a shrewd man and keen strategist. It’s the lore of the volk– folklore- stories that real people tell that take on realities of their own.
I’ll bet you have some turtles and horses you believe in, don’t you? I sure do. That’s what makes these kinds of explorations so exciting and special for me- they bring us all a bit closer in our mutual ability not to “derationalize,” but to allow our imagination and pride to tell the stories that make us greater than simple bags of meat.