Before major religions were present in Vietnam, the people had developed their own beliefs. As well as worshiping their ancestors, famous craftsmen and heroes who fought off foreign invaders, they worship the Four Immortals, who include Tan Vien (the God of the Mountain), Saint Giong, Chu Dong Tu and the Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh, all of whom had many unique features.

Tan Vien embodies the aspiration of triumph over natural disasters, especially floods; Saint Giong represents the will to fight off foreign invaders; Chu Dong Tu symbolises love and Mother Goddess Lieu Hanh signifies a rich spiritual life.

Legend in the northern Delta has it that Saint Tan Vien, also called Son Tinh, was the God of the Mountain who governed all the creatures on land. He often taught people to grow crops, hunt animals, catch fish, practice martial arts and hold festivals. Opposite to Son Tinh was Thuy Tinh, the God of the Sea, who governed all the living creatures in the sea. He was the God who was usually responsible for rising water levels that damaged crops, destroyed animals and drowned people.

The Hung King, who was the head of all the Vietnamese tribes, had a beautiful daughter called Princess My Nuong. He organised a competition to choose a husband for his daughter, which Son Tinh won and he subsequently married My Nuong. The loser, Thuy Tinh, harboured a lot of resentment against Son Tinh so every year he summoned floods along the coast and sent sea monsters to harm the people. Son Tinh, along with all the other people and all the creatures on the land, resisted them with all their might. The higher the water level rose, the higher the mountain became and Thuy Tinh was defeated.

Son Tinh’s struggle against Thuy Tinh reflects the history of a country with its back against the mountain and its face looking out to the sea that fights natural disasters around the year. Worshipping Saint Tan Vien is to worship and believe in human beings’ sacred strength, benevolence and righteousness and the efforts they make to exist.

The practice has gone on for many years. About 250 BC, King An Duong Vuong ordered the building of Saint Tan Vien Temple on Tan Vien Mountain , called Den Thuong (the Upper Temple ) in Ba Vi, a suburban district of Hanoi. Every three years, on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, a grand festival takes place here, drawing tens of thousands of people. The festival features a wide range of activities such as the procession of the Saint tablet, the catching of 99 fish as offerings to the Saint, a procession of the Saint’s wife - My Nuong, cock dances, chess competitions and a ‘hat dum’ contest, a kind of folk singing, simultaneously sung by two groups of male and female singers.

On the festival day, the King himself went there or appointed a mandarin to offer incense. Nowadays, the Party, State and Government leaders often attend the festival at the main temple on Ba Vi Mountain .

Saint Giong, the second immortal, is a mythological epic of the great strength of the nation before the arrival of foreign invaders. According to legend, during the reign of the 6 th Hung King (1718-1631 BC), in Giong village (now Phu Dong village, Gia Lam district, Hanoi ), there was a boy who could not speak even though he was three years old. Upon hearing that the country was in danger of being attacked by the En people from the north, he quickly grew up, raised his arms and turned into a valiant man. He rode an iron horse, wore iron armour and used an iron rod to fight the enemy. When his rod was broken, Giong picked up bunches of thorny bamboo and used as a weapon. After he won, the hero took off his armour with no interest in honour or wealth. He quietly went to the top of Ve Linh Mountain (now Sai Mountain in Hanoi ’s Soc Son district), overlooked his native land for the last time and then flew into heaven on his iron horse.

Recognising Giong’s merits, the Hung King conferred him the title of ‘Phu Dong Thien Vuong’ (Celestial Prince of Phu Dong) and ordered the erection of a temple in commemoration of him on Ve Linh Mountain. Giong village was renamed Phu Dong. Every year, on the ninth day of the fourth lunar month, the village holds a festival re-enacting the legend of Saint Giong with activities such as military exercises and human chess competitions. In 2010, the Giong Festival was recognised by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as an intangible cultural heritage of the mankind.

The third immortal, Chu Dong Tu, was born in Da Trach commune, Khoai Chau district, the northern province of Hung Yen. His parents died when he was very young. He lived by fishing and was so poor that didn’t even have a loincloth.

One day, when he saw the royal barge passing by with Princess Tien Dung, the daughter of the third Hung King, on board, he got very scared and hid himself under the sand. Unexpectedly, the princess decided to erect a tent up on the shore so she could bathe. As the water trickled to the ground, it washed away some of the sand, exposing Chu Dong Tu in all his nakedness.

Tien Dung, who believed that the encounter was arranged by Heaven, fell in love with Chu Dong Tu and immediately wanted to marry him.

But Hung King opposed the marriage and intended to arrest Chu Dong Tu to punish him. Both Chu Dong Tu and Tien Dung had to hide with local people and to earn a living, they began a small business. After that, they met a Taoism hermit who taught them the superpower. When reaching the highest part of the path, they flew off to Heaven and were canonised.

Legend has it that Saint Chu Dong Tu was in control of things all along and was present on earth to save mankind from its suffering and teaches people to do business, fish and weave to have a good life.

The local people built a temple to worship him in Da Trach commune, Khoai Chau district. There they hold an annual ritual for a happy and prosperous life. The festival begins in the middle of the second lunar month with many traditional activities, including dragon dancing, singing and human chess competitions taking place.

The fourth immortal is a woman. Legend has it that Lieu Hanh was formerly a daughter of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the Heavens. After she accidentally broke a beautiful vase made from jade, she was exiled to the World of Human beings. She was saved by Lord Buddha and reincarnated as a daughter of a Le family in Phu Giay, in Vu Ban district, Nam Dinh province. She was said to have the four virtues of an ideal woman, namely good housework skills, good appearance, proper speech and high moral standing. She was also canonised and became a sacred saint, who always helps good people, especially women and children. The local people acknowledge her for her virtues and build temples to commemorate her in many different localities.

The legend of Saint Lieu Hanh reflects the characteristics of Vietnamese women, talented, virtuous, and devoted to their families, faithfull and kind to the poor, who always defends the good and punishes the bad.

She is worshipped as ‘the sacred Mother Saint - the Mother of the people’. The tradition of worshipping the Saint shows how much respect the Vietnamese people have for the great, powerful and righteous mother.

In her hometown, Phu Giay, people built a complex of temples to commemorate her by. The well-known Phu Giay festival, held every year from the first to the tenth day of the third lunar month, attracts many people. Activities to commemorate Saint Lieu Hanh are also held at Song temple, in central Thanh Hoa province, on the third day of the third Lunar month.

No one created the legend of the four immortals. The stories about them were built upon by many people over the generations. The four immortals representing the four major aspects of Vietnamese people’s lives were, have been and will always be worshipped. This is the uniqueness of Vietnamese people’s beliefs.-VNA

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