Chat Van Dang
Vietnam, an Old and New Nation
         The Vietnamese frequently pride themselves of a 4000-year civilization (4000 năm văn hiến), but, as it is true for most country origins, part of that noble heritage belongs to the realm of legends, some of them sharing the same sources as Chinese cosmo-mythology. Indeed, the God of Agriculture Thần Nông (Shen Nong or Shennong) was among the first Three August Rulers and Five Emperors of China (Tam Hoàng Ngũ Đế), and is also considered an ancestor of the Việt people. According to tradition, Shennong's fifth-generation grandson, Lạc Long Quân -Lord Dragon of Lạc, was the son of Kinh Dương Vương who ruled over the territory of Xích Quỷ, in the South of present day China. One day, as Lạc Long Quân was strolling in the fields, he saw a large black bird snatch a small white heron. He skillfully hurled a stone at the predator, hitting it in flight. The ugly monster let go of its victim which was stunned for a moment as it fell on the grass. But as the prince was running toward the bird, it shook loose of its white feathers and transformed into a beautiful girl, the Fairy Âu Cơ. After their union, Âu Cơ gave birth to a pouch containing 100 eggs which hatched into 100 children that could be the ancestors of the Bách Việt (Bai Yue), literally 100 Việt [tribes], mentioned in Chinese history. The eldest son became King Hùng Vương the First ruling over Văn Lang and its people, the Lạc Việt (Luoyue). This mythical Hồng Bàng dynasty had 18 rulers. According to archeologist William Meacham, "the term Yue [Yueh, Yuet, Việt] occurs fairly frequently in the oracle bone writings of the late Shang dynasty, ca 1200 BC". Its meaning is unclear but it has been suggested that "Việt" might have come from "Vượt" or "beyond" to point to the people living beyond the Han Chinese civilized world.

         The Chinese calendar adopted by the Vietnamese can be traced back to around 1400 BC based on inscriptions found on oracle bones and turtle shells of the Shang dynasty (Nhà Thương). The calendar is solar-lunar with months following the phases of the moon. Complex but well codified adjustments with leap months (creating leap years of 13 months) are calculated to account for the position of the sun and accurately determine the start of the four seasons, a vital information for agriculture. The calendar is not infinitely sequential and goes by cycles of 60 years. The years were associated with the name of the reigning monarch allowing for correlation with the Gregorian calendar. Supposedly, the Chinese calendar was introduced in 2637 BC by Emperor Huangdi or Yellow Emperor who succeeded Shennong and was one of the legendary Five Emperors of Ancient China. Using that mythical date for reference, the Hùng Vương dynasty started circa 2879 BC and ended in 258 BC, with an average of 145 fabled years per king!

         During the reign of Hùng Vương the 6th, Văn Lang was invaded by Ân armies (giặc Ân, Yin or Shang Dynasty ca. 1600-1046 BC) coming from the North. The King sent emissaries throughout the country to recruit warriors as in these feudal times of local chieftains, there was no standing national army. In the village of Phù Đổng, there was a three-year old boy who had not smiled, laughed or uttered a word since birth. When the King's call to arms was read in the courtyard of the communal house of worship (đình), suddenly the boy started to speak to his mother, asking her to call the envoy to their modest mud and thatch home. He assertively told the envoy to request the King to build him a large iron horse and a sturdy iron whip, and he would fight the invaders. The King, pre-warned by a favorable omen, gladly obliged and ordered his blacksmiths to forge the impressive fighting gear. The boy then asked the villagers to bring him 100 cauldrons of white rice, in effect confirming Vietnam's early notion of "It takes a village to raise a child". He consumed all the rice specially cooked for him, then shook his shoulders, and miraculously grew to a tall and strong young man. With his iron horse spitting flames, he rallied the Lạc Việt troops and quickly routed the Northern invaders. His mission accomplished, Phù Đổng Thiên Vương rode his horse to the summit of Sóc Sơn Mountain and then up into the firmament. Sóc Sơn Mountain still bears imprints of the iron horse hoofs on its rocky terrain in the form of a succession of round water holes. The Phù Đổng village, also called "làng Gióng" in Bắc Ninh, North Vietnam, celebrates yearly its legendary hero Thánh Gióng (Saint Gióng). The colorful celebration takes place over several days, with reenactment of the battles against the invaders. It became a major cultural event for old and young, and an opportunity for young men and women to meet each other, leading to these popular verses:

                  Ai ơi mồng chín tháng tư
                  Không đi hội Gióng thì hư một đời.

                  Oh dear, on April the ninth,
                  Miss Gióng festival and life turns blind.

Vietnam circa 200 BC, courtesy of Thomas Lessman
        Please read the rest of the story in REMEMBERING SAIGON.