Story: Tran Hau Yen The
Photos: Ba Ngoc

Among Vietnam’s countless temples and shrines, the ones dedicated to the Dinh and Le Emperors in Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh Province have the most intriguing reliefs of dragons and fairies. Sculptural motifs of fairies riding on the backs of dragons are much more common in Le temples than in Dinh ones. After the great restoration of the Nguyen Dynasty, many reliefs of dragons and fairies dating from the Revival Le Dynasty in Dinh Emperor Temple might have been discarded, leaving only one on the inner main gate.

There are many dragon reliefs in Le Temple

Fairy designs in Dinh–Early Le temples share several similarities with those found in many dinh (village communal temples) in Vietnam’s North, such as those in Lien Hiep (Hanoi), Diem (Bac Ninh), and Lo Hanh (Bac Giang).

These fairies are characterized by wings growing from their arms, elegant forms, and ornate decorations. The romantic and fantastical images evoke fairy dances in water puppetry. Aside from images reminiscent of courtly life, many reliefs portray fairies as being similar to country girls. These kind and down-to-earth fairies wear vibrant yem (traditional backless halter tops) and sing and dance bareheaded and barefoot. These images are reminiscent of the story of Emperor Le Hoan’s mother, who unexpectedly fell pregnant after dreaming of riding through the skies on a dragon’s back, taking the sun in her arms and bringing it home. The artisans’ spirits were deeply infused with folklore, allowing them to create magical imagery in divine moments of inspiration.

There are many dragon reliefs in Le Temple

Motifs of dragons and fairies in acts of celebration appeared frequently in 16th and 17th-century folk carvings. However, archaeologists have not yet discovered any dragon-fairy motifs in Thang Long Royal Citadel or in Lam Kinh. From the standpoint of recorded history, the absence of works referencing Vietnam’s creation myth in Dai Viet su luoc (Abridged History of Dai Viet) and Cao Binh Ngo (Proclamation upon the Pacification of the Wu) is also noteworthy. Dai Viet su luoc (a history of Vietnam written in Chinese script) made no mention of Vietnam’s divine founding parents Lac Long Quan and Au Co, even though most scholars agree that Dai Viet su luoc was written during the Tran dynasty or even in the preceding Ly dynasty. Even in the early days of the Later Le Dynasty, Nguyen Trai made no reference to the myth of Lac Long Quan and Au Co in Cao Binh Ngo. It took many years before he finally mentioned Kinh Duong Vuong (the first sovereign of the Vietnamese people, the mythical founder of the ancient Hong Bang Dynasty, and father of Lac Long Quan) in Du dia chi (Book of Geography).

Le Temple is one of the most famous sites in Hoa Lu Citadel

Like Nguyen Trai, neither Nguyen Binh Khiem nor the later Pham Dinh Ho mentioned Au Co. By stating these facts, we are not questioning the existence of the Dragon-Fairy story in our traditional mythology, nor claiming that the intelligentsia was completely unaware of this myth. However, it is evident that as late as the Nguyen Dynasty, a segment of Confucian scholars was uninterested in the creation myth included by Tran The Phap in Linh Nam Chich Quai (Selection of Strange Tales in Linh Nam), a collection of Vietnamese fairytales and folk stories from the Tran Dynasty. Even the Viet dien u linh (Collection of Stories on the Shadowy and Spiritual World of the Viet Realm), a record of deities and spirits in ancient Dai Viet, did not mention the story of Lac Long Quan and Au Co.

During the Nguyen Dynasty, the marriage of the Dragon and the Fairy was omitted from official historical records. Nonetheless, learned people of that era still took the legend to heart. Phan Boi Chau, known as Ông gia Ben Ngu (“the old man by the Royal Harbor”) was then under house arrest by the French in Hue. Weighed down by the fate of the nation, he wrote patriotic musings, mocking himself in the poem “Dem trang hoi bong” (Asking My Shadow on a Moonlit Night), in which he recalled that he bore “the blood of the Dragon and Fairy”:

How strange of the heavenly midwife,
To suddenly drop a newborn babe into this life.
A single cry sundered mountains and rivers,
I speak of the blood of the Dragon and Fairy.”

Reliefs of dragons and fairies in Le Temple

After Phan Boi Chau, Ho Chi Minh – another historical figure who traveled the seven seas – also mentioned this origin myth in his poem “Lich su nuoc ta” (History of Our Nation):

O descendants of the Dragon and the Fairy!
Let us unite and stand steadfast together.”

Written in 1942, the poem used the legend of the Dragon and the Fairy to rally the nation’s will, heart, and strength to vanquish the French colonizers.

Ten years ago in Paris, the fairies of Vietnam’s northern dinh made their debut in the Western world, in an exhibition hosted by the Vietnam University of Fine Arts. Ten years later, at Dubai Expo (held in 2022 in the United Arab Emirates), dragons and fairies appeared on the dome of the Al Wasl Plaza via 3D mapping. These sacred symbols full of Vietnamese pride floated in the skies of Dubai. Hopefully, epic historic movies about the legend of Father Dragon and Mother Fairy will be made in the near future. The emotional and spiritually-rich images found in the Dinh – Le temples in Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh Province will undoubtedly serve as the prime reference materials.