Story: Huong Quynh
Photos: Ba Ngoc
Generations of Vietnamese people have honored the Four Immortals – legendary saints who represent fortitude, intelligence, bravery, sacrifice, kindness and compassion
The number four has special importance in Vietnam’s folk beliefs. People speak of the Four Virtues, the Four Divinities and the Four Seasons. When it comes to deities, Vietnamese people have long worshipped the Four Immortals: the Saint of Tan Vien Mountain, Chu Dong Tu, the Heavenly General of Phu Dong and the Holy Mother Lieu Hanh. The Four Immortals have been worshipped for generations. Linked to legends, these figures are believed to protect people and promote a peaceful, happy and affluent way of life.
The Mountain God of Tan Vien
The Saint of Tan Vien Mountain, also known as the Mountain God of Tan Vien, is the oldest of the Four Immortals and is often the first one mentioned. The Saint of Tan Vien Mountain embodies valor and indomitability in the fight against natural disasters, as shown in the legend of the Mountain God and the Water God. Said to have come from humble beginnings, the Mountain God of Tan Vien was adept at “summoning winds and guiding storms”. Thanks to Tan Vien’s brilliance and optimism, the Hung King offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage. The Mountain God faced many threats and fought incessantly against the forces of the Water God, who unleashed disasters and floods. With great wisdom and bravery, the Mountain God beat his rival and is remembered as a folk hero. Researchers surmise that the legend of the Mountain God and the Water God contains a message about ancient Vietnamese people’s conquest of the Red River Delta.
Located in Ba Vi National Park, the Temple of the Mountain God of Tan Vien has been recognized as a Historical and Cultural Site of National Significance. Other temples dedicated to the Mountain God Tan Vien may be found in Vinh Phuc, Phu Tho and Hoa Binh.
The Heavenly General of Phu Dong
While the Saint of Tan Vien Mountain represents humans’ fight against natural forces, Saint Giong, or the Heavenly General of Phu Dong, is a symbol of national resistance against foreign invaders. The legend of Saint Giong has been passed down through countless generations. The story tells of a three-year-old boy who could neither speak nor laugh. This child lived in Giong Village (now Phu Dong Village) beside the Duong River, Hanoi during the reign of the sixth Hung King. When brutal Yin invaders swept into the country from the North, the boy began to speak, requesting food, armor, weapons and an iron horse. He grew to a gigantic size and rode his iron horse to the frontline to attack the enemy. Having driven the invaders away, the hero and his horse soared into the sky.
The Hung King ordered a temple to be built on the spot where Saint Giong ascended to heaven – on Ve Linh Mount, (Soc Son, Hanoi). This is in the compound of Soc Temple. Giong Village was eventually renamed Phu Dong Village. Each year, Phu Dong Village hosts a large and solemn festival to honor the deeds of Saint Giong. Both the Giong Festival and Soc Temple have been recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Saint Chu Dong Tu
Saint Chu Dong Tu is also closely associated with a legend dating back to the era of the Hung Kings. The story claims that Chu Dong Tu was born in an impoverished family in Chu Xa Village, now Da Trach Commune, Khoai Chau District, Hung Yen. The boy survived by fishing and was so poor that he had to share a single loincloth with his father. When the young man’s father died, Chu Dong Tu used the cloth as a shroud for his father’s body. After that, ashamed of his nakedness, he only dared venture out at night, hiding by day in a clump of reeds in the river, where, by chance, he met Princess Tien Dung. The pair fell in love and were married, but the Hung King refused to accept their union. Undeterred, the couple made their living by the river. After learning and practicing Buddhism, Chu Dong Tu and Tien Dung became saints.
Saint Chu Dong Tu is said to return to the mortal world to help desperate souls in need. He also helps heroes in battle. Chu Dong Tu symbolizes affection and kindness. The Temple of Chu Dong Tu was built in his home village, where an annual festival is hosted every mid-Lunar February and involves sacrificial rites to pray for national peace and affluence.
The Holy Mother Lieu Hanh
The Holy Mother Lieu Hanh is the only female figure among the Four Immortals. As legend has it, she was originally a heavenly princess who made a mistake and was exiled to the mortal world. The Heavenly Princess Lieu Hanh is said to have descended to earth three times, always appearing as a diligent, loving and kindhearted woman. The Heavenly Princess Lieu Hanh is worshipped as the Holy Mother and is evoked to aid the good and innocent, particularly women and children. The Holy Mother Lieu Hanh is also the leading figure in the Four Realms religion. Cults for the Holy Mother date back centuries in Vietnam and have been recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage.
There are many temples devoted to the Holy Mother Lieu Hanh. In Phu Day, her homeland, a large festival takes place every Lunar March and involves many unique rituals linked to the cults of the Holy Mother.