Vietnam has an extremely rich folklore and mythology, a testatment to the countries long and very eventful history filled with geopolitical struggles, social conflicts and emotional personal stories.
What follows is a summary of the 10 most important Vietnamese myths, stories and folktales.
1. The Legend of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ
The legend of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ is considered the origin story of the Vietnamese people. The tale combines elements of mythology, including dragons and fairies, to explain the birth of the Vietnamese nation.
Lạc Long Quân is believed to be a dragon prince who ruled over the lowlands. He is often portrayed as the son of the Dragon King from the sea. Highly intelligent, noble, and possessing mystical powers, Lạc Long Quân is a protector of his people, fighting against sea monsters and other malicious entities that threaten them.
Âu Cơ is a tien, a fairy like creature from the mountains, often depicted as a beautiful and virtuous woman. She is also known to have magical abilities and is a descendant of the bird fairy lineage, hailing from the highlands.
The two met and fell deeply in love, symbolizing the harmonious union between the mountains and the sea. Their marriage produced a pouch of 100 eggs, from which 100 children were born. These children are considered the ancestors of the Vietnamese people.
However, Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ soon realized that they came from two different worlds—she longed for the highlands while he was drawn to the sea. Lạc Long Quân was also a dragon, while Âu Cơ a fairy, two beings that are incompatible with one another.
In the end, they decided to part ways for the greater good of their children. Âu Cơ took 50 of the children to the highlands to live a life closer to nature. Lạc Long Quân took the other 50 to the coast, where they learned to master the arts of seafaring.
The story explains the diversity within Vietnam as originating from a single family, symbolizing unity among various tribes and regions.
The tale also embodies the concept of yin and yang, with Lạc Long Quân representing the yang (masculine, lowlands, water) and Âu Cơ representing the yin (feminine, highlands, earth).
Finally, this myth forms an essential part of Vietnamese national identity and is often cited in literature, history, and daily life. This myth serves as an allegorical explanation for the ancient history of Vietnam, including its division into various tribes and later unification.
2. The Story of Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh
The tale of Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh explains the frequent natural disasters in Vietnam, particularly floods, but also explores themes of love, rivalry, and the power of nature.
The King of Vietnam, King Hùng, had a beautiful daughter named Mỵ Nương. When she came of age, the king decided to find a suitable husband for her and thus organized a competition. The challenge was to provide valuable gifts and present a feat of strength or skill.
Sơn Tinh, the Mountain God, arrived first and brought with him precious gifts like medicinal herbs and exotic animals from the mountains. He also demonstrated extraordinary feats that impressed the king. Satisfied, King Hùng betrothed Mỵ Nương to Sơn Tinh.
Shortly after the decision, Thủy Tinh, the Water God, arrived, bringing gifts from the sea. However, he was late to the competition, and Mỵ Nương was already promised to Sơn Tinh. Angered and feeling slighted, Thủy Tinh vowed to take Mỵ Nương by force.
Thủy Tinh returned to his ocean kingdom and summoned waves, storms, and floods to engulf the mountain where Sơn Tinh and Mỵ Nương lived. In response, Sơn Tinh used his powers to elevate the mountain higher and higher, defeating Thủy Tinh’s advances each time. The battle lasted for days, but Thủy Tinh eventually admitted defeat and returned to the sea.
However, Thủy Tinh never forgave this offense and to this day manifests his wrath by striking Vietnam with floods, tsunamis and deluges.
The duel between Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh is an attempt at explaining the frequent floods and storms that strike Vietnam, portraying them as the result of an eternal struggle between two powerful gods.
Furthermore, Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh symbolize the mountains and waters, two prominent features of Vietnamese geography that shaped the country’s history.
However, the story is also important on a human level.
Despite being gods, Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh possess very human characteristics such as love, jealousy, and rivalry, which made the story forever relevant and a lesson that could be passed down from one generation to another.
In this sense, the duel between Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh teaches lessons about the importance of timing, wisdom, and respect for the natural world.
3. Chử Đồng Tử and Tiên Dung
The story of Chử Đồng Tử and Tiên Dung is a love story that critiques social status and material wealth. The story emphasizes virtues of true love, fate, and destiny, but also criticizes the rigid social hierarchies of ancient Vietnamese society.
Chử Đồng Tử was a poor orphan who, having lost his parents at a young age, lived a life of extreme poverty. Despite his hardships, he was well-known for his intelligence, kindness, and sense of integrity.
Chử Đồng Tử was however extremely poor, having lost his home and everything he owned in a fire, except a ragged loincloth.
Princess Tiên Dung was the beautiful daughter of a king. She was known for her wisdom, beauty, and compassion. During a journey across her father’s kingdom, she happened upon Chử Đồng Tử while he was in a vulnerable state, having lost even his ragged clothing while bathing in a river.
Touched by his plight and intrigued by his character, Tiên Dung offered Chử Đồng Tử her own cloak. The two quickly fell deeply in love, realizing that they were soulmates.
Despite the vast difference in their social standings, Tiên Dung decided to marry Chử Đồng Tử, renouncing her royal status to be with him.
The two later became successful merchants, living a life of prosperity. During this time, Chử Đồng Tử went on frequent voyages to acquire goods to sell.
At one point, Chử Đồng Tử reached a lonely mountain where he found a lonely monk. Over time, the monk taught Chử Đồng Tử the ways of magic and Buddhism, helping the hero find enlightenment.
Upon his return, Chử Đồng Tử taught his wife Tiên Dung everything he knew, and she too reached enlightenment.
The two then abandoned their prosperous life as merchants, devoted themselves to Buddhism and magically founded a sprawling temple complete with servants, soldiers, civil servants and more.
Fearing this temple was in fact a rebellion, Tiên Dung’s father, the king, sent an army to destroy it. However, when the army reached the temple Chử Đồng Tử and Tiên Dung flew up into the heavens, while the temple collapsed into a lagoon.
And so, the deep love and virtuous lives of Chử Đồng Tử and Tiên Dung led them to achieve divine status after their deaths. They were worshipped as gods, and temples were built in their honor.
The story of these two lovers is seen as a critique of the rigid class structures and social norms of the time. It teaches how values such as love, kindness and integrity are stronger than the pressures of society and material wealth.
Another theme of the tale is that of fate and destiny, since the two main characters seem to be predestined soulmates, who support each other through thick and thin and rebuild their lives from nothing.
The princess Tiên Dung is portrayed as a strong, independent woman who makes her own choices, sticks with them and builds her own path. This transformed the princess into an early feminist narrative in Vietnamese folklore.
Like many great myths and stories, this tale encapsulates a range of human emotions and qualities — love, compassion, sacrifice, and the courage to defy societal expectations to achieve true happiness.
4. The Four Holy Beasts
In Vietnamese folklore, the Four Holy Beasts are mythical creatures that represent the central aspects of East Asian cosmology.
These creatures originated from Chinese mythology but were so popular they spread to Vietnames Japanese and Korean mythologies.
However, they have been incorporated into Vietnamese culture and serve as important symbols. The Four Immortal Beasts are:
Long (Dragon): The Vietnamese Dragon, called “Rồng” or “Long,” is a potent symbol of power, nobility, and prosperity.
Unlike Western dragons, which are often seen as malevolent, the Vietnamese Dragon is benevolent and closely tied to the origins of the Vietnamese people. According to legend, the Vietnamese are descended from a dragon lord named Lạc Long Quân and a fairy, Âu Cơ. Dragons in Vietnamese culture are often seen as protective figures and are commonly found in architectural designs, including those of pagodas and temples.
Quy (Turtle): Known as “Quy” or “Rùa,” the turtle is another highly respected creature. It symbolizes longevity, wisdom, and stability. The turtle is often associated with the legend of Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi, where a magical turtle is said to have given a powerful sword to the hero Lê Lợi.
Phụng (Phoenix): Called “Phụng” or “Phượng,” the Phoenix in Vietnamese culture is a symbol of grace, peace, and virtue. Often paired with the dragon, especially in the context of marriage where the dragon symbolizes the male and the Phoenix the female, this creature is also a sign of renewal and eternal life.
Lân (Unicorn/Qilin): Known as “Lân” or sometimes confused with the “Kỳ Lân” (Qilin in Chinese), this creature is a chimeric animal that often features a combination of a dragon’s head, a deer’s body, and a horse’s hooves. It symbolizes good luck, happiness, and prosperity.
The Unicorn is often confused with the Qilin, another mythical beast that sometimes takes its place in the roster. Both are seen as omens of good fortune and are thought to appear at the birth or death of a great leader.
Cosmological Balance: The Four Immortal Beasts often symbolize the balance of the universe in Vietnamese folklore. They are usually associated with a cardinal direction:
- North for the Turtle
- South for the Phoenix
- East for the Dragon
- West for the Unicorn
These mythical creatures are woven into the cultural, religious, and artistic fabric of Vietnam. For this reason, they are often depicted in temples, traditional paintings, and folklore.
Historically, the imagery of these creatures has been used to legitimize the rule of emperors and kings, claiming that their appearance signifies a just and peaceful reign.
5. The Legend of the Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày
The legend of the Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày explains the origins of two popular traditional Vietnamese foods: Bánh Chưng, a square-shaped sticky rice cake with a meat or bean filling wrapped in banana leaves, and Bánh Dày, a round and flat sticky rice cake.
In ancient Vietnam, King Hùng was a benevolent ruler who had many sons. As he grew older, he thought about choosing a successor. He decided to set a competition among his sons: the one who brought the most extraordinary and delicious food offering would inherit the throne.
Lang Liêu, the 18th prince, was neither wealthy nor powerful compared to some of his older brothers. However, he was thoughtful and kind-hearted.
While others went in search of exotic and luxurious foods, Lang Liêu had a dream where the Rice God appeared to him. The god instructed him to create two simple yet meaningful cakes using sticky rice, a staple in Vietnamese cuisine.
Lang Liêu made two types of cakes:
- Bánh Chưng: Square-shaped and filled with mung bean paste and pork, symbolizing the Earth.
- Bánh Dày: Round and flat, symbolizing the sky.
He presented these to his father, explaining their shapes, ingredients, and symbolism.
King Hùng was deeply moved by the sincerity and the profound symbolism behind the humble offerings.
While other princes brought exotic and expensive foods, Lang Liêu’s cakes were rooted in the very essence of Vietnamese life and cosmology. As a result, he chose Lang Liêu as his successor.
The story emphasizes the significance of sticky rice in Vietnamese culture and cuisine. Rice is more than just a food item; it is a symbol of life and sustenance.
The square and round shapes of the cakes symbolize the Earth and Heaven, respectively, reflecting Vietnamese cosmology and the importance of achieving balance and harmony.
Finally, the tale teaches the value of simplicity, sincerity, and humility. It shows that one doesn’t need to be extravagant to be worthy of honor and respect.
As a result of this, Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dày have become national symbols of Vietnam, especially during Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, since they embody the spirit and unity of the Vietnamese people.
6. The Tale of Thạch Sanh
The Tale of Thạch Sanh is a story of good versus evil that also explores themes of bravery and cleverness and, often features elements of magical realism.
Thạch Sanh is the protagonist of the story, often portrayed as a poor but kind-hearted woodcutter. Though not born into wealth or power, he is endowed with extraordinary strength and intelligence.
In the tale, a great king is concerned about finding a suitable husband for his daughter. He sets up a series of challenges, often impossible tasks, to find a man worthy of his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Lí Thông is the main villain of the story, and is usually depicted as a rich and cunning man who uses deceit and magic to try to marry the princess and inherit the kingdom.
Thạch Sanh competes against the antagonist in a series of challenges set up by the king. These tasks often involve feats of strength, intelligence, and bravery, such as slaying monsters or solving complex riddles.
Using his wit and sometimes with the help of magical objects or benevolent creatures, Thạch Sanh successfully accomplishes these tasks, revealing the antagonist’s deceitful ways in the process.
In the end, Thạch Sanh’s virtues and bravery win him the princess’s hand in marriage, and they live happily ever after. The antagonist is often punished or banished, reinforcing the moral lesson of the tale.
The story of Thạch Sanh is a classic tale of the triumph of good over evil, and demonstrates how virtues like bravery, intelligence, and kindness are more important than wealth or social standing.
However, the tale is also seen as a critique of the social hierarchy and the misplaced values of wealth and power. It suggests that nobility comes from one’s actions and character, not one’s social status.
Characters like Thạch Sanh serve as role models, demonstrating admirable qualities like intelligence, resourcefulness, and moral integrity.
On the other hand, Lí Thông acts as a counterexample, showing that trickery, deceit and greed are self-defeating.
7. The Legend of Hoàn Kiếm Lake
The Legend of Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a famous tale associated with Emperor Lê Lợi, one of the great heroes of Vietnamese history. Through its connection to Emperor Lê Lợi, the lake has become a symbol of Vietnamese independence and resilience.
Lê Lợi was a 15th-century Vietnamese military leader who led the resistance against the Ming Dynasty’s occupation of Vietnam.
According to legend, Lê Lợi came into possession of a magical sword given to him by the Dragon King through a turtle god. This sword was said to have extraordinary powers, granting Lê Lợi the strength to defeat the Ming forces and liberate Vietnam.
The sword had two parts: the blade, named “Thuận Thiên” (Heaven’s Will), and the hilt, named “Huyền Vũ.” When combined, the sword gave Lê Lợi the strength and power to gather people and defeat the invaders.
After successfully liberating Vietnam and establishing the Lê Dynasty, Lê Lợi became the emperor.
After the war was over and peace was restored, Lê Lợi was said to have been boating on Hoàn Kiếm Lake (then known as “Green Water Lake”). Suddenly, a giant turtle emerged from the water.
The turtle explained that it was time for the sword to be returned to the Dragon King. Lê Lợi understood that the sword was a heavenly loan meant to help in the time of the nation’s need. He gave the sword to the turtle, who disappeared into the depths of the lake.
Following this event, the Green Water Lake was renamed Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which translates to “Lake of the Returned Sword,” commemorating the miraculous event and the return of the sword to the Dragon King.
The lake and the story associated with it are now considered national symbols that represent the Vietnamese spirit of independence and resilience.
The tale is also noteworthy story for including elements of Vietnamese spirituality, namely dragons and turtles, which are often considered symbols of longevity and wisdom.
The story is also a moral lesson in humility and honoring one’s word, since Emperor Lê Lợi fulfilled his promise and returned a powerful magical item to its rightful owner after his mission was complete.
The legend of Hoàn Kiếm Lake remains a famous one to this day, since it incorporates elements of mythology as well as real life heroes and true historical records.
8. The Tale of Kieu
“The Tale of Kieu” (“Truyện Kiều”) is a classic Vietnamese epic poem written by the great poet Nguyễn Du in the early 19th century.
It is widely considered one of the most significant works of Vietnamese literature and is deeply ingrained in the country’s cultural and educational fabric.
The poem begins with the introduction of Thúy Kiều, a beautiful and educated young woman who is also talented in music and poetry. Her beauty is her gift but also her curse, attracting both admirers and ill-wishers.
Kiều falls in love with a young scholar named Kim Trọng. However, her family falls into misfortune, and in an act of filial piety, she decides to sell herself into prostitution to save her family from debt.
The story follows Kiều through a series of tragic events, including being sold into prostitution, married off to a man who already has a wife, and getting accused of murder. Throughout her life, Kiều faces hardship and suffering but maintains her dignity, grace, and sense of justice.
After many years, the story leads to a point of redemption where Kiều’s good deeds and sufferings are recognized. She eventually returns to her family and, in some versions, to her first love, Kim Trọng.
Perhaps the most important theme of the story is the resilience of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming tragedy and hardship. This is also intertwined with discussions about fate, karma, and destiny, reflecting the spiritual beliefs of Vietnamese culture.
However, it the poem also delves deep into the moral and ethical choices that individuals must make and the consequences they must bear.
Finally, the Tale of Kieu is an important story of social commentary, since it critiqued the social norms and structures of the Vietnamese society in the 19th century that enabled the tragedy and suffering of individuals, particularly women.
9. Trọng Thủy and Mỵ Châu
The story of Trọng Thủy and Mỵ Châu is a tragic Vietnamese love story, in the vein of Romeo and Juliet, and told as part of the larger narrative surrounding the battle between the two historical states of Âu Lạc and Nam Việt (Nanyue) in what is now modern-day Vietnam and parts of China.
The love story is full of romance, family drama, and tragic misunderstandings, and it has been immortalized in various forms including literature, music, and art.
The story begins with An Dương Vương, the King of Âu Lạc, who owns a magical crossbow that guarantees victory in battle. He has a beautiful daughter named Mỵ Châu.
Mỵ Châu falls in love with Trọng Thủy, the son of Triệu Đà, the King of Nam Việt. The two kings are enemies, but despite the enmity between their families, Trọng Thủy and Mỵ Châu get married.
Triệu Đà had previously tried and failed to conquer Âu Lạc, thanks to An Dương Vương’s magical crossbow.
Mỵ Châu reveals to Trọng Thủy that the secret of her father’s invincible power lies in the magic crossbow. Trọng Thủy, torn between love for his wife and loyalty to his father, eventually discloses this secret to Triệu Đà.
Armed with this knowledge, Triệu Đà manages to defeat An Dương Vương by sabotaging the magic crossbow.
An Dương Vương flees with his daughter but realizes that he has been betrayed. In his despair, he kills Mỵ Châu, believing she intentionally betrayed him.
Trọng Thủy, upon hearing about his wife’s death, is filled with sorrow. When visiting her tomb, he kills himself to join her in death. Legend has it that their blood mixed together in the soil, symbolizing their inseparable love.
The story of Trọng Thủy and Mỵ Châu is a quintessential tragic romance in Vietnamese culture, along the lines of Romeo and Juliet in Western literature.
The long form of the story dives deep into complex themes of loyalty and betrayal, both familial and romantic. The characters are caught in situations where their loyalties are divided, leading to tragic consequences.
Even though it is a legend, the tale is still grounded in the historical context of ancient Vietnam, which highlights important aspects of Vietnamese culture from that time such as filial piety, geopolitical conflicts and diplomacy through marriage.
In a moral sense, the story also serves as a cautionary tale about the tragic outcomes of betrayal and disloyalty, and it emphasizes the importance of trust in relationships.
10. The Tale of Tấm and Cám
The Tale of Tấm and Cám is the Vietnamese equivalent of the Cinderella fairy tale so familiar to many Western audiences.
It’s a story drenched in morality, family dynamics, and magical elements, often told to children but carrying messages that are equally relevant to adults. The tale explores themes of jealousy, cruelty, kindness, and poetic justice.
Tấm (meaning “broken rice”) is the protagonist of the story, a kind-hearted and virtuous girl mistreated by her stepmother and stepsister, Cám (meaning “rice bran”) who is envious and malicious.
Meanwhile, the stepmother is a cruel woman who favors her own daughter, Cám, over Tấm.
After Tấm’s mother dies, her father remarries. The new stepmother and her daughter, Cám, treat Tấm very poorly.
Tấm has a pet fish that she cherishes because it’s a gift from her late mother. The stepmother and Cám find out and kill the fish, but Tấm is able to bury its remains. From the fish’s grave grows a magical tree that continues to aid her.
With the help of the magical tree, Tấm is able to attend a festival where the king will choose a wife. She appears so beautiful that the king selects her, much to the jealousy of Cám and the stepmother.
The stepmother and Cám concoct various schemes to get rid of Tấm and put Cám in her place. They are temporarily successful, but with the help of magic and her own cleverness, Tấm overcomes their plots.
Eventually, Cám is turned into a bird as a form of punishment, and Tấm reunites with the king.
The story is often interpreted as a moral tale about the consequences of good and evil actions. Tấm, despite her hardships, maintains her kindness and integrity and is ultimately rewarded. Cám and the stepmother, on the other hand, face grim consequences for their evil ways.
Unlike the more sanitized versions of Western fairy tales, “The Tale of Tấm and Cám” retains darker elements, including death and transformation as forms of punishment.
The story is one of Vietnam’s most famous folktales and is often included in books, taught in schools, and adapted into other forms of media.
Various versions of the tale exist, including regional variations and modern adaptations. These can include different magical elements or moral lessons.
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