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Animism in Vietnam's culture
 
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Animism is probably the world’s oldest belief system. Half a million years ago in the Palaeolithic era, human hunter-gatherers wandered the forests, plains and mountains of ancient Asia. They believed that a soul or spirit existed in every object, even if it was inanimate. The soul or spirit existed as part of an immaterial soul, thus making it omnipresent. They worshipped the spirits, and made offerings to placate their anger or gain favour.

The animistic worldview contains both the observed or physical world and the unseen or spirit world. There is no sharp distinction between the two realities; what happens in one affects the other. Animals may be embodiments of spirits: many are worshipped as sacred, such as the cow and monkey in India.

Animists believed that there was an order to nature that had to be kept in balance. Even the smallest action that disturbed the balance could lead to disaster. There are strong echoes of this belief in the concept of yin and yang, and geomancy.

Traces of ancient animism linger in the symbolism, legends, fairy stories, creation myths and language in all cultures. In Vietnam, aspects of these ancient beliefs permeate mainstream religion, ritual and ceremonial, and the daily life of its people, and mainly centre upon real and mythical creatures.

The Dragon
The dragon is a potent and ubiquitous presence in Vietnam, the most important of Vietnam’s four sacred animals. Unlike the fire-breathing monster of Europe (but not Wales, where the dragon is the principality’s emblem), the Vietnamese dragon is a benign guardian, the King protecting the people and embodying power and intelligence.

Carved, painted and sculpted on buildings, reincarnated in paper and cloth for dragon dancing, immortalised in poetry, place names and myths, and used for logos, motifs, ornaments, advertising and a host of other contemporary purposes throughout the country- the dragon is everywhere. Hanoi was originally known as ‘Thanh Long’ – ‘rising dragon’: the dragon will doubtless be the centrepiece of the celebration of the city’s millennium in 2010.

The Phoenix
Of the other sacred creatures, the phoenix is the Queen, the manifestation of beauty and peace. Phoenix are usually depicted as large elegant birds resembling storks. Always in pairs, a dominate male with spread wings and reaching neck, and a submissive female with head bowed, they are often found in temples, and are believed to bring good luck. We keep a pair of phoenix in the lobby of Haivenu’s head office, just in case!

The Tortoise
The tortoise/turtle (the names are used interchangeably in Vietnam) is the symbol of longevity, and the protector of the kingdom. In pagodas, and notably in Van Mieu, Hanoi’s famous Temple of Literature, steles are usually erected with a stone tortoise as its base so that the sentiments or achievements expressed on the stone tablet will last for a long time.

Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem lake is the location of a well-known legend featuring a giant tortoise. It is also believed to harbour large freshwater turtles that occasionally poke their heads out from the lake’s murky water bringing good luck to those fortunate to witness the occurrence – a preserved specimen can be seen in a small pagoda at the north of the lake.

The kylin
The other sacred animal is the kylin, the Vietnamese unicorn, making up the quartet. The kylin represents wisdom

Other important animals
Lions and horses also feature prominently. Highly stylised stone effigies of lions often guard the entrances to buildings – there are many excellent examples in Hue. Horses are believed to have mystical powers. In Ho Chi Minh City’s magnificent ‘Jade Emperor Pagoda’, visitors will see women stroking a large effigy of a horse to help them to become pregnant. In Hanoi, the Bach Ma (White Horse) temple, a legend tells of a large white horse showing the King where to build the walls of Hanoi.

Animism in in ethnic communities
Animism is more significant among ethnic communities, many of whom continue to adhere to the ancient beliefs. The M’nong people living in a densely forested area of the Central Highlands are famed as elephant catchers, and continue to worship the creatures as divine spirits even today.

The mysterious ‘whale cult’
Elsewhere, fishing people in Ha Long Bay, along the coast and around the Mekong Delta, worship whales to bring them good luck and return them safely after a voyage. Although whales seldom venture into Vietnamese waters nowadays, the carcasses of beached whales and their skeletons are treated with great reverence and carefully preserved.

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