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