For two months after Tet, the sound of drums, songs and traditional music echo throughout the entire country. Spring is a time when people relax after a hard year’s work and also visit pagodas to pray for good luck, well-being and prosperity in the New Year. With a long tradition of worship culture, Vietnam has hundreds of sacred sites. Among them are four special temples in Hanoi that have been considered the protectors of the city since the time Vietnam’s capital was moved and became known as Thang Long more than a thousand years ago. Each has a different story but all cover historical, cultural and architectural values that visitors to Hanoi should not miss.
Protector of the East: Bach Ma Temple
Located at 76 Hang Buom, Hoan Kiem district, Bach Ma Temple is easy for tourists to find in the Old Quarter.
Legend has it that in 1010, when Emperor Ly Thai To moved the capital from Hoa Lu (in Ninh Binh province) to Thang Long, he decided to build a citadel to repel invaders. But as the citadel was being built it collapsed many times. The emperor was advised to make an offering at the temple built in 866 to worship the deity Long Do, who controlled and protected the site.
That night the deity appeared in the emperor’s dreams and told him to follow the traces of a horse to find a new location for the citadel. The emperor then dreamed of a white horse galloping from the temple and the next day he instructed his troops to build the citadel where he dreamt the horse had run to. It turned out to be the perfect site for a citadel.
To express his gratitude to the deity, the emperor asked for a carving of a white horse to be made in the temple for worshiping and conferred the title of ‘Thang Long Tutelary God’ upon the deity and named the temple Bach Ma, which means ‘white horse’.
In the ten centuries since a lot of restoration work has been done so the temple now reflects the architecture of the 19th century. It features a temple with a wooden frame and large columns and three temple gates, an area for burning incense, forbidden palaces, and sophisticated carvings. It retains many of its ancient relics, however, such as stone steles, palanquins, cranes and pairs of earthen statues for worshipping.
Every year, to honour the deity Long Do, the Hoan Kiem People’s Committee holds the Bach Ma Temple Festival on February 12 and 13 of the lunar calendar. The festival includes many offerings and cultural activities such as ceremonial songs, Vietnamese opera, poem recitations, and fencing.
Protector of the North: Quan Thanh Temple
Quan Thanh Temple, also called Tran Vu Temple, was built in 1010 under the Ly Dynasty for the purpose of worshipping God Tran Vu, who trains a martial arts team in heaven, controls the north, and is believed to have assisted the Hung Kings to expel invaders and helped the people fight against evil ghosts and natural disasters. This reflects the religion of worshiping gods who have magical powers that can enhance people’s strength, which appeared in Vietnam’s early days.
On the banks of Truc Bach Lake, next to beautiful West Lake and abundant green trees, Quan Thanh Temple remains famous for its 17th century architecture. It features three gates, a temple yard and the three main buildings - a front hall, an annex, and a back hall.
Inside Quan Thanh Temple is a four-metre height black copper statue of God Tran Vu on the back of a turtle holding a sword, which depicts strength and longevity. The statue was built in 1677 to show the respect of local people towards God Tran Vu and to showcase the unique artistic works of the period.
The temple is also famous for its wood carvings, which include holy animals like dragons, phoenixes, and bats, as well as different beautiful flowers, which show the uniqueness of the Le Dynasty in the 16th century and of Taoism.
Protector of the West: Voi Phuc Temple
Built in a muddy lagoon in 1065, Voi Phuc Temple is now on a mound south of Thu Le Zoo, with a view over a large beautiful lake and surrounded by gardens and lush greenery.
Voi Phuc Temple is dedicated to Prince Hoang Chan, also known as Linh Lang Dai Vuong (the Great Aristocrat), the son of Emperor Ly Thai Tong (1028-1054). Legend has it that the emperor was growing old but he had no son to inherit the kingdom. One day, one of his wives was bathing in Dam Dam Lake (modern-day West Lake) when a dragon suddenly appeared and showered her with water before disappearing. A few days later she was pregnant. Fourteen months later, she gave birth to a boy who was named Linh Lang (small dragon) for dragon scales and black moles twinkling like pearls on his body.
When he was seven days old his mother took him to her native land in Thu Le Camp, as is the custom. Two months later the Song Dynasty in China sent troops to plunder the border. The emperor sent messengers to recruit talented people to fight the invaders. When the messenger came to Thu Le Camp, Linh Lang told his mother that he needed to help his father. The little prince then suddenly became an adult and asked the emperor to send him a red flag, a long spear, and an elephant to defeat the invaders. When he met the elephant it kneeled in front of him and he took the red flag and rode to battle to direct the soldiers and defeat the enemy.
After the victory, the prince returned to Thu Le and became severely ill a few months later. He revealed that he was a saint sent from heaven to help the emperor defeat the invaders from the north and now had to return home. He then magically transformed into a serpent and slithered into Dam Dam Lake. The emperor bestowed the title of His Royal Highness upon him and built a temple in his honour. In front of the temple are two kneeling elephants, hence the name Voi Phuc (kneeling elephants).
The temple was heavily damaged during French colonial rule and has been renovated several times since 1953. It still bears architecture from 19 and 20th centuries, ‘feng shui’ representing vitality from heaven to earth, a square well symbolising abundant water and prosperity, and a couple of carved dragons and tigers. As well as the two kneeling elephants at the front of the temple there is also a collection cultural artefacts, including a throne, bronze temple bells, sedan chairs, ancestral tablets, statues of sacred cranes and horses, parallel sentences that praise the merits of the Thang Long Citadel’s Western Protector, and other valuable objects, with inscriptions in Han and Nom script describing many stories of gods, particularly the gods of protection.
Every year, to commemorate God Linh Lang, the Voi Phuc Temple Festival is held on the 9th to 11th days of the second lunar month. There is a grand procession festival with flags, fans, gongs, drums, parasols, a bat am (castanet) musical band, and group dancing.
Protector of the South: Kim Lien Temple
The youngest protector of the city, built in 1509, is located in Kim Lien village in Dong Da district and honours Cao Son Dai Vuong, one of the sons of Lac Long Quan and Au Co, the legendary creators of the Vietnamese people.
Together with 49 of his siblings, Cao Son followed his father Lac Long Quan to the mountains to settle on the land while his other 50 siblings went with their mother Au Co to the sea. He is believed to have helped Son Tinh, the God of the Mountains, defeat Thuy Tinh, the God of the Water, as told in a famous legend involving tidal irrigation and devastating floods that represent the fighting spirit and victory of the Vietnamese people over natural disasters in the country’s early days. Later, in the 16th century, before Emperor Le Tuong Duc quelled the rebellions in the country, he worshipped Cao Son for holy support. After he was successful and retrieved power for the Le Dynasty, he built the temple to honour him.
The temple was also destroyed during Vietnam’s wars but an important relic - a two-metre tall stele with a poem honouring Cao Son - survived in a small temple under an old banyan tree.
Located on a high hill, the temple consists of two separate parts: the arched gate and the main structure on the hill itself. This is similar to the construction of the Kinh Thien Palace in the Thang Long Citadel. In front of the yard is a gate with two square bronze pillars near a small spring. This was thought of as a meeting point between water and happiness. The entrance gate is a three-part chamber with decorative details including phoenixes with books in their mouths, clouds, and a unicorn. It also contains 39 imperial edicts from the Le and Nguyen Dynasties sent to Cao Son.