Back in 2007, I went back to Việt Nam to visit the northern areas and to see the sights. During my three-week sojourn, I wandered through more temples and ancient structures and caves than I can remember off the top of my head, but I do remember wandering through the main gates of this temple.
Sadly, my photos are on another computer so I can’t show you my grinning monkey face standing like a funny American tourist in front of the temple. However, thanks to the miracles of the internet, I found a picture of the temple that is exactly what I saw. This is Đình Thổ Hà, a very famous temple located in the town of Thổ Hà.
This is what you call a living, breathing, actively in-use museum. The museum is the building itself and not just the artifacts contained within. See that huge white urn in the center of the photo? I actually stuck several incense sticks into that urn as a sign of respect before I entered the place. I also had to leave my shoes outside the door where a small chú tiểu (young monk) of maybe five or six years old was standing to guard the shoes from being taken. Since they were cheap flip-flops, I didn’t care, but it was nice to know that the young temple monks took good care of the visitors.
I remember walking into the temple, not really knowing what kind of temple it was. Seriously, I had seen so many temples that had been erected in honor of one Budha or another, so I thought it was probably, yet another Budha temple.
This one was specifically built for the veneration of Lão Tử, Thái Thượng Lão Quân. In other words, it’s for the guy we all know and love, Lao Tzu.
But that is not what’s special about this museum temple, oh no.
What makes this temple so very special is that it was the first place where Lao Tzu’s water buffalo went to after he left the northern regions near the city of Tây An (西安) Xi’an, in modern-day Thiểm Tây (陕西) Shaanxi Province. Notice I said place and not building. The original building has been rebuilt time and time again due to a variety of reasons.
The latest incarnation of this building occurred in 1685 under the direction of one of the Lê Kings. That is barely 325 years…quite new and modern compared to the vast distance of approximately 2,260 years between the time Lao Tzu was found wandering around that area on his water buffalo and today.
This place has been refurbished over and over again due to the ravages of time, flooding, earth quakes, heavy storms, and all the various wars which had been fought in and around this area. The bombings around here and the countryside are such that scars still show everywhere we look, even to this day.
I passed by so many perfectly round bomb craters by the side of the road during my visits there. Most of those bomb craters are now local swimming pools where kids gather to swim and where animals go to drink and bathe. Out of the horrors is reborn a new way of looking at things, a new way to take what is good out of what cannot possibly be good. Vietnamese are resilient and that is why we are still here, after all these years through all these changes.
So here we are, thousands of years ago, all the way back into the era during the reign of King An Dương Vương. This guy ruled in the years between 257 BC to 207 BC, where he managed to unite the two tribes Âu Việt andLạc Việt into one region called Âu Lạc, and although there is much about him that is historically significant, I’m going to skip over all that and just focus in on one small part of his activities that has to do with what we are discussing in this post.
The story can actually be found in what has now somehow, inadvertently turned into one of my favorite books, the Lĩnh Nam Trích Quái ( 嶺南摘怪 ) Wonders Plucked from the Dust of Linh-nam., which talks about the Truyện Rùa Vàng, or The Story of the Golden Turtle:
In the telling, it states that King An Dương Vương had tried to build a citadel in the area of Cổ Loa many times, but no matter how many times he built it, it kept coming apart due to inclement weather, or fire, or flooding, or warfare between the neighboring areas.
So, he decides he is going to personally go to the temple himself and ask for divine help because obviously, this thing is a nightmare that regular humans can’t handle.
The temple that the King goes to is at the very same site of the Đình Thổ Hà that I was at, only back in circa 260 BC, it was a little bit differently constructed—much more modest, much more unassuming. It was little more than a small pagoda that barely fit a handful of people.
On the seventh day of the third month (that would be March 7, except in the Lunar calendar) of that year, he was in the temple asking for help when an old man with white hair was seen coming from the west and heading towards the temple gate. The old man said in a firm and commanding voice, “If you build it like that, there’s no telling when it will ever get done!”
Of course, you know—nobody talks to the King in that tone of voice, let alone a nobody old man from nowheresville who should not even know why the King was there in the first place. Immediately, the king’s men surrounded the old man and demanded that he leave the area where the king was present or face cruel and unusual punishment.
King An Dương Vương, hearing the hoolabaloo decides he wants to meet this bold and boisterous old man, so the old man was led into the temple to be placed in front of the King to be questioned. The King, upon hearing what the old man proclaimed at the front gate, asked the old man, “I have built, and rebuilt, and rebuilt this citadel many, many times but it continually falls down, costing me so much in energy and resources. Why is this happening?”
The old man replied, “There will be an ambassador of Thanh Giang who will come to assist your kingdom to rebuild the new citadel. Only then will you be successful. Wait for him.” After he said these words to the king, he said his goodbyes and left.
Sure enough, in a very short time, there was a golden turtle that rose up out of the river. It called itself the Ambassador of Thanh Giang and the first thing it did was to eliminate all the bad spirits and strange beings that had previously kept the citadel from being built. Then, it actively assisted the king using knowledge and various magics so that the citadel only took two weeks to build from the ground up.
It is still standing to this day.
(…to be continued)