|A procession during the Hung Kings festival at Hung Temple in Phu Tho Province. The festival draws people from across the country.
by Hoang Trung Hieu
It's an enduring Vietnamese belief which has provided strength for many brave men down the years and the custom, which has now gained international recognition, continues to have an impact to this day.
Pham Tu Nhu, a Vietnamese car-dealer living in Australia, says he plans to bring his family home to visit historical destinations, including the temple for Hung Kings in Phu Tho Province at the beginning of March.
"We live far from the motherland, but we still remember the ancient folk verse ‘Wherever Vietnamese go, you should remember the Ancestral Anniversary [for the nation's founders, Hung Kings] on lunar March 10'," he adds.
Nhu is just one among millions of Vietnamese who worship the Hung Kings, with thousands of temples built for the purpose, particularly in Phu Tho, HCM City, Gia Lai, Da Lat, Khanh Hoa and Ca Mau.
The most distant of such temples is located in the city of San Jose (California, USA), also known as "Silicon Valley". The man who built this temple in 1993, Nguyen Thanh Liem, is a Vietnamese businessman, who visited the Hung temples many times as a child.
Later, when living in America, he bought a land lot in San Jose and built a temple for the National Founders, following the template of those from his homeland.
According to legend and oral history, the Hung Kings were the first children of Lac Long Quan and Au Co. They are credited with founding Van Lang, the first of Viet Nam's many prehistoric royal realms. The annual worship of the Hung Kings is carried out in communal halls and temples.
Having received a positive appraisal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the unique custom of worshipping Hung Kings has officially become Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity after a UNESCO session in Paris on December 6, 2012.
The official dossier submitted to the UN cultural agency in May 2012 was painstakingly prepared by the Phu Tho Province's People's Committee and the Institute of Culture and Arts of Viet Nam (ICAVN) over a two year period.
Besides the important criteria of ensuring the practices' survival and continued participation from the community, the "pure Vietnamese elements" of this belief were seen as strong points of the dossier.
"The custom of worshiping people who founded a nation is popular in East Asian countries.
However, the expansion of its scale, for the entire community to participate in this ritual is not easy to observe," says associate professor Bui Quang Thanh from the ICAVN.
Thanh, participated in building the UNESCO dossier, says South Korea and Japan worship their ancestral kings, but this is only limited to certain regions.
"In contrast, our custom of worshipping Hung Kings has strongly developed from the 12th century, before officially being honoured during the reign of King Le Thanh Tong (1470).
Since then, participation in celebrating the founders of the Vietnamese nation was maintained throughout the community and continued to expand."
Moreover, the feudal dynasties paid a great deal of attention to encouraging the people to maintain this belief.
For example, according to associate professor Dang Van Bai, the Latter Le and Nguyen dynasties constantly ordained temples dedicated to the Hung Kings in Phu Tho, exempted land tax and allocated fields around the temple to local people so they earn revenue to maintain the temple.
"The fact that the people celebrate a "common father" derived from the specific history of Viet Nam is significant," says professor Ngo Duc Thinh, a member of the National Heritage Council.
"As Viet Nam always had to struggle against foreign invasions, the feudal dynasties always highlight the need to build a common ideology or belief system to be the foundation for the nation's unity. Therefore, any dynasty had to prioritise the maintenance and preservation of this belief."
Forms of tribute
The dossier submitted to UNESCO focused on the Hung Kings' worshipping spaces around the Phong Chau area in Phu Tho. However, when they surveyed dozens of relics in the area, experts from the ICAVN discovered many unique forms of tribute to the Founders.
For example, in many temples, Hung Kings are worshipped together with other characters including Princesses Tien Dung and Ngoc Hoa, Hung dynasty ministers and generals, as well as Two Trung Sisters.
In other regions like the former Ha Tay Province, Thai Binh, Hai Duong and Thanh Hoa provinces, Hung Kings are worshipped along with Long Hai Dai Vuong (a marine god), Saint Phu Dong, An Tiem (a legedary character), King An Duong Vuong, Chu Dong Tu (a fairy), God Cao Son and children of Lac Long Quan.
"A unique feature is the fact that Hung Kings are honoured by Vietnamese people but do not hold an exclusive position in any religious activities. In many places, the Hung Kings were popularised as the people worshipped them at home along with the family's ancestors," says associate professor Thanh.
In central and southern Viet Nam, Hung Kings temples were built and developed over time - leading to a total of 1,417.
According to experts, in most cases Vietnamese would build temples for Hung Kings where they set up villages and would conduct an annual worship ceremony to show gratitude.
Even many overseas Vietnamese also asked for incense foots from the Hung Kings Temple in Phu Tho to bring home and put onto their family altar.
The unique features of the worship of Hung Kings can be generalised by comments from history professor Ha Van Tan, which are frequently quoted in seminars: "Nowhere on this Earth, is there a people who believe that they have a common ancestral tomb, a common ancestral temple, so that in a day of the year, they pilgrimage to the memorial site, as in the case of Viet Nam."
Along with many national and international seminars, the dossier was based on records from field data collected from nearly 250 relics as well as places of worship all over the country.
As most localities across the country have temples to worship Hung Kings, there is clear evidence the belief is not confined to areas around the Hung Temple in Phu Tho as some people thought.
According to experts' analysis, Hung Temple is not the root of a religion, the Hung Kings were not the religious leaders and Vietnamese worship Hung Kings without doctrine or church. But, for hundreds of years, Vietnamese have regularly pilgrimaged to the Hung Temple on March 10 to give their thanks while there are more than 1,400 temples for Hung Kings across the country and abroad.
"The creation of a system of myths about the national ancestor can be considered as an attained masterpiece of humanity," says associate professor Nguyen Chi Ben, head of the ICAVN.
He says not many countries worship a national ancestor like Viet Nam.
"Several similar cases have significant differences: the Chinese worship Guan Yu and Confucius, but do not consider these characters as their national ancestors.
Japan worships Emperor Jimmu Tenno and South Korea worships the Joseun ancient dynasty, but these are confined to a certain locality and the royal families."
Conversely, the worship of Hung Kings was considered to belong to the Vietnamese people from very early on.
"For example, with the Treo villagers in Lam Thao District, Hung Kings have been honoured for hundreds of years as their village patron saints. Every year, locals invite them from their temple to the village for Tet (Lunar New Year) celebrations.
"The unique belief of Viet Nam is that Hung Kings are ancestors, sacred kings and also the people who care for life, so they are both sacred and close, available in the community in every situation of life," says Ben.
A huge treasure of cultural heritage is associated with the myths about the 18 Hung Kings, from legends to festivals, cuisine to rituals and folk games.
Typically, in addition to the temples (attached to them are the legends about places where Hung Kings taught people how to hunt, transplant rice or the place where their princess married) researchers recorded a series of relevant festivals such as the festival for sacrificing 100 roosters in Phu Ninh Commune, the festival to make rice-based delicacies in Kim Duc Commune and the festival to choose a husband for Princess Ngoc Hoa in Chinh Nghia Commune.
This demonstrates that the creativity and participation of the community - one of the important criteria that UNESCO put in place to consider the title of Cultural Heritage - is the major strength for the custom of worshipping Hung Kings.
As this belief was formed veryearly in the folklore, Hung Kings have been officially honoured since the reign of King Le Thanh Tong (1470), with the creation of the Hung Kings' genealogy, considering Hung Kings as ancestors of the nation.
Some researchers also believe that another genealogy was compiled in 986 under the reign of King Le Dai Hanh.
Then, from the first point of religious practice on the Ca Mountain in Phu Tho, the custom of worshipping Hung Kings extended to all parts of the country thanks to the efforts of the Le-Trinh, Tay Son, and Nguyen dynasties, according to history professor Le Van Lan.
According to historian Duong Trung Quoc, this custom was also attached to every patriotic movement in the 20th century.
"Right after the August 1945 Revolution, acting President Huynh Thuc Khang led a government delegation to Hung Temple and offered to the altar the map of Viet Nam and a sword to express the nation's determination to protect the country's independence. Then, in the anti-American war, while the Viet Nam Democratic Republic (the North) organised many workshops and archaeological excavations at the Hung Temple area, the Sai Gon administration also continued to maintain the custom across southern provinces," he says.
Chairman of the People's Committee of Phu Tho Province Hoang Dan Mac says he believes the worship of Hung Kings "represents the national unity and community cohesion which forms the power of the Vietnamese people, helping them to overcome difficulties and challenges in building and developing the country, as well as in fighting against foreign invaders".
Mac says Phu Tho will have a lot of work to do to preserve and promote the value of this cultural heritage. First they should immediately draw up an action plan, including restoration works and associate the intangible cultural heritage with tangible cultural heritage at the Hung Kings Temple.
Reflecting on the worship of Hung Kings, Vietnamese-Australian Nhu says: "We simply do what our ancestors have done for years. Being Vietnamese, when we lay down and close our eyes, we will go back to our ancestors, not to any other world."