Back in Hanoi, And A Bit About The Symbol Of The Dragon In Vietnam

Back in Hanoi, And A Bit About The Symbol Of The Dragon In Vietnam

From Hoi An, we flew back to Hanoi.
Our time in Vietnam was coming to an end.
From Hanoi, we will fly back to Thailand, where we began this journey almost three months ago.

The weather in Hanoi has changed since we were here a month ago.
It is now cold and breezy, and we have to dress up in layers and wrap scarves around our necks, because we did not bring coats with us.

After spending a few weeks in some of the smaller towns in Vietnam, the streets of Hanoi feel so busy and crowded.
Our five star hotel in the city has comfy rooms and a fabulous breakfast, but it doesn’t feel like a sanctuary.
Their beautiful lobby is daily transformed into a wedding photoshoot.

You simply cannot relax in a comfortable lobby when clothing is draped all over the chairs, big lights and reflectors block the way, and makeup artists, camera crews and directors are taking up all the sofas.

Jules was told that this is prime wedding season, and because the hotel was closed due to Covid for so long, they are now trying to compensate for lost money by booking all these wedding photoshoots.

We sought refuge in the Botanical gardens and visited the old Citadel, the former forbidden city and palace of Hanoi.
The sprawling gardens of the citadel felt relaxing, and we learnt a lot about the history of the city.

Best of all, they had an exhibition about the history of the image of the dragon, and how it changed throughout the dynasties that ruled Vietnam.

Since I paint dragons often in my scroll paintings, I was delighted to come upon this exhibition.
Dragons are used to decorate roofs, arches, pillars, gates and the stairs of many buildings and temples in Vietnam and all over Asia.
Many statues of rulers, lords, and kings, as well as scholars and spiritual teachers, are depicted wearing elaborate clothing decorated with dragons, with even their boots and belts decorated with dragons’ and lions’ heads.

The dragons are depicted very differently in each country.
Some dragons, like the ones seen in Tibet and Bhutan, look ferocious with long fangs and piercing eyes.
On the other hand, Japanese dragons, like the ones painted by Hokusai, look like old wise men and not at all scary.

The images of dragons have changed dramatically through the centuries.
Obviously, I was delighted to learn about the evolution of the Vietnamese dragon.

Here is a synopsis of the exhibition:

The Vietnamese dragon is a sacred ancient mythical animal in Vietnam.
Some scholars attribute the origin of the dragon to snake-worship cults (the ancient Indian and Nepalese Nagas) that were popularly practiced by the ancient Vietnamese people, especially those living near rivers and the sea.
There are many snake-worshipping shrines still found along many rivers in the Red River delta area.

Another dragon is the cult of the sea serpent (Thuöng Luöng), a mythical creature mentioned in many folk tales and myths in Vietnam.
The Thuöng Luong is a water snake-monster with a crest on its head.
It rules over the waters and is capable of causing floods and transforming itself into a human being to penetrate into the earthly world.

Because it represented mythical powers, farmers worshipped it when they prayed for drinking water, rain, and an abundance of healthy crops.

It is believed by ethnologists and archaeologists that the dragon image originated from the crocodile (jiaolong or giao long).
Images of snakes, serpents and crocodiles have been found on a great number of bronze-age artifacts.

Yet the dragon that we see today was not in existence until the 11th century in Vietnam, despite the fact that it was mentioned in many legends before then.

In the 11th century, China occupied Vietnam, and the orthodox Confucian belief in the Dragon as King and a symbol of Royalty, power and fertility, spread to change Vietnamese indigenous religious beliefs.

Ly dynasty dragons (1009 to 1225) were usually depicted with the whole body and they had no details or scales covering the body.
Their heads had no horns, no ears and no nose.
Instead, the upper lip was elongated into a high snout that narrowed towards the end.

Their fangs were set in the ends of the upper jaw, curved, and crossed the snout, like elephant tusks.
The lower lip was smaller, sometimes elongated and undulated softly, rising up or, together with the snout above, enclosing a ” pearl-like” ball.

This ball, represents the “pearl of wisdom,”which is the secret of eternal immortality of the spiritual truth.

The dragon’s body was long and serpentine, with a low line of dorsal fins running along the spine.
The belly of a dragon consisted of short segments, similar to a snake’s.

The entity had four legs, each with three toes facing forward only, and no back toe.
Each toe had fingernail claws.
The first forelimb was located in the middle of the first bend of the belly, while the second limb lay at the end of this segment.

The two hindlegs were always in the same position, around the middle of the third bend of the belly.
All the four legs had elbows with long hair flying backwards.

Dragons under the Trän dynasty from 1225 to 1400 were depicted quite liberally in abundant layouts.
Their heads no longer bore complicated details like the Ly dynasty dragons.

The upper fangs were quite big, crossing the snout ridge. In many cases, there appeared a layer of big serrated fins around the snout ridge.
Above the dragon’s eyes were Omega shaped marks which were gradually converted into eyebrows.

The body remained the same as those under the Ly dynasty, but stouter and more stretched, its front bends bigger, the rear ones smaller, with a snake tail.

The dorsal fins on the back of the dragon were spiny, with big and pointed saw toothed blades, or separate ones arranged in two layers.
The dragon’s limbs were shorter, with elbows that had hair flying forwards or backwards depending on the layout.

The Trän dynasty dragons were portrayed in a comfortable twisted pose, and with brave movements.

The dragon always had a stout and sturdy body, and was portrayed as moving forward.
Images of two dragons bowing to the sun were found inside the Phô Minh stupa, dating back to 1305-1310.

Under the early Le dynasty, (1427–1527) there were many types of tubular roof tiles, and yellow or green tiles were decorated with five clawed or finned dragons.
They were carefully made and used as ornaments on many palaces built at the time.

Citadel builders also used dragon motifs on flagstones and in sculptures on stone staircases.
Large terracotta statues of dragon heads were also used as roof finials on pavillions.

Dragons during the Early Lê dynasty (1427–1527) were associated with the King’s power and sovereignty and were significantly influenced by Chinese art.
The dragons were changed to have five long claws on their feet.

These dragons had big noses, two horns, two ears, and saw toothed eyebrows covering two round protruding eyes.
Their mouth opened wide, showing a set of brute teeth. Their body consisted of many strong segments.

These dragons no longer revealed their belly in the posture of snakes.
Instead, their belly always faced down and to curl themselves up, their body had to twist.
These dragons had a ferocious manner, which was different from the dragons of fertility in the past.

Dragons under the Mac dynasty (1527-1627) were depicted on various materials, such as ceramics, wood and stone.
Dragons had similar features as dragons under the Tran and the Early Lê dynasties, but their details and bodies looked stouter.

Their entire body was covered with a system of kinky veins.
They were slender and long, with sharp blades flying out from the dragons’s eyes and elbows.
The Mac dynasty dragons seemed more “active” and free than the dragons of the past.

During this era, (late 16th century) in many architectural details, you can see fish-bodied or fish-tailed dragons with heads similar to the dragons of other dynasties.

The images of dragons in the 17th century can be divided into three stages.
In the early stage, under the reigns of Hoäng Dinh and Dong Höa, dragons carved in stone still complied with the Mac dynasty style and had a long, slender, hump backed body.

Long, wavy sword blades still protruded from the body, however these blades were no longer slender but much bigger, sometimes with twisted veins or small beads.

In the mid 17th century, most dragons were fatter and stronger, with fewer hump back segments and well defined scales.
A dragon’s entire body was covered with scales and twisted veins.

The blades protruding from the dragon’s eyes, were the biggest, symbolizing a flash of lightning.
The same bolts of lightning came out from the elbows and fins instead of hair, which was used in earlier dragons.

In the last twenty years of the 17th century, people in Vietnam told myths about bamboo or about animals transforming into dragons.

These dragon bodies remained short and strong, but became covered in a system of blades that were much longer than those used in the mid century.

In the 18th century, dragons were depicted similarly to those in the 17th century, but some swordblades were shaped at obtuse angles.
In many cases, these blades were triangular shaped and wavy.

In the 19th century, dragons were no longer decorated with blades but instead triangular shaped ones.
Apart from the stout body inherited from previous centuries, there appeared two spring shaped blades at the eyes, which were like catfish whiskers curling up at the ends.

In the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, dragon tails stretched out and had curly hair.
Their bodies were quite small and slender.
Their limbs were posed in a climbing posture.
Their dorsal fins were big, making the entity look vainglorious.
They seemed very ferocious.

In many works of architecture in the 19th century, dragons were carved depicting the four mythological creatures in Vietnam, the Dragon, the Unicorn, the Tortoise, and the Phoenix.
There were stone carvings of carp swimming upstream, in an effort to become dragons.

Not all dragons appeared ferocious, most dragons on stone staircases look quite beautiful.
The most artistic dragons in this period are those done in the form of twisted designs on seal patterns.

They were depicted beautifully as dragons forming the shape of plants like the conifer, chrysanthemum, bamboo, and apricot blossoms.

We left the old citadel and walked around the city for the last time.

In Vietnam, there is an ancient story of how the Vietnamese people originated.
The Vietnamese people believe that they are descendants of a Fairy Mother named Au Co, who lived in the mountains, and a Dragon King who lived in the sea, named Lac Long Quan.

This is why some Vietnamese people refer to themselves as “Con Rong Chau Tien” or “The children of the Fairy and the Dragon.”

Traveling around the country, it is easy to see that this mix of power and divinity is embedded into the soul of this small yet mighty nation.
The people are industrious, hard working, committed to their tasks, and the dragon is without any doubt Vietnam’s symbolic protector.

With love from Hanoi,

1 Comments on “Back in Hanoi, And A Bit About The Symbol Of The Dragon In Vietnam”

  1. Tali thanks

    Loved yr narration on dragons

    We in india have yali….in south of india many temples have this mythical creature….some have their tail in their mouth….a few with solid ball of rock….all carved in a single stone

    I guess it is this culture of Raja raja cholan…a king who lived in south tamilnadu and invaded the east and extended his rule has its influences….he was at about 6th/ 8 th century

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