Saint Giong (Thánh Gióng), one of the Four Immortals (alongside Tan Vien, Chu Dong Tu, and Lieu Hanh) worshipped by the Vietnamese people, is a historical hero dating back to the early time of the Viet nation.1 The story of Saint Giong has been transmitted through many generations as a legend that invokes the bravery and community solidarity of the Vietnamese people in fighting against foreign invaders. Today, the tremendous legacy of Saint Giong is manifest in the
spiritual belief, the annual ceremony, and the temple where past and present collide.
From the Past…
According to legend, Saint Giong was born in Phu Dong Village. His mother had fallen pregnant after stepping on a giant footprint. At the age of three, Giong could neither talk nor move as a normal child would. One day, King Hung (Hùng Vương) the Sixth’s emissary went in search of a leader who could salvage the country that was in chaos because of the Ân invasion. As the emissary approached Phu Dong village, Giong was still lying in his family home. All of a sudden, he spoke his very first words to his mother, asking her to deliver a message to the emissary that he needed an iron horse, iron armor, and an iron sword in order that he could lead the troops to fight back against the invading forces. Although shocked, his mother talked to the emissary as the boy asked. From that moment, the boy could move his body and ask for food. The neighbors contributed food as there was not enough available for him.
Soon, he grew up to become a strong man. Equipped with the armor and the horse that the King provided, he traveled to the front and joined the war. He fought bravely against the might of the enemy army, but his iron sword broke due to the sheer number of invaders he had to battle. Thinking quickly, he picked up bamboo sticks to use as weapons. The enemy soldiers were afraid of his bravery and prowess. They were also burned by the horse, which had the ability to breathe fire. The battle turned in favor of the Viet side and, finally, the enemy forces were swept away from the territory of Viet Nam. After victory was secured, Giong knelt on the land of Soc Son Mountain to show his appreciation to his mother and the neighbors who helped him through their donations of food to become strong enough to defeat the invaders and restore peace in the country. He then flew on his horse into the sky, and this was the last anyone saw of Giong. Since then, Giong acquired the name Phu Dong Thien Vuong (Heavenly King of Phu Dong). A temple was constructed at the place from where he departed for future generations to pay worship to him.
It is believed Saint Giong was sent by God to help the Vietnamese people defend their land from foreign enemies. The story of the saint features a symbolic expression of desire for national independence and community solidarity for the collective good, as evidenced in the part where Giong’s neighbors joined together to contribute food for the boy. Also, the horse and bamboo that feature in the legend are traditional elements that indicate the spirit of strength and persistence in Vietnamese culture.
…to the Present
Today, Vietnamese people honor Saint Giong’s patriotism and contribution in several places. Among the celebrations, the Giong Festival, celebrated annually from the sixth to the ninth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar at the Phu Dong temple, is the most popular.
Located in Phu Dong, the village in the Gia Lam district on the outskirts of Hanoi where Saint Giong was born, the temple was rebuilt in the eleventh century during the dynasty of King Ly Thai To. The temple features a traditional Vietnamese architectural structure composed of chambers, yards, gates, ponds, and sculptures. The temple, which is listed as a Special National Relic, houses a statue of Saint Giong in the chamber, with a statue of his legendary horse outside.
In the Giong Festival, people participate in a performance demonstrating the battle as described in the legend of Saint Giong. The Giong Festival was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010 for its part in conserving historical value.
Meanwhile, at Soc Temple, where Saint Giong ascended to heaven, there is a celebration held during the first lunar month, which takes the form of a ritual ceremony to deliver offerings to the saint.
Being honored as a symbol of Vietnamese patriotism, the legend of Saint Giong has been passed down from the elder generations to teach their younger counterparts lessons in morality and make them aware of their cultural roots. Together with the legend, the Giong Festival and the temples dedicated to Saint Giong demonstrate the culture and belief system in which worshipping Saint Giong is the way the Vietnamese people conserve the national spirit and wish for
peace and prosperity.
Phu Dong Temple © Vietnam Institute for Conservation of Monuments