Nguyen Van Huy
Deputy Director, Centre for Cultural Heritage Research and Promotion
Pham Kim Ngan
Head of Research Department, Centre for Cultural Heritage Research and Promotion

Facing the rising sun, Va Temple in Van Gia Village, Trung Hung Ward, Hanoi, is also known as the East Palace, marking its importance as one of the four major veneration sites of the Tan Vien Mountain God, a key figure of Vietnamese spiritual tradition. According to legend the site’s tutelary divinity is the Ancestral Deity of the Southern Heavens and God of the Tan Vien Mountain, one the country’s most ancient deities and one of the principal mountain gods. As such, the Tan Vien Mountain God is venerated throughout the northern plain region of Vietnam by the Viet people and by some of the country’s ethnic minorities as well.

The pond containing fossilized catfish, each with its head pointing to Va Temple © The Hanoi Dept. of Culture and Sports and the Center for Research and Promotion of Cultural Heritage

According to Vietnamese geomantic beliefs, the site has highly auspicious geotemporal properties. The layout mimics the Chinese character sahn ( 三 ), which is a distinctive feature of ancient Viet architectural style. The rear of the temple is more elevated than the front, creating the illusion that the temple is rising towards the heavens. Therefore, although the structures are not very tall, they still convey a feeling of a lofty ascent as one moves through its spaces.

For over a thousand years, eight villages in the vicinity of Va Temple have held annual festivals to honor the Tan Vien Mountain God, once in the spring and again in the autumn. The festivals attract thousands of people who congregate at the temple to seek the God’s protection and blessings for their health and fruitful harvests.

Both festivals at Va Temple are based on local legends. A key feature of the spring festival is the throne-cleansing ritual (moc duc), which is rooted in legend:

The Mountain God travelled in his realm following his ascension to Lordship. In Duy Binh Village, he met a girl and told her to fill her baskets with river water for his bath. The girl was amazed and asked how baskets can hold water. He told her to just try. And when she did, the baskets held the water, and she brought them to him. She told the other villagers of this, and they rushed to the riverbank but the stranger had gone. Believing him to be divine, they ran home and killed a pig as an offering to him. But in their haste, they did not shave off all the pig’s bristles; the sticky rice they made was undercooked, and they forgot to spread lime on the ceremonial betel leaves.

On the full moon day of the first lunar month of the years of the Rat, Horse, Cat, and Rooster, the villagers of Duy Binh prepare offerings in the form of a pig with a patch of bristles left on its neck, betel leaves without lime, and uncooked sticky rice. All are solemnly presented to the God in remembrance of the story of the Holy One who came to them and departed too quickly for them to fully prepare a feast.

The autumn festival takes place on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the ninth lunar month. The ritual is based on the legend of the Mountain God going fishing in the Tich River.

One day as the God was travelling through the countryside, he met an aged fisherman on the banks of the Tich River. The old man had been casting his net all day without catching a single fish. The God stopped and said, “Let me try.” With a single cast, he netted a hundred fish of every kind. One was a female catfish with a full egg sack. Too tender-hearted to end its life, the God released the fish and returned it to the river. The young it bore all turned into fish of stone, each facing toward the East Palace Temple (Dong Cung) in homage to the god who had saved them. In this temple there is still a pond containing an assemblage of fossilized catfish, each with its head pointing to Va Temple.

Inspired by this, villagers along the Tich River go out to fish for ninety-nine white carp to offer the Mountain God. The fish offering festival is known as the Da Ngu fishing feast.

Va Temple festival traditions are ancient agricultural rituals for securing plentiful rains and good weather and the blessings of the water spirits. Its fishing feast rituals focused on wishes to secure abundant fish catches: both local people and those attending from other regions all benefit from the deep spirituality of these heartfelt devotional practices.