VietnamCulture and HistoryFour Mythical Creatures in the Vietnamese Culture

Four Mythical Creatures in the Vietnamese Culture

Four mythical creatures in the Vietnamese culture, “Tu Linh”, called Long – Lan – Quy – Phung, are four sacred animals. They are believed to be created from the four main elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Their symbols are often found in Vietnamese sculptures in pagodas, temples, cemeteries, and local houses.

Dragon (Long, Rong)

vietnamese mythical creatures dragon sculpture

The Vietnamese Dragon is a potent combination of a snake’s body, lizard’s thighs, hawk’s claws, deer horns, and fish scales. It is considered the creature of heaven, possessing greater power than other animals and symbolizing nobility and immortality. People also think when the dragon appears, it will bring good things, luck, wealth, and peace. This is why the dragon was a special symbol of Vietnamese emperors in the past.

vietnamese mythical creatures dragon royal seal
The dragon symbol on the royal seal

Coming to Vietnam, you will recognize that various regions have the “long”, which means dragon, in their names, such as Thang Long (Hanoi), Ha Long Bay, and Dong Bang Song Cuu Long (Mekong Delta). Each title comes from a different tale related to dragons.

Vietnamese believed they were lineal descendants of a mighty dragon named Lac Long Quan. Legend has it that Lac Long Quan married Au Co, a beautiful fairy. They had 100 sons and daughters. The first-born son then became the king of the first dynasty of Vietnam, the Hung Dynasty. That’s why there is a common proverb that Vietnamese often use to describe themselves as “con rong Chau tien”, which means “descendants of dragon and fairy”.

vietnamese mythical creatures dragon art museum
Similar to the Chinese belief, the emperor of the country is associated with the dragon symbol

An interesting thing you may find is the illustration and roles of the dragon in Vietnamese culture are quite different from those in Chinese. The head of the Vietnamese dragon has a long mane, a chin beard, and no horns. It also holds the pearl – a symbol of nobility, intellect, and humanity – in its mouth instead of in the front flaws. Its curvy body represents the ability to change the weather and seasons, giving it an essential role in Vietnamese agriculture.

Read more on Vietnamese Folk Religions

Chinese Unicorn (Lan, Ky Lan)

vietnamese mythical creatures art museum lan

The unicorn is a composite creature from the features of a horse, dragon, and buffalo. Like the dragon, the unicorn’s appearance is believed to bring good fortune and peace. You can often catch sight of the unicorn carved on doorways and unicorn statues in front of many pagodas and temples. It is because the unicorn can guard the houses, temples, and worship sites from evil spirits.

Legend has it that the Vietnamese unicorn was a wild beast under the sea, coming on land to destroy crops. Maitreya Buddha transformed himself into the Earth God (“Ong Dia” in Vietnamese), and turned the unicorn into a helpful beast. This legend explains the origin of the Lion Dance, often performed at traditional Vietnamese festivals, including the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival. Unlike the Lion Dance in other countries, the Vietnamese Lion Dance is called the Unicorn Dance, where ong Dia (the Earth God) leads and dances with the unicorns.

Turtle (Quy)

vietnamese mythical creatures turtle temple of literature
Temple of Literature in Hanoi

Among the four mythical creatures in the Vietnamese cultures, the turtle is the only real animal. As a long-lived amphibian reptile, the turtle can survive for a long time without food. Thus, they represent longevity and spiritual strength.

Turtle also symbolizes immortal intelligence. At the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu Quoc Tu Giam) in Hanoi, there are 82 stone sculptures of turtles carrying the stone steles with the names of doctoral graduates carved. It was a mark of honor to those who had achieved the highest education during the Le Dynasty.

vietnamese mythical creatures ngoc son temple turtle
The turtle is greatly worshipped at the Ngoc Son Temple at the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

The turtle is also closely related to Vietnamese culture through several historical tales. One of them is the tale in which Le Loi returned the sacred sword to the Dragon King after he defeated the Chinese army via a turtle that lived in a jade water lake. The lake was later named Hoan Kiem Lake, meaning “Returned Sword Lake”.

Phoenix (Phung, Phuong Hoang)

vietnamese mythical creatures phoenix engraving
Phoenix engravings remnants from an ancient pagoda in Vietnam

The phoenix has a snake neck, eagle claws, fish scales, and a peacock tail. This mythical bird symbolizes virtue, nobility, and grace. Legend has it that the phoenix only appeared in prosperous times, thus representing peace.

Originating from China, the phoenix is considered the most beautiful bird and one of the most potent and sacred animals. Together with the dragon, the phoenix symbolizes royalty. The dragon has a yang element, representing the king, while the phoenix has a yin element, meaning the queen. The complementation of yin and yang, symbolized by the combination of dragon and phoenix, is also believed to bring happiness to a marriage. That is why the image of a dragon and a phoenix is often used to decorate Chinese and Vietnamese weddings.

Summary of Four Mythical Creatures in the Vietnamese Culture

Like many other East and Southeast Asians, Vietnamese strongly believe in mythical creatures, including the Dragon, Unicorn, Turtle, and Phoenix (Long, Lan, Quy, Phung). These sacred animals represent longevity, mercy, and happiness and can be found on many objects in Vietnam, primarily decorative figures in pagodas and temples.

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