The stories about the White Horse and the building of this temple are interesting (see below). But there was another white horse, famous or infamous as the case may be, in Vietnamese history. That was the white horse of the Han Dynasty general Ma Yuan who conquored Vietnam in the first century AD. Until recently in Vietnam there were temples in his honor, and many still exist in southern China. So, we question if the white horse worshipped in the Bach Ma Temple may not be Ma Yuan's white horse, altered to fit more comfortably into a more independent Vietnamese folklore?**|
The above was written in 2005. In December, 2007, we received the following comment in an email from Tran Vinh Tan in Hochiminh City: "I read some articles about White Horse Temple, and I think you're right. This temple is one of four important temples of Thăng Long (old name of Ha Noi), which is situated at the East of Hanoi (other 3 in North, West and South). According to the gravestone and documents in temple, this temple was built in 1687 to memorize Ma Yuan."
** "The stories about the White Horse and the building of this temple are interesting (see below). But there was another white horse, famous or infamous as the case may be, in Vietnamese history. That was the white horse of the Han Dynasty general Ma Yuan who conquored Vietnam in the first century AD. Until recently in Vietnam there temples in his honor in Vietnam, and still many exist in southern China. So, we question if the white horse revered in the Bach Ma Temple may not be Ma Yuan's white horse, altered to fit more comfortably into independent Vietnamese folklore?
In the ninth century, King Ly Thai To was trying to build the Hanoi Citadel, but the walls kept collapsing. Bach Ma (White Horse), who was the spirit of Thang Long (Ancient Hanoi), posed as a builder to help the King. This temple was then founded in honor of the spirit. A statue of the horse stands beside the altar. The current structure is typical of Hanoi pagodas and was built in the 18th century. It blends in well with the bustling streets and there is even a shop built into the walls to the left of the entrance.
Many years ago, Hanoi was swampy and several small rivers ran through the area. The White Horse Temple originally lay on the bank of the To Lich River which is now filled in but used to flow into the Red River.
In the 9th century when northern Vietnam was still part of the Chinese province of Giao Chi, the governor was the Chinese mandarin Cao Bien. When Cao Bien began construction of his walled administrative quarters, he had heard local folk tales of an old man with a white beard who was the area's earth god. One day while inspecting his construction site, Cao Bien saw billows of clouds twinkling like stars in five colors. The earth became cold sending chills through Cao Bien. A bearded man on a golden dragon appeared among the clouds . He wore boots, a red hat and purple robes. Suddenly the air was filled with an intoxicating fragrance and heavenly music was heard. Cao Bien understood it was the powerful spirit who inhabited the earth and who required offerings and prayers. That night in a dream, the old man told Cao Bien, " I am Long Do, I saw that you were building a citadel so I came to see you."
But instead of submitting to the power of the indigenous spirit, Cao Bien tried to exert a superior magic. He buried sacred bronze and iron charms under the temple. After the burial, a storm rose and churned up the waters and blew down the trees. Lightening struck and melting the amulets. Cao Bien was so frightened he returned to China.
When Vietnam became independent from China in the eleventh century, King Ly Thai To moved his capital from Hoa Lu to what is now Hanoi. He tried to build walls for a new citadel, but because the land was marshy the walls collapsed.
One time when the king was praying he was dazzled by the sight of a great white horse galloping west from the temple and leaving clear hoof prints. It encircled an area of land and then disappeared back into the temple. The king took this as an omen to build the citadel on the ground marked off by the hoof prints and the white horse became the patron saint of Thang Long. In the course of history, the street has caught fire three times and all the houses were burned but the temple has remained intact.
The temple is a low building. On the tip of the roof are the traditional symbols found on Vietnamese religious structures: two dragons bowing to a flaming disk that represents the sun. There are six buildings: a vestibule, a reception hall, the front sanctuary and several inner sanctuaries. From the street, one enters the vestibule where there is a large drum to the left and a bronze bell on the right. Next, one steps down into an open reception area. In the reception hall, ladies often sit at a table gossiping, drinking tea and chewing betel nut after praying. A calligrapher sometimes sits nearby. He will write up a supplicant's wishes on special prayer notes. The notes are offered along with incense on the alter and burned in the fireplace.
In the inner sanctuary, the White Horse God is honored in the form of a life-size wooden statue."
With thanks to Barbara Cohen for some of the above folklore. She was a psychiatrist with the U.S. Army in Vietnam during the war. Author of The Vietnam Guidebook. Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org