The Do Temple in Bac Ninh Province is a uniquely Vietnamese temple.
Situated around 20 kilometers from Hanoi, it is the best known and most visited temple in the country by far, which is not really surprising, as even a cursory study of its history shows.
The temple preserves most the traditions of Vietnam and also keeps almost everything people need to know about the Ly Dynasty (1009 – 1225), the first Vietnamese ruling family able to hold onto power for more than several decades, allowing them to secure and expand the territory.
“Do” means the capital city. It has as its deities eight kings of the Ly dynasty. The temple’s other names are Thai Mieu, Co Phap Dien and Ly Bat De.
It is still not explained why or how the ninth and last ruler of the dynasty, Ly Chieu Hoang, the only female one, has been left out.
Ly Chieu Hoang was enthroned when she was just eight and handed over the reins to her husband Tran Canh after two years, effectively ending the Ly Dynasty.
It has also been said that feudalism valued men more than women and that they were not to be worshiped equally.
The temple was built in 1010 by Ly Thai To, the founder of the dynasty, and restored by his son Ly Thai Tong in 1030.
Its latest renovation happened in 1989, when the temple area was expanded to more than three hectares.
Ly Thai To established the capital of his kingdom in Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh Province and then moved it to Thang Long, now Hanoi. But the temple was built in his birthplace, Dinh Bang Ward, Tu Son Commune.
At the gate of Do Temple is the full version of the written proclamation to move the capital and the change of its name from Hoa Lu to Thang Long.
Besides the main house that worships eight kings, there is one for their mothers, and two other houses for leading officials of the dynasty.
The worshipped are prominent figures in the history of Vietnam who made big contributions to the country’s stability. One of them is Ly Thuong Kiet, who in 1077 penned what is considered the first Vietnamese declaration of independence after Vietnam’s victory over Chinese invaders during the reign of Song Dynasty.
“Nam Quoc Son Ha,” the declaration, and the proclamation about moving the capital of the country are kept in the temple library.
At the back of Do Temple are a number of steles paying tribute to the contributions of the dynasty. The steles were built in 1604 by Phung Khac Khoan, a noted Vietnamese military strategist, politician, diplomat and poet during the Le Dynasty.
The temple also has many parallel sentences and horizontal lacquered boards honoring the dynasty and telling its history.
Some scholarly visitors to the temple have said there is enough material here to write a doctoral thesis.
Do Temple is among the worshipping places in Vietnam that preserves a maximum number of the country’s traditions and rituals.
One tradition is that of communal harmony, as every person in the ward joins in the temple festival.
The annual festival lasts four days around the full-moon of the third lunar month.
People in charge of the festival’s rituals are selected carefully, and great care is also taken in other aspects of the preparation including the collection of offerings and other items.
Offerings usually include a roasted bull, sticky rice and traditional cakes made from the rice – bánh chưng and bánh dày, fruits, flowers, incense sticks, rice wine, betel leaves and areca nuts.
All the offerings have to be homemade or homegrown by local people.
The festival starts in the evening of the 14th day of the lunar month with a parade to commemorate the mother of Ly Thai To.
On the main day, the next morning, which this year falls on April 5, there is a colorful and impressive parade attended by around 10,000 people.
It is followed by a series of offerings made to the accompaniment of drums and gongs.
An incense offering ritual is performed on the 16th day, when traditional games like wrestling, cock fighting, cooking and poem reading contests take place.
In 1994, the Do Temple Festival received a 31st generation descendent of Ly Thai To from South Korea.
Lee Chang Kun came to acknowledge and pay homage to his ancestors almost 800 years after the Ly family was scattered.
He wrote in a visitors’ book at the temple’s library: “With unstoppable emotions, today I return and have felt the glory of my ancestors. I swear I will never do anything harmful to the noble souls of my ancestors.”
The separation dated back to 1226 when Ly Long Tuong, a prince of the Ly Dynasty, left Vietnam to avoid the massacre of family members ordered by Chancellor Tran Thu Do, who overthrew the Ly Dynasty after arranging the marriage of the incumbent Empress Ly Chieu Hoang and his nephew Tran Canh.
Ly Long Tuong served as a general in Korea, where he was known as Yi Yong Sang, helping the king there defeat the Mongol invasion of 1253. He was also allowed to establish his own village, where the Ly generations continued to grow and several Vietnamese traditions were maintained.
The Ly family book, kept since Ly Long Tuong, proclaims on the cover: “Born in Korea, soul in Vietnam.”
Lee Chang Kun has given the book to the Do Temple. He has settled in Vietnam and gained Vietnamese citizenship.
By Nguyen Van My
The writer is the director of Ho Chi Minh City-based Lua Viet Tour Operator
The gate of Do Temple in the northern province of Bac Ninh. Photo: Nguyen Van My