When I was little, I used to read legends and fairy tales all the time. Maybe because, as children, we have this intense desire to escape the real world, to go to places filled with supernatural beings living in fantastical realms, surrounded by surreal creatures. But I didn’t choose them solely from the Romanian folklore. I had two favorite books – one with Chinese legends and the other with Indian fairy tales. And my mind got fixed on the idea that anything China related surely has a dragon somehow involved.
I grew up and I haven’t been to China (yet), but I went to Vietnam. A country influenced by China (who was part of the Chinese Empire), but with a strong personal identity. As such, I wasn’t surprised at all when a lot of the stories told by locals had a dragon, a symbolic creature in Vietnamese folklore. For them, the dragon represents life itself and one of the most important Vietnamese legends has it as the main character. It is even said that Vietnam’s map is dragon-shaped, with the dragon’s head represented by the northern regions and its tail by the southern ones.
When we reached Vietnam, we noticed that all souvenirs had “Viet Nam” marked on them. Being a grammar Nazi all my life (guilty pleasure, I admit!), I immediately panicked. Either I was spelling Vietnam wrong or the Vietnamese didn’t know how to spell their own country’s name. Chances that the first option was correct were pretty slim.
The legend of Viet Nam
Let’s get things clear with the help of a legend about Vietnam’s creation. In Vietnamese mythology, it is considered that the Vietnamese people are descendants of Lac Long Quan, the Dragon Lord of the Seas. He left the sea and settled in Northern Vietnam where he fell in love with Au Co, an immortal Chinese Fairy. As with all stories, they loved each other and the Fairy laid 100 eggs from which 100 sons were born – the Vietnamese people’s ancestors.
But one day, Lac Long Quan told the Fairy that they needed to separate. He was a dragon, she was a fairy; they were like water and fire. The Dragon told the Fairy to take 50 of their sons and head North, in the mountains. He would take the other 50 in the South.
And here is the root of Viet Nam – two entities – the mountains in the North and the lowlands of the South. The moral of this legend is actually a strong one and defining for the Vietnamese people: no matter the distance, the bounds between people cannot be broken.
Leaving legends aside, it looks like I was the confused one. The official name of the country, which is also used in official papers, is Viet Nam. The term “Viet” refers to the people living in ancient times in Southern China and “Nam” means south. By joining the two terms you reach the definition of a people wanting to distinguish itself from its Northern neighbors, the Chinese. I actually checked my passport and yes, the visa says Viet Nam. The combined version is the one frequently used in English.