Ho Chi Minh City’s roundabout monuments number in the dozens, depending on how they are counted, some more glorious than others. Matt Sipprell chronicles two of the more prominent ones. Photos by Fred Wissink.

History of District 1 monuments Ho Chi Minh City VietnamPhu Dong Thien Vuong
About 5,000 years ago, diverse ethnic groups in northern Vietnam first began to organise themselves into a dynastic culture around the Hong Song (Red River), which flows from the mountains of southern China to the Gulf of Tonkin, passing through what is today Hanoi. For survival, these groups needed strong rulers to organise hydraulic engineering projects in order to control the flooding of the Hong Song, conduct trade, and repel invaders. The first dynasty, where Vietnamese history officially begins and spanning a score of generations, was the Hong Bang Dynasty.

The sixth Hung king, Hung Vuong (Brave King), who ruled during the 17th century BC, was enmeshed in trying to preserve his kingdom, battling the fearsome An tribe from the north (present day China). The king needed reinforcements, so he sent messengers throughout the realm to find someone who could help defeat the aggressors.

Meanwhile, in the village of Phu Dong lived a childless, older married couple. One morning on the way to the rice paddy, the woman saw an unusually large footprint. Surprised, she stepped in it. Much greater was her surprise when she suddenly became pregnant. She gave birth to a son named Thanh Giong. Three years passed, however, and the child could neither sit up nor speak.

It was then that the king’s messenger arrived. Hearing the news, baby Giong suddenly sat up and told his parents to invite the messenger in. Giong’s first words were to ask the messenger to return and tell the king that he needed armour, an iron rod, and an iron horse to fight the An. The king summoned every blacksmith in the country and Giong’s wish was granted. Giong began to eat everything in sight.

When the materiel was delivered, Giong stood up, stretched out his arms, and transformed himself into a giant. He put on the armour, seized the rod, and mounted the steed, which roared like thunder and breathed fire from its nostrils. Giong took off like lightning into the heart of the An encampment at Buffalo Mountain, cutting them down with his rod and burning them with his fire-breathing stallion. When the rod broke, he wrenched bamboo from the forest and continued to skewer the enemy until they were defeated. Then, Giong rode up Socson Mountain and flew off into heaven.

Since then, he has been known as Phu Dong Thien Vuong (Heavenly King of Phu Dong), one of the “Four Immortals” in Vietnamese history. Today a temple commemorates him not far from the place where he ascended, and a national holiday and festival honour ‘Saint Giong’. Every school kid knows his story.

Phu Dong Thien Vuong’s monument stands at the Phu Dong six-way intersection at the beginning of Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, in front of Starbucks. Saint Giong is in battle mode astride his charger, spear in hand, ready to strike. 

History-of-District-1-monuments-small-2Tran Nguyen Han
With Vietnam’s transition from the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400), from which Nguyen Han descended, to the Ho Dynasty (1400-1407) came a concerted effort to stamp out Chinese culture. This sparked China’s fourth domination during which the Ming army invaded northern Vietnam, deposed the Ho rulers, and imposed administrators who ruled with an iron fist. Evidence suggests that elders of the Tran clan were complicit in the Chinese usurpation of power. Suffice it to say that the Great Empire of Ming that established Beijing as its capital, constructed the Forbidden City, rebuilt the Grand Canal, extended and fortified the Great Wall, and built a huge fleet of treasure ships that sent tributary missions as far as Africa and Arabia, attempted to regain control in Vietnam after five centuries.

The story of Tran Nguyen Han is inexorably linked to that of Le Loi, Vietnam’s most venerated hero. Le Loi shed his aristocratic ascendancy to lead the Lam Son uprising, the popular revolution that finally expelled the Chinese from Vietnam. In 1418, Le Loi began his campaign against the Ming in what is now Thanh Hoa province, engaging for the first several years in guerilla warfare against much larger Chinese forces, until gradually he was able to organise a formidable army of his own. Le Loi, a Tran Dynasty sympathiser, appointed his close friend, Tran Nguyen Han, as one of his generals.

A daring and innovative warrior and tactician, Tran Nguyen Han fought with swords and rifles, atop elephants and horses, on land and at sea, employing carrier pigeons and poetry to communicate and carry out his strategies. He loyally served Le Loi until the final victory was won at Xuong Giang, after 10 years of war. Le Loi was anointed king, initiating the Le Dynasty, famous for its widespread reforms. He celebrated Tran Nguyen Han in his famous victory proclamation.

But no sooner did Le Loi begin his reign than palace politics started roiling and unscrupulous advisors plotted to discredit the king’s inner circle. A purge was underway. The history books are not clear on the exact circumstances surrounding Tran Nguyen Han’s death. Research indicates that Tran Nguyen Han’s early retirement and recreational boat-building activities were conveyed to the king as treasonous, forming the basis of an imperial arrest warrant. While being escorted by palace troops in one of his own boats, Tran Nguyen Han laments the sudden mistrust of his close friend: “His Majesty and I fought to save the country, the people. This was a great cause. Now the king listens to my detractors. Do the heavens know what they are doing?”

Overcome by grief and refusing to suffer the ignominy of a farcical trial, Tran Nguyen Han chose to end his own life by throwing himself overboard, into the same waters where he so valiantly fought.

The Tran Nguyen Han monument is located in front of Ben Thanh Market at the foot of Le Loi Street.