Vietnam, Where A Folk Hero And His Incense Burner Became A Political Dilemma

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

Some Vietnamese had sarcastically joked in the past few days that the “spirit” of Grand Lord  (in some other translations, Grand Prince) Tran Hung Dao (1228-1300 AD), a General of the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400AD), just became the country’s newest victim of injustice due to the forced removal of his property.

Three days ago, the giant incense burner which has been placed in front of the Tran Hung Dao statue during the last five decades was suddenly removed by the city on February 17, 2019.

Taking away the incense burner could be seen as an inexcusable behavior in a society where veneration of ancestors and past national heroes still plays a significant role in the people’s beliefs and religious practices.

The decision indeed has caused an angry storm that swept across Facebook in Vietnam with no signs of slowing down, despite the following explanation offered by the city’s officials.

The incense burner suddenly became a political dilemma for the Vietnamese Communist Party’s leadership in Ho Chi Minh City.

Tran Hung Dao, whose real name was Tran Quoc Tuan (Hung Dao was his posthumous title), probably is the most revered General in Vietnamese history.

His statue has stood tall at Bach Dang Pier of Saigon River, in Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, untouched since 1967.

To pay respect to Tran Hung Dao, people would come, burn incense, and put them in the giant incense burner in front of the statue.

During certain commemorating events, some people also come to the location and burn incense.

In the morning of February 17, 2019, however, the top leaders of Ho Chi Minh City allowed a forklift to come and remove the giant incense burner that had been part of the statue since it was first installed.

The timing of the removal was probably the most insulting factor, according to those who were offended by it.

February 17, 2019, marked the 40th commemoration of the Vietnam-China Border War which lasted over a decade. Vietnam claimed the loss of over 60,000 lives from just between February 17, 1979, to March 4, 1979.

Vietnamese people revered Tran Hung Dao as a folk hero because he represents the people’s resistance against China’s aggression.

For generations of Vietnamese, regardless of religious background, Tran Hung Dao was a Sage who had saved the country and its people three times from the Mongols and the Yuan Dynasty which ruled over China and a vast territory in Asia and Europe during the 13th century. His statute had risen to the level of a deity that people worship with the deepest respect.

Known for his military skills during the battles on waters in ancient time, the modern Vietnamese saw him as the protector of their naval forces. The pier where his statue locates also got named after his famous battlefield: Bach Dang River.

At a time when China has become more aggressive in the South China Sea, any signs of remote disrespect to Tran Hung Dao could cause an uproar among the Vietnamese people, and this time, it certainly did.

During the last three days, social media in Vietnam was full of posts and comments about what happened to the Grand Prince Tran’s statue. They range from satire, criticism, to even cursing at the decision makers. All major newspapers in the country also wrote about the story.

Adding oil onto the fire, however, more people became upset when the Secretary of the VCP’s Division in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City – Tran Kim Yen – explained to the media about the city’s decision on February 18, 2019.

According to Ms. Yen, proper worshipping activities should be done at temples and pagodas. The city had decided that the incense burner should be at the Tran Hung Dao Pagoda in Tan Dinh Ward, so they removed it and placed it at the “appropriate” location.

Many people were not satisfied with the decision, especially when it was unilaterally decided by the officials without public consultation.

Opponents of the decision quickly pointed out that there is an incense burner at the King Ly’s statue in Hanoi where top VCP’s leaders come together and burn incense to pay respect during the Lunar New Year every year.

They also posted pictures of incense burners standing in front of many statues of Ho Chi Minh across the country to dispute the official’s explanation that worshipping activities could only be done in temples and pagodas.

Some people – like dissident attorney Le Cong Dinh – questioned the fact that the explanation came from a leader of the VCP, and not from the administrative branch of the government. He also initiated an online protest, requesting the city government to put back the incense burner.

Not forget to mention, the night before the removal, social media in Vietnam was circulating a document stamped “Secret,” allegedly coming from the VCP.

The document requested that the local authorities must stop self-organized groups from organizing any events to commemorate February 17, 1979, at the statue’s location.

The removal of the incense burner created an ongoing discontentment among not only the residents of Ho Chi Minh City but the Vietnamese people at large, where they raised questions about the ability to lead of the VCP’s officials in Ho Chi Minh City.

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Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.