The Importance of Dragons in Vietnamese Mythology

Dragons have been an important part of Vietnam’s mythology literally going all the way back to their origin story. It was believed that all of the Vietnamese people were descendants of a dragon and a fairy. Whether it was in Hanoi, Halong Bay, or the Ninh Binh province, we came across dragon mythology everywhere we visited. Dragons are considered to bring rain, which provides agricultural wealth and prosperity. As with other Asian cultures, they are also a symbol of power and were often used by their rulers throughout history. Throughout the years, the style of the dragon changed throughout the years in a combination of being snake-like to being cat-like with the latter being the one that we saw the most.

Depiction of the Legend of Hoan Kiem Lake
Dragon on an Urn in the Ngoc Son Temple
Colorful Dragon on Staircase
Common Dragon Style in Vietnam
Dragons on a Tapestry

Our first encounter with the legend of dragons in Vietnam was when we went to Ngoc Son Temple that is on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake gets its name from the legend of Emperor Lợi who received a magical sword from the king of the dragons in order to defeat the Chinese. After defeating the Chinese armies, a Golden Turtle God, Kim Qui, came to surface of the lake and asked Emperor Lợi to return the sword to the Dragon King, Long Vương, who had given it to him. So Emperor Lợi gave Kim Qui the sword and renamed the lake Ho Hoan Kiem, which means Lake of the Restored Sword or Lake of the Returned Sword.

Stone Tablet with a Dragon in Hao Lu
Colorful Dragon Statue in Perfume Pagoda
Dragon Heads on Carriage in Hao Lu
Ornate Dragon on a Temple Roof
Dragon Standing Guard

When we visited Hoa Lu, the capital of Vietnam dating back to the 10th century before it moved to Hanoi, we learned about how the images of dragons featured twelve humps to match the twelve months of the year. We saw an ancient tablet at one of the two temples that featured an ancient dragon. We saw dragons of various styles throughout the temples, especially on the temple roofs like we saw at many temples throughout the region.

Dragon Head Outside Temple Doors
Dragon Artwork
More Dragons on the Roof at Hao Lu
Protecting the Incense Sticks
Another Dragon on a Temple Staircase

Probably one of the most well known legends is that of Halong Bay. According to the legend, shortly after becoming a country, the people of Vietnam had to fight back an army of invaders coming from the sea. Fearing that would be defeated, the Jade Emperor called upon Mother Dragon and her children to help them beat back the invaders. Mother Dragon and her children stopped the invasion and then after burning them with their firery breath, they left their teeth behind as emeralds that have become the islands that we see today in order to protect them from future invasions. Some people even say that the islands look like the humps of dragons.

Halong Bay in Vietnam
Another Dragon on a Roof
Dragons on a Temple Altar
The Dragons That We Brought Home
Another View of Halong Bay in Vietnam

There are many other Vietnamese myths, but clearly being the descendants of dragons is certainly one of the most important. We really enjoyed seeing these various images carved and painted in the various places we visited. In fact, it was such a dominant feature of our trip, we even purchased a couple of small dragon statues to bring home with us.

Caves of Hercules in Morocco

One of the interesting sites that we visited during our tour of Tangier, Morocco, was the Caves of Hercules (Grottes d’Hercule). Although the cave itself isn’t particularly fascinating compared to many other caves we have explored, its history makes it worth taking time to visit. It is located on the coast of the Strait of Gibralter and the drive from Tangier to Cape Spartel where the cave sits on the beach is quite beautiful. The cave is partially natural and partially man-made as the Berber people cut stone from the walls of the cave to use to make millstones.

Shape of Africa in Reverse from Within the Cave

You Can Still See Where the Stone Was Cut Away

View from Cape Spartel

Natural Cave Features

There are two openings to the cave, one from the sea and one from land, but the one from one land is the actual entrance to the cave. The opening to the sea was believed to have been carved by the Phoenicians and when viewed from the sea is in the shape of Africa. There are a couple of interesting legends associated with the cave. First is the belief that Hercules, the Roman god, stayed and slept in the cave during the 11th of his 12 labours that were given to him by King Eurystheus of Tiryns. This myth is obviously the source of the current name of the cave complex. Perhaps even more interesting is the legend that the cave was believed to be the entrance of a tunnel underneath the Strait of Gibralter that led to St. Michael’s Cave in Gibraltar. That same legend has the famous Barbary Macaque Monkeys that inhabit Gibraltar having used this tunnel to get from Africa to Europe.

Walking Through the Cave Towards the Sea Opening

Exploring the Caves of Hercules

Cape Spartel Lighthouse

Walls of the Cave

The Africa shaped opening, carved walls, and fascinating legends make this a worthwhile stop when visiting Tangier, Morocco. We also stopped at the Cape Spartel Lighthouse to have a snack and enjoy the amazing views. We also rode camels on the beach nearby, but that was very touristy. The Caves of Hercules remains one of our favorite memories of our tour in Morocco.

Riding Camels on the Beach

Interesting Coloration (and Yes, We Were Leaning Over as We Took This Photograph)

Views from Cape Spartel Lighthouse

Waves Crashing on the Rocky Cave Entrance