Photos by Nadiah Rosli
Legendary heroes in any country are never embodied in a straight-forward manner; often truth and myth are inextricable. Now try that with ancient warrior queens. Expectations can be an unreliable compass, especially when attempting to trace the legacy of Vietnam’s two heroic sisters: Trưng Trắc, and her younger sister, Trưng Nhị. They carry with them Vietnam’s symbol and spirit of freedom, feminism and fortitude.
Known locally as ‘Hai Ba Trưng’ (the Two Sisters), they are considered as Vietnam’s most important heroines. They are prominently etched in the minds of the locals as two fierce women atop war elephants, leading their troops in a revolt against the Chinese empire around 2,000 years ago. This powerful imagery intimates at how the nation continues to celebrate and preserve their memory. They are remembered as fearless warriors, loyal wives and revolutionary leaders – roles that represent an allegorical pendulum. Subsequently, my search for the Hai Ba Trưng narrative swung back and forth – weighted together by the country’s past and its harsh trajectory towards independence.
Ladies of a Troubled Era
So how did the Trưng sisters become cult figures in Vietnam’s collective memory? For about four years, the pair ended the 150-year domination of China. Born in the Northern Vietnam province of Me Linh around 14 CE, the sisters led Vietnam in its first rebellion against their northern neighbor and established their own kingdom. Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị were the daughters of a Vietnamese Lord who served as a prefect under Chinese rule. Life was harsh for the locals, with the much-hated tribute taxes and sinicization which saw the locals’ clothing, customs, marriage rites, morality and traditional agricultural ways changing. The delicate relationship between these two nations reached its explosive peak with the arrival of Chinese governor, To Dinh, who imposed even higher taxes. He is described in both Chinese and Vietnamese histories as “cruel and greedy”, and his unjust ways catalyzed Trưng Trắc and her husband, Thi Sách, to protest against his rule.
They mobilised the aristocracy to revolt, but there are conflicting versions for the next chain of events. Legend states that Thi Sách was brutally killed by To Dinh as a warning to all troublemakers and this was the final straw for his angry widow. On elephant back, Trưng Trắc together with her sister led an army of 80,000 soldiers, most of them women, who drove the Chinese out of Vietnam. Another version suggests that that Thi Sách wasn’t murdered; cautioning against the Avenging Widow trope which is typical of stories on female warriors. Instead, this version points out that with the support of their husbands, the Trưng sisters managed to reclaim the matriarchal liberties that were present before sinicization: the freedom for women to be political leaders, traders, judges and warriors, among others.
They enjoyed independence in 40 CE and created a new state that extended from Hue in the south into Southern China with a royal court at Me Linh. Eventually, they failed to defend their borders against a mightier Chinese army which attacked them in 43 CE. Again, their final stand against the Chinese is contested. The widely accepted account is that instead of surrendering to the Chinese, the sisters committed suicide which is believed to be the more honorable option. Some sources say that they floated up into the clouds; others believe they were captured by the Chinese and executed with rest of the prisoners. While their reign was short-lived, their legacy is nothing but.
Slay, My Queens
Before I could maneuver my way around the Trưng sisters’ legacy, I first needed to work out Vietnam’s frenetic streets. Ranked as the 15th most populous country in the world (with a population of approximately 96 million people), my first few hours in Hanoi reawakened my fight-and-flight response. But after observing how locals casually stepped out into traffic and motorbikes swerving to let them pass, I plucked enough courage to cross the street. Actually, what I really did was trail after an elderly woman, comforted and emboldened by her unruffled steps. Shadowing a brave female on the road was the start to my ritualistic search for the marks left by the most famous women in Vietnam’s history. It’s impossible to miss this, as reminders of their legacy insert themselves into daily life. There exists a street named after them in almost every city in Vietnam, and the most populated urban district in Hanoi has their namesake. In addition, the date of their deaths marks Vietnam’s Women’s Day, and from February the 3rd to the 6th day of the lunar calendar, Vietnamese across the country celebrate the Hai Ba Trưng Temple Festival. The festival runs in places like the Hát Môn Temple (in Hà Tây province), Hạ Lôi Temple (in Vĩnh Phúc province), and Đồng Nhân Temple (in Hà Nội).
To complement my first stop, I went after another honourable staple of the Vietnamese culture: coffee. Vietnam has an enviable coffee culture, with Hanoi famed for its egg coffee. On a scorching afternoon, I stopped at a café in the Old Quarters of Hanoi to enjoy this trademark drink and managed to slip in a few questions to the barista. As he laid the egg on top of my coffee with a generous whip of sweetened condensed milk, 30 year-old Linh shares what he knows of the Trưng sisters, “which is not much”, he bashfully admits. He recounts the general details of their history from lessons taught in school. “I think their story is important for our country, because it profiles local women in a way that injects patriotism to the younger generation.”
However, he feels that not many aware of their story. “Most Vietnamese students probably only know about the Trưng sisters’ feats from what they learn in school. Especially now, when there are other figures contending for the celebrity status in this country. This iconic duo aren’t the first women that would pop into the minds of our youngsters.” I try to object this claim, pointing out that the sisters were believed to be highly skilled in martial arts. Surely that’s as badass as it comes, right? “I don’t know about that, but we have a style of martial arts here called ‘Vovinam’ and ‘Vo Binh Dinh’ which are pretty cool. Maybe the sisters were trained martial artists as wel.” I took note of the names and reminded myself to drop by a class if I could find one during my trip. I asked Linh if using the Trưng sisters as idealized examples positively push for the female status in Vietnam’s society today. A flock of customers then entered the café and abruptly ended our conversation. Linh went back to being the awesome barista that he is, and I was left with more questions to dwell on.
Metamorphoses of Female Fighters
What the Trưng sisters signify or should signify for the modern Vietnamese evolves with the political, social and intellectual currents of the country. A 15th century poem written about the sisters’ heroism imply both veneration and discomfort: “All the male heroes bowed their heads in submission; Only the two sisters proudly stood up to avenge the country.” This dualism echoes the pre-colonial impression of the sisters’ bravery: that of emasculation. But with the French colonial rule of Vietnam in the 1800s and the ensuing American War in the 1960’s, the commemoration of the Trưng sisters retransformed. To parallel with the nation’s new path, they are seen as a unifying force for the country against external enemies, and an exemplar of the unyielding spirit of the Vietnamese.
In the central Vietnam city of Da Nang, war memorabilia are sold on the streets – painful vestiges of the war that is still prevalent in the country. The city was the first location where the U.S combat troops landed on when they came ashore in March 1965. Some of the fiercest offensives were launched in this area, and it had the largest American air base north of Saigon. 26 year-old Da Nang native, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Ly, describes how females mobilised themselves in the wars. “The main fighting force during the wars against the French and the US were men. But there were women who enlisted into the Vietnamese People’s Army, others took up roles as frontline nurses. Women who joined the Viet Cong participated in underground and sabotage missions. Women also cooked and took care of children. Younger women made trails in the jungle and helped transport bullets and other weaponries. Some women entertained the soldiers as singers and dancers.” The fearlessness of Vietnamese women during wartime is well-recorded. The ‘Heroic Mother of Vietnam’ title is awarded by the government to military heroines and women whose husbands and children laid down in the fight for national liberation and defense. The award is also posthumously presented to several Mothers.
“I think why the Trưng sisters are so famous is because their story is so unusual. From a young age, their larger-than-life image riding on elephants, and leading a campaign against the Chinese made me believe that not only were they determined, but they were also physically stronger than men.” Ly adds that the aspect of patriotism is constantly highlighted in the retelling of the sisters’ legend, even in the cartoons she was exposed to as a child. “I’ve always appreciated that women, and Vietnamese women in particular, are tremendously resilient because of our history. We are emotionally and mentally strong. At present, I believe there is a changing role of women in the country. I’ve noticed that there more women are empowered to lead movements concerning the environment, championing gender equality, in education as well as in administrative positions.”
Revisiting a Matriarchal Identity
Ly’s thoughts on ‘strength’ resonated with me, albeit in more somber ways as I made my way to the War Remnant Museum in Ho Chi Minh city. The American War crimes in the galleries are illustrated in disturbing images, and horrifying accounts of the victims fill the walls. Petite Vietnamese women are seen armed to the teeth, other images show them extremely distraught as they are tortured; whilst a few bear defiant expressions that urgently leap out at you. Consequently, global anti-war movements at the time featured Vietnamese women caught in the strife. Such powerful images are not easily contained behind their frames and carried the burden of an entire nation.
But it is this same personification of the ‘brave’ and ‘strong’ Vietnamese woman that leaves 28 year-old Nguyen Kim Khanh from Ho Chi Minh city, with mixed feelings. “It is widely understood that during desperate times, Vietnamese women will rise up and do what is necessary. Women have to fight when the enemy comes. There are no hard rules for the roles and capacities of women in this country. These shift at different points in our historical timelines – from the colonial days to the struggles during the American War.” She adds that the society regards women as dutiful and responsible members of the family. However, since the country has been under Chinese influence for too long, it would be difficult to revive the matriarchal ways of Vietnam’s yesteryears. “I am currently working in a company founded by a woman, and 70% of the top management are females. Yet, I still receive sexist comments in my work life like: You’re working too hard, it’s making you look unattractive.”
Khanh also reflects on the nuances of the Trưng sisters’ legend. “I feel that their story is a backhanded compliment to women, as their bravery is exerted as a benchmark for men to step up. Their heroism and ‘sacrifice’ – a word I hate, is used to chide the passivity of men. It’s like saying, ‘If a female can do it, why can’t you (as a man)?’. This view devalues the Trưng sisters’ contribution.” She urges her countryfolk to reimagine and reemphasise certain aspects of the story to ensure that their struggles are not lost on the nation’s collective consciousness. “Let’s focus on their ability as statesmen, their military prowess, and strategies in defeating a massive empire. Also, how the female generals led the the Trưng sisters’ campaign.”
Her remarks, along with the others I spoke to during my trip in Vietnam, infuses this legend with a myriad of cultural, political and social values. Torn by over a century of conflict, the Trưng sisters’ legacy remains as relevant as ever. Undoubtedly, this remarkable underdog story of female defiance and leadership will be reinvented for each succeeding generation in Vietnam.