For rural Viet Nam, banyan trees do not simply provide shade in which children can play and young couples rendezvous. They play a much more important spiritual and symbolic role than does any other tree.
|Banyan tree is a place for children after school time. (Photo: Na-son Nguyen)|
Often standing proudly against a poetic village gate (cong lang) or near a wharf or temple, the tree beckons to visitors from far and wide and serves as a goodwill ambassador, if one has the liberty to personify inanimate objects.
Whenever someone wants a symbol to represent a village, there’s no candidate more promising than a banyan, a mai dinh (roof of a communal house), or a village gate. The tree has been so assimilated into local culture and is so dear to we Vietnamese that shrines are often built beneath them. Villagers believe that a tutelary god dwells there that protects their community from harm.
A banyan may also be deified. We have a saying: Cây thị có ma, cây đa có thần meaning “fig tree has ghosts, the banyan tree has deities.”
The banyan, which can survive for several centuries, is seen as the embodiment of longevity and indestructibility. It stands witness to the evolution of men and even of nature. No wonder it is believed to represent eternal life.
The tree can live long, but eventually it has to grow old and decay. It is a symbol of both existence and of extinction, of both the temporal world and of the undying soul. It has pride of place in literature and finds its way into poetry and folk songs such as the following heart-rending poem:
Trǎm nǎm dầu lỗi hẹn hò
Cây đa bến cũ con đò khác đưa.
Cây đa cũ, bến đò xưa
Bộ hành có nghĩa nắng mưa cũng chờ
Though a hundred-year old promise may be broken,
The banyan tree is still there.
The boat transporting people is different.
The same old banyan tree, the same old wharf
|300 year-old friends: banyan tree and village gate in Mong Phu village, Duong Lam ward, northern province of Ha Tay (Photo: Na-son Nguyen)|
If a tree stands next to a village gate, village dwellers must pass both the gate and the banyan daily to go to the fields.
Someone traveling to or from a distant place usually ends up greeting loved ones under the tree’s sumptuous canopies. Girls in love make a promise near the banyan to wait for their loved ones because they believe the deity of the tree will bear witness to their vow.
Like many other things, the spirit of the banyan is in the eye of the beholder. An old farmer imagined the tree to be a strong farmer with firm and rugged appearance, according to an old story. An aspirant student, wandering around a village to get some fresh air in the fields on a summer afternoon, could dream that the tree had the spirit of a gifted intellectual.
Children tend to think the banyan is a natural, pure and mischievous child since the tree is where they play in the breezy afternoons.
There are generally more than a few banyans in most northern villages.
For many villages, their centuries-old banyan trees are tourist landmarks. The oldest banyan tree in Viet Nam, and possibly the most beautiful, is over 300 years old. It is in the yard of Hong Loc Primary School in Can Loc district in the central province of Ha Tinh.
Elders in this village say when they were children the banyan was already very old. In 1965, a hurricane knocked it over. Miraculously, another storm propped it up.
This tree is dubbed the ‘dragon-shaped banyan’ because it resembles a bunch of dragons. It was bombed several times during the war, but lost only a few branches. Strangely enough, it has not been damaged by worms or by decay.
Another legendary 300-year-old banyan is in the village of Mong Phu in Ha Tay Province.
A banyan with 13 roots in the northern port city of Hai Phong attracts travelers from all over the country. It is worshipped as a deity on the first and 15th day of every lunar month, as well as on Lunar New Year’s Eve. Worshippers come, burn incense, and pray for a peaceful life.