Cultural and Historical Relics of An Son Temple (Mieu Ba)

Saturday - 04/06/2022 19:22
An Son Temple, also known as Mieu Ba, is a rare folklore heritage of Con Dao.  The temple is located about 2km to the Southwest of Con Dao center. An Son  Temple has gone through ups and downs, through both times of integrity and destruction, and finally got restored up until now.
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According to common legend, Ba’s Temple was first built in 1785 to worship Phi  Yen, the wife of Nguyen Anh who was later known as King Gia Long.
This temple is a sacred place on the island, and it is associated with a tragic story of a talented and patriotic woman. In 1783, after being defeated by the Tay Son army, Nguyen Anh took his wife, children and about 100 families of his subordinates and fled to Con Son Island. Together with the fishermen living in  Con Son, Nguyen Anh founded 3 villages: An Hai, An Hoi and Co Ong. To fight against the Tay Son army, Nguyen Anh planned to send his eldest son, Prince Cai, to follow the priest Ba Da Loc to France and ask for their support. Mrs. Phi  Yen, whose real name was Le Thi Ram, is the second wife of Nguyen Anh who dissuaded her husband from "setting a fox to keep the geese '' because it was the act that people would criticize. Nguyen Anh did not only listen to her advice,  but he was also angry, suspecting that she had colluded with the Tay Son army, so he planned to kill her. Thanks to the intercession of the soldiers, Nguyen Anh imprisoned her in a cave on the small island of Con Lon, and later that mountain was named Hon Ba (Ba Island). When the Tay Son army attacked the island,  Nguyen Anh fled to the sea. Prince Cai (also known as Prince Hoi An), the son of  Nguyen Anh and Phi Yen, who was only 4 years old at that time, asked Nguyen Anh to let his mother accompany him. Supposing in anger that Cai's thinking would be like his mother's, Nguyen Anh threw him into the sea. Prince Cai's body drifted to Co Ong beach, and the villagers buried the prince. According to legend,  Mrs. Phi Yen was rescued from the cave by an ape and a tiger and returned to live with the villagers of Co Ong to take care of Prince Cai's grave. Once, after being insulted by a bad guy, she committed suicide to keep her virginity to her husband. 
In deep mourning, people on the island built a large and beautiful temple to worship her. In 1861, after occupying the island, France decided to move all the people to the mainland to build a prison. The temple gradually fell into disrepair.  In 1958, the people on the island rebuilt the temple based on the old foundation.  From the above story, the South has the song lyrics "The wind brings the Mustard  back to heaven/Laksa Leaf stays with the bitter word" (The word “mustard'' in  these lyrics is capitalized because they think it is both the name and the symbol  for the prince Cai. The same holds true for the word “laksa”.
The above story associated with Ba’s Temple is almost universally acknowledged and no one expresses any concerns because it is believed that the legend has been handed down "widely for a long time". However, related to many historical events and the process of Nguyen Anh's escape as well as some of his characteristics that people consider, another hypothesis has also been raised whether Ba’s Temple or  An Son Temple in Con Dao has worshiped Phi Yen, Nguyen Anh's concubine since 1785 or not. Author Dinh Van Hanh supposed that:
Nguyen Anh is regarded as a wise and intelligent person. Despite many adventures over the horizon and the sea, he still set his heart on the ancestral inheritance. He knew how to choose people, loved his soldiers; he showed filial piety to his mother, loyalty to his wife and love for children. This is not a oneway listening from the records of the Nguyen genealogy, but it can be felt in the days when Nguyen Anh traveled around Gia Dinh at the age of 17, 18. If the above story was true, if he had killed his wife and thrown his 4-year-old child into the sea, which was more terrifying than a fierce tiger, how could Nguyen Anh win hearts to determinedly build a royal career as he wished, especially in the turmoil of being constantly chased after? The Nguyen historians’ confusion over places gave rise to a disastrous, unpleasant legend about their beloved king. Little did they know that that mistake, later (and possibly forever) "killed" Nguyen Anh on the island of pain at the end of the country. 
The author explained that until the end of the 17th century, Con Dao still had no  Vietnamese residents. According to some documents, this island was previously the area of the kingdom of Ma people (Chau Ma) and then the Cham people used  to live there. The name Pulau Kundur (pumpkin island), which the French later  transliterated as Poulo condore, was the language of people in the South Island  (Malayo-polynesian). In 1723, according to the record of a French man when he came to Con Lon, there were about 200 people on the island at that time. This was later the first class of residents of An Hai village. In 1789, Con Dao had "less than  60 families fleeing to the island and living in extreme poverty". 110 During the reign of Minh Mang, Con Dao had a permanent garrison, but they had to reclaim wasteland to be self-sufficient in food. Minh Mang also issued an invitation to  recruit provincial people that if they volunteered to go to Con Lon to make a  living, they would be provided a capital of 10 francs each. Therefore, by the middle of the 19th century, the population on the island reached 1,000 people.  Residents coming to Con Dao were from many different sources, but when they came here, most of them were associated with the marine industry because the narrow mountain slopes and the dependence on rainy and sunny seasons made it difficult to stick to farming. Therefore, An Son temple of fishermen in An Hai village might have been built before the French colonialists turned this place into a prison (1862). And maybe it was the place to worship the Tien Goddess (Ba  Chua Tien) (also known as the Ngoc Goddess (Ba Chua Ngoc)) who was the patron goddess of coastal and island residents that Southern people often worshiped (originated from the Cham people). It is also possible that it was the temple of Thuy Long Thanh Phi, a river goddess with two children, who were called “Uncle” and “Grandma”. “Uncle” were the gods who governed the islands or the islets along the coast. Currently, in Con Dao, there is still a small temple  called Uncle’s Temple (Miếu Cậu), which people consider as the temple of Prince  Cai. However, these are initial guesses because the original Grandma’s Temple  (Mieu Ba) was "overlaid" by the new temple since 1958 to worship Mrs. Phi Yen.  The new couplets only praised the Lady in general, giving no information for the above statement, although the gilded Chinese horizontal lacquered board of An  Son temple is still hung in front of the main hall. 
There is a fact that there are still many folk tales handed down in Con Dao. Every mountain peak, every island, every site, every sea, every rock… has a story.  According to our initial research, most of those stories were created during the time when Con Dao was a prison. The prisoners composed them when they were in their exile to express their optimism and love for life and sometimes their patriotism and hatred of the enemy. 
Con Lon Island is a special one among the islands of Vietnam. Since 1862, the fishermen there had had to leave after more than 100 years of building villages to make room for the prison. The 113-year history of the colonial prison has covered the island's rare folklore in order to create other stories. The stories of the prison and the prisoners may have been far different from the folk tales of the fishermen.  The story about Mrs. Phi Yen is a historical legend, but it is far from the historical truth that has covered the rare folklore of Con Dao for a long time. 
It can be said that the legend of Grandma at An Son Temple is still an open research story, showing two overlapping cultural layers: the layer of the later people covering the temple with a historical legend, forming a new cultural layer superimposed on the folklore one - the layer of the first class of island inhabitants?  This is also the special feature that makes Ba’s Temple mysterious and sacred and attracts pilgrims to explore the place and worship. 
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Every year, on the 18th day of the 10th lunar month, the people of Con Dao hold a very solemn anniversary of Grandma’s death and often make vegetarian meals to pay tribute to her death as she had to die because of a vegetarian festival. 
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Ba’s Temple is one of the very few folk cultural heritages in Con Dao. She is revered as a goddess in Con Dao. Locals often tell the story of Mrs. Phi Yen to tourists from all over the world so that they feel respect and appreciate her virtue. 

Source: Soure: Department of Culture and Sport of Ba Ria-Vung Tau Provice; Photo: Internet and Con Dao - the national tourism area mangement:

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