A legend that was born a thousand years ago is alive and swimming in the northern province of Bac Ninh.
Well known as the home of the unique quan ho songs that have received world heritage status, the province also hosts a well dug more than a thousand years ago with sweet water and three legendary fish.
Covering an area of around 20 square meters in Cung Temple relic area in Diem Village, Hoa Long Commune, Bac Ninh Town, the Ngoc (Gem) Well has 11 brick steps, four stone steps and the final step made of wood.
The well's water, coming from springs in the Kim Son and Kim Linh mountains and absorbing a 10- meter deep layer of natural laterites in the underground, is sweet, clear and cool. Residents use the water to make tea or alcohol.
Many tourists are keen to have a sip of water from the Ngoc Well to understand why locals praise it so much.
Residents say a special feature of the well is its water level, which stands virtually unchanged at six meters, irrespective of the seasons.
Like the tortoise in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake which has legendary origins, the Ngoc Well is home to three fish that look like carp but are longer and have no scales. Two of them are black with scattered red spots, while the other one is red with some black spots.
The legend, known to every Diem villager, goes that the three fish are incarnations of princesses Tien Dung and Thuy Tien, daughters of King Ly Thanh Tong (1023 1072), and their servant.
One night, Queen Thuong Duong was woken up by a halo as she slept at her palace in the capital, Thang Long. Two carps then appeared and said they wished to be reincarnated as her daughters.
Not long after, the queen was pregnant and had two girls. The princesses were beautiful and intelligent. When they were older, they asked the King's permission to let them go to the Kim Linh Mountain in Diem Village, 40 kilometers from Thang Long, to kill some dangerous animals and protect the villagers.
The King agreed. The two princesses not only killed the animals but also managed a granary that the King built in a cave at the foot of Kim Linh Mountain.
At the Thanh Minh Festival one year, the princesses knelt towards Thang Long and said, "We want to stay here [Diem Village] forever to help locals" before turning into carps and making the Ngoc Well their home
The Cung Temple was built by Diem villagers to worship the two daughters of King Ly Thanh Tong (1023-1072) Tien Dung and Thuy Tien, who turned into carps and made the Ngoc Well their home
The Thanh Minh Festival, known as Qingming Festival in China, marks a time for tending to ancestors' graves and enjoying spring time with near and dear.
These days, in Vietnam, the Thanh Minh Festival is celebrated from the 5th to the 10th day of the third lunar month.
After Tien Dung and Thuy Tien turned into carps, the Diem villagers built the Cung temple at the foot of Kim Linh Mountain to worship them.
Every year, on the third day of the third lunar month, villagers hold a ceremony to bail out water from the well and clean it. Befittingly, young men and women sing quan ho songs as they draw water out of the well.
When the well is empty, the three fish are taken out and put into a stone mortar, before being released into the well again.
Apart from being a temporary house for the three fishes, the mortar has another special mission.
In a Diem Village tradition that is still observed, young men have to bring xoi, a Vietnamese dish made from glutinous rice, cooked by themselves to their engagement ceremonies. To make xoi for the ceremony, they have to take water from Ngoc Well to wash the glutinous rice in the mortar before cooking it.
Nguyen Van Thi, who passed away last year at the age of 103, told villagers when he was alive that he did not know the exact age of the three fish, but he had seen them since he was very young.
Other village elders also say they have also seen the fish since their childhood.
Apart from the Cung Temple and Ngoc Well, attractions in the Diem Village include the Diem communal house and Vua Ba (Female King) Temple that worships the creator of quan ho folk songs.
The most impressive aspect of the Diem communal house, built in 1692, is its big gilded wooden door with images of girls riding dragons, a very different image from the usual animals and flowers carved on doors elsewhere.
Inside the house stand the doi phong, two wooden statues of guards seen in Vietnamese temples and communal houses. The Diem communal house's doi phong wear skirts without a top. They have convex bellies, flat chests, and long faces.