Le Quang, an official at the Yen Tu Relic in Quang Ninh Province can recall the day he encountered dozens of tourists weeping on bended knee at the edge of the Giai Oan Stream.
“They said they had taken stones from the stream during a previous visit and had been haunted, ever since, by nightmares of women demanding their return,” he said.
Quang says that after returning rocks to the stream the haunted group he encountered--a visiting delegation from a women’s association in Lang Son Province--left offerings at the nearby Giai Oan Pagoda, which the king built to pray for the souls of his deceased wives.
The Holy Mountain
Intrigue and ghost stories are everywhere in the holy Yen Tu mountains where King Tran Nhan Tong retreated to found the Truc Lam Zen Buddhism sect after defeating two Mongol invasions and relinquishing his throne to his son, Tran Anh Tong.
Legend has it that the emperor's son sent hundreds of his father’s wives and concubines to convince him to return to his throne and the material world. When he refused, hundreds of his beautiful wives hurled themselves into the Giai Oan Stream to show their loyalty to the king.
Cable cars now alight to the mountain, which houses both a functional monastery and a kitschy vegan restaurant with a costumed house band. All of the visitors arrive, in some way, hoping to soak up the holy sense of mystery that weighs heavily in the mountain's misty atmosphere.
Thuy, a tour guide at Yen Tu, said the stream-crossing where the king's wives supposedly committed suicide is now some 30 meter wide but used to be much more vast--particularly during the rainy season.
Nowadays, large stones and peebles jut through the shallow water and tourists can easily walk along a short section of the stream where tourists frequently wash their hands and feet and take a gamble with the universe by pilfering a few stones. Occasionally, Thuy said, a stage is built here for gaudy pageants and special events.
For the rest time of the year, there's only the sound of water rushing toward the shrubs and trees of the primitive forest, spotted with Blue Tongue flowers (Melastoma affine) which now signify a lover's loyalty in the local culture.
“They said they had taken pebbles from the stream during a previous visit and had nightmares about some women who asked them to return the pebbles,” Le Quang, an official at Yen Tu Management Board.
Souls in the stream
Yen, a nun at the Giai Oan Pagoda, said she couldn't recall how many people she'd seen return return stones to the stream.
“No one can take anything from the Giai Oan Stream without the consent of the Bach Mau,” she said. Bach Mau (the white mothers) is a respectful way of referring to the King’s deceased wives.
A large pile of carved and polished stones sit near the Giai Oan Pagoda; Yen said they all came from budding entrepreneurs who had returned them after being plagued by bad luck.
“They thought that using stones from the stream would inspire the Bach Mau to bring them good luck, but they were wrong. Every pebble in this stream is said to be possessed by the spirit of the King’s wives. It is impossible to take them home,” she said.
Among the pile of altered stones, one boulder read “International Exhibition Center of H…”, which Yen said was brought back by a Hai Phong tycoon who once included in an exhibition center.
He returned the stone some ten months later after being plagued nightmares and a lack of clients.
The residents of Thuong Yen Cong Commune in Quang Ninh’s Uong Bi District, located near Yen Tu Mountains can all recall the story of the king's five surviving wives.
La Thi Thuy, a Dao woman from Nam Mau Hamlet, said the name of the hamlet, which means Five Mothers, refers to the rescued women who married Dao men.
The Dao people in Nam Mau Hamlet in Yen Tu Mountains are believed to be descendants of the wives of King Tran Nhan Tong.
“As hundreds of the King’s wives were hurling themselves into the the stream, five Dao men gathering firewood managed to save five women whom they later married,” Thuy said.
When these five women died, local people built a temple to pray for them at the Thuong Yen Cong Commune.
Legend has it that the genes of the King’s beautiful wives live on in the famous women of Nam Mau Hamlet--most of whom are remarkably tall, pale and beautiful.
Tran Manh Hoa, a local official, said he knew the legend but wasn't sure if the Dao people at Nam Mau were actually descendants of the King’s wives.
“There's no recorded evidence of that," he said. "That said, the beauty of the women here is indisputable.”