Vietnam Heritage, March 2011 — Throughout Asia, from time immemorial, elephants have been an integral part of religious, ceremonial and cultural activities. Revered as sacred, even divine, animals, they have been, and often still are, a great presence in pagodas and palaces. Maya, the mother of Gautama Buddha, dreamt that a white elephant entered her side, and white elephants feature in many Buddhist stories. Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu God of Wisdom, Remover of Obstacles, is widely worshipped. He was a major deity of the ancient Cham civilisation of Vietnam. Since antiquity, elephants have also been used in warfare.
The Asian elephant has played a significant role in Vietnamese culture, from the 1st century AD until modern times. There are many tales of elephants carrying heroines and heroes into battle against the invading Chinese. The Trung Sisters, Trac and Nhi, are perhaps Vietnam’s most famous women warriors. In 40AD, in northern Vietnam, they led an army against the enemy on two white elephants, after Trung Trac’s husband, Thi Sach, had been executed by the Chinese. It is said they were standing by the elephant stall when given the news of his death, at which both elephants had ‘shuddered and trumpeted’. Trung Trac rode into battle in ‘a suit of armour’ with ‘an elaborately carved breastplate, a waist belt with a bronze buckle, and small bells tinkling with the steps of the elephant’. 2  Drumming and cheering, the sisters, both trained in martial arts, rode to victory. Their names are immortalized in every city of Vietnam, in the street name Hai Ba Trung.
Trieu Thi Trinh, or Lady Trieu, lived in 48 AD, in what is now Thanh Hoa province, near Nua Mountain. Skilled in martial arts, she is reputed to have tamed a wild, white elephant that had been terrorising villagers. One day, driven away by gongs and bells, it fell into a bog. Lady Trieu ordered it to be captured alive. It was tied to two enormous trees to immobilize it, but when Lady Trieu approached, it fell to its knees in homage. Magically, the story resounded through the land as a poem spoken by a ‘talking stone’. The elephant became devoted to her, and it was astride him, that Lady Trieu defeated the 8,000 Chinese troops of the Wu Dynasty. 2 
Eventually, she was tricked into withdrawal, and the elephant is said to have knelt towards the Tung Mountain and starved himself to death, which story explains the elephant-shaped mountain facing the Tung Mountain to this day. Elephant-shaped rocks feature often in the landscape of Vietnam, notably at Perfume Pagoda and Cat Ba. In Hue, there are the Elephant Springs.
Again, in the 1420s, King Le Loi employed elephants in battle, and at one point, when supplies were short, they were even killed for food. In 1789, King Quang Trung used elephants to liberate the capital from the Sino-Manchu army.
R’Leo Knul, a famed elephant king of the Montagnards, tamed a white elephant for the last emperor, Bao Dai, and helped him form a hunt, Bao Dai Royal, which hunted elephants and tigers well into the 1950s. Archive newsreel footage shows the emperor and the French High Commissioner, in white suits and dark glasses, taking the Oath of Allegiance in 1946, in the city of Ban Me Thuot. At the ceremony, Montagnards present huge tusks of ivory and pay homage on 10 kneeling elephants. 3  
In 1961, a white elephant was caught in the Central Highlands and offered as a gift to President Ngo Dinh Diem. Recognising it as a symbol of supreme power, he flew to Ban MeThuot to personally receive it, in a much publicized ceremony. Nonetheless, it did not prevent Diem’s assassination and the demise of his regime two years later.
Elephants played a role in Vietnam’s recent history of resistance against both the French colonialists and US forces, transporting arms and ammunition in the Highlands, particularly along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Quite a few were decorated for ‘services’ to the Fatherland. 4 
Yet nowadays, this icon of loyalty, strength and hard work, this animal that has contributed so much to Vietnamese history and tradition, is regarded either as a pest, a vehicle for entertainment or nothing more than tusks and tail for the taking.
1.Elephas maximus
2.Outstanding Vietnamese Women Before the 20th Century, The Gioi Publishers, 2006
4.Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture, by Huu Ngoc, and The Gioi Publishers, 8th
impression, 2008

By Annie Eagle