Three herdsmen entered Vietnam’s history and left incredible works. Two of them were sweet images in the Vietnamese people’s memory. The third one gave horror to his people in spite of his genial military exploits during the civil war between the Le and the Mac. These three historic persons were Dinh Bo Linh, Trinh Kiem and Dao Duy Tu.


Dinh Bo Linh was an orphan. His father, Dinh Cong Tru, was a mandarin serving the Ngo dynasty. After his father’s death Dinh Bo Linh lived in his uncle’s house and tended water buffaloes for him. He was illiterate. But he was strong, intelligent and brave. He used to fight the other herdsmen and defeated them without any difficulty. After victory he asked the losers to make a palanquin by crossing their arms to carry him as a king. One day, he killed his uncle’s water buffalo to celebrate his triumph in spite of his uncle’s fury. Dinh Bo Linh was portrayed as a strong and intelligent man, a good diver and fighter. It was said that, when a child, he was hired by a Chinese geomancer to dive into a dangerous river whirlpool. Linh saw a stone horse in the bottom of the river. The stone horse greeted him by shaking its tail. Leaving the whirlpool Dinh Bo Linh told the Chinese geomancer what he saw. The Chinese geomancer knew that Dinh Bo Linh was predestined to be king.

In the 10th century many anti- Chinese revolts occurred in our country. Ngo Quyen defeated the Southern Han on the Bach Dang River to put an end to Chinese domination in our country (938). He acceded to the throne in 939 and died in 944. His death led to the Seigniorial War. It was the famous Twelve- Seignior War which ruined the country and led it to the uncertain future. Each Seignior had his own fief and tried to take over other fiefs by force. Persistent feudal wars put peasants in misery. Rice fields were abandoned. Houses were on fire. Life got harder and harder while arrest, torture, piracy and bloodshed increased. Dinh Bo Linh became a Seignior after the death of his boss Tran Lam. He defeated all of the then feudal forces to unify the country. He came to the throne by proclaiming himself Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang.

Building his success on military exploits Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang dreamed of our country’s prosperity and greatness. He named the country Dai Co Viet, considered himself equal to Chinese Emperor, and thought about a million-soldier army. His hope was to make Dai Co Viet a military power in Southeast Asia. Otherwise, its independence would not be durable.

Dinh Tien Hoang used Buddhist philosophy to teach his people. Venerable Khuong Viet born Ngo Chan Luu (930- 1011) was very influential. Many stories about the Good and the Evil, and the law of causality and finality were spread in the whole country in the purpose of teaching the grassroots how to do right things and to avoid wrong ones against the country’s law and order. Those people who did good things should have God’s blessings. Dishonest and mean people should be rigorously punished by laws. After their death they should go to Hell in which they should be severely punished and tortured by Devils. Beside such public education there were a series of severe measures of punishments given to the wrongdoers. The burglars had their hands cut or plunged into boiled oil. The pirates were thrown into the tigers’ cages. It is certain that these severe punishments are denounced in our time.

What was going on in this newly independent country?

More than a thousand years under Chinese rule and twenty two years of Seigniorial War (945- 967) led to many bad consequences: social disorder, economic ruins, disunion, growth of skepticism and pessimism facing unsafe life. The concept of living from day to day with no thought of tomorrow and that of using the shortest way to assure happiness was in vogue.

The state of mind of the military leader was to show his strength and power to safeguard the kingship prestige. Would the independent kingship be inferior to the colonial rule in re-establishing social order, national security and economic stability? The then national economy was based on farming and fishing. Maybe Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang did not consider economic development by improving technique of farming and fishing. His military dream was great. A one million- soldier army, if existent, should break the national economic financial balance.

Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang and his oldest son, Dinh Lien, were killed by Do Thich in 979 when they both were drunk. Queen Duong Van Nga committed adultery with Generalissimo Le Hoan, who became King in the 980’s bloodless coup. The Dinh dynasty lasted 12 years (968- 980).


Trinh Kiem was an orphan from a poor family in Thanh Hoa province. It was written Kiem’s filial piety was immense. His mother liked to eat chickens while her family was poor. Trinh Kiem must steal chickens from his neighbors to feed his mother.

When a child, Trinh Kiem earned his living by cutting grass to feed horses. He spent his youth beside Generalissimo Nguyen Kim to resist the Mac, who overthrew the Le in the 1527’s bloody coup d’etat. Following Nguyen Kim, Trinh Kiem spent some years living along the Viet- Lao border. Recognizing Kiem’s military talent, Nguyen Kim allowed him to marry his daughter, Ngoc Bao. It was a great honor for an unschooled and needy young man to be ‘ennobled’. After Nguyen Kim’s suspicious death, Trinh Kiem became the true leader of the anti- Mac resistance for the restoration of the Le. Trinh Kiem’s political ambition was borderless. He killed Nguyen Uong, son of Nguyen Kim, to consolidate his power in the Southern dynasty. In reality, king Le Trang Ton was a puppet one. The best general of the Mac, Mac Kinh Dien, could not defeat Trinh Kiem, who, in his turn, defeated the Mac when attacking provinces on the Red River Delta surrounding Dong Do (Ha Noi). King Le Trang Ton died in 1548. Prince Le Duy Huyen was enthroned. It was king Le Trung Ton. In 1556 king Le Trung Ton died childless. Trinh Kiem would like to proclaim himself king. He did know that the folk loved and respected the Later Le for expelling the Ming from Dai Viet. The anti- Mac resistance for the restoration of the Le should lose its good cause if Trinh Kiem stole the throne from the Le. A smart and cautious man, Trinh Kiem sent a messenger to Hai Duong to ask for Dr. Nguyen Binh Khiem’ s advice. Our prestigious scholar did not give any advice to the messenger. He turned to his servant, saying: “Keep the pagoda to eat truncated sticky rice cake.” Trinh Kiem understood what Dr. Nguyen Binh Khiem meant.

After Trinh Kiem killed Nguyen Uong, his younger brother, Nguyen Hoang, claimed to have mental health problems. Nguyen Hoang told his sister, Ngoc Bao, Trinh Kiem’s wife, to ask Kiem to allow him to go go down South.

Trinh Kiem was considered to be the founder of the Trinh Shogunate in Dang Ngoai (North i.e the deltas of the Red River and the Ma, Ca and Chu Rivers).

Nguyen Hoang was the founder of the Nguyen Shogunate in Dang Trong (South of the 18th parallel).

Trinh Kiem died in 1570. Twenty years later the Mac were totally defeated. They fled to Cao Bang and got the safety umbrella from the Ming until 1677.

From 1545 to 1786 (241 years) Lords Trinh eclipsed the kings of the Restored Le. They enthroned, dethroned or killed the kings at will. They established an authoritarian and militarist regime in North Vietnam. All the kings of the Restored Le had their power paralyzed. They became political victims of the Trinh. During more than two centuries under the Trinh Shogunate Dai Viet underwent continual wars and jacqueries: war between the Mac and Le & Trinh; war between the Nguyen and Le & Trinh; war between the Le & Trinh and Mac in Cao Bang, war between the Trinh and the Tay Son. The Complaints of the Warrior’s Wife (Chinh Phu Ngam) by Dang Tran Con translated into ‘nom’ by poetess Doan Thi Diem, the story of a warrior’s wife, who was petrified without seeing her husband’ homecoming, and many popular songs reflected intermittent bloody civil wars in three centuries. The Sulky Gianh River, a Vietnamese song, reminds us of the intestine war between the Le & Trinh and the Nguyen i.e between the Northerners and the Southerners. The Gianh River was the partition line of our country in the 17th century. It was written in the refrain of the song:

Oh! Dear Gianh River!
Do you weep and lament?
Do you feel angry?
Do you feel ashamed?
Do you feel sad?
Do not recall us of the intestine war
Which prevents our country from seeing her glorious days.

The grassroots suffered from insecurity, heavy taxes and corvee, social injustice etc. They compared the rulers to the pirates, saying:

There are pirates in the night time.
In the day time the pirates are corrupt mandarins.

Everybody could participate in the triennial contests provided that they paid a certain amount of sapeques. Rich people could buy titles of tri huyen (district chief), tri phu (county chief). In the capital the kieu binh (proud soldiers) martyrized the dwellers too much. Lord Trinh Giang (1729- 1740) forbade the residents to light lamps at night. The simple reason of that absurd order was that he was afraid of being struck by the God of Thunder!! Trinh Giang forced Chancellor Nguyen Cong Hang to kill himself in 1732.



Dao Duy Tu (1572- 1634) was born into a theatrical family. He was good at literature and poetry but he could not participate in the triennial contests in Dang Ngoai (North) to change his social situation. In Confucian society, no promotion was possible without a parchment. Actors, actresses and slaves were in the bottom of the social classes. Their children did not have any chance to improve their life. That was the earmark of the feudal regime and Confucian society in our country in the past.

Dao Duy Tu fled to the South and kept water buffaloes for a rich landlord in Qui Nhon. The latter was a learned man. One day, he invited his friends to a banquet in which they ate, drank and discussed literature, poetry and politics. That evening Dao Duy Tu came home with his water buffaloes from the meadow. Hearing the discussion Dao Duy Tu stopped and wished to express his own opinions. All the guests felt displeased for he was a young herdsman ignoring neither A nor B according to their judgement. How could the herdsman discuss with his boss and his friends? Age and social class was always important in society. But Dao Duy Tu’ s boss was a generous and open- minded man. He allowed Dao Duy Tu to expose his opinions. Dao Duy Tu showed his large knowledge of the past and present, of literature, poetry, philosophy, politics, and strategy. His boss, Tran Duc Hoa, was surprised. He felt proud of him. He married his daughter to Dao Duy Tu and referred him to Chua Sai (Lord Sai) born Nguyen Phuc Nguyen in 1627. Dao Duy Tu served Lord Sai Nguyen Phuc Nguyen with devotion. Lord Sai appreciated his intelligence and strategy. In 1630 Lord Sai carried out Dao Duy Tu’s advice by building the Truong Duc Fortress (Luy Truong Duc) in Phong Loc district, Quang Binh province. The next year Luy Thay (the Thay Fortress) was built on the Nhat Le River in Dong Hoi district. The Luy Truong Duc and Luy Thay were built to prevent the Trinh from invading Dang Trong. Lord Sai was a good leader for turning a herdsman in Tung Chau hamlet, Qui Nhon, into an excellent strategist. When Dao Duy Tu was in bed he came in person to see him and to comfort him. Dao Duy Tu died in 1634 after serving the Nguyen for 08 years. In 1635 Lord Sai Nguyen Phuc Nguyen died.

Dao Duy Tu was author of Ngoa Long Cuong (The Sleeping Dragon) in which he compared himself to Chia Ko Leang (Gia Cat Luong) in the Three Empires. He gave birth to hat bai choi which has been popular in some provinces of Central Vietnam. Qui Nhon was the cradle of Hat Bai Choi.



Three herdsmen entered history.
Dinh Bo Linh was Emperor.
Trinh Kiem was Shogun
Dao Duy Tu was a strategist.

Dinh Bo Linh was an illiterate orphan although his father was a mandarin. His kingship was built on his military exploits. It lasted only 12 years.

Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang was an alcoholic addict losing lucidity when demoting Dinh Lien, his oldest son, and choosing Hang Lang as his successor. Dinh Lien had military contributions to his father’s victory during the Seigneurial War. Angry at Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang’ s myopic decision, Dinh Lien killed Hang Lang, his younger half -brother. Both Dinh Tien Hoang and Dinh Lien spent time drinking rice alcohol. They were assassinated by Do Thich. The Dinh dynasty was on the brink of collapse. The young king, Dinh Tue, was 06 years old. The Chinese troops threatened to invade Dai Co Viet. Queen Duong Van Nga fell in love with Generalissimo Le Hoan. The young king, Dinh Tue, was dethroned in a bloodless coup led by Le Hoan, who founded the Earlier Le. Duong Van Nga became the two- dynasty Queen ( the Dinh and the Earlier Le)!

Trinh Kiem was a poor and unschooled orphan. His leadership and military genius was undeniable. He was brutal, foxy, authoritarian, and feelingless. But he was lucid and cautious not to topple down the Restored Le. He kept them and turned them into puppet kings. The Trinh Shogunate lasted 241 years. It was characterized by militarism, dictatorship, intermittent wars, jacqueries led by Nguyen Danh Phuong, Nguyen Huu Cau, Hoang Cong Chat and prince Le Duy Mat, and mutiny engendered by the kieu binh (proud soldiers), who help Trinh Khai kill his younger half-brother, Trinh Can, and Can’s mother, Dang Thi Hue, to head the Trinh Shogunate in the capital in 1783.

Dao Duy Tu’s father was Dao Ta Han, who was in charge of teaching dancers in the Royal Palace. Dao Duy Tu was not illiterate. Knowing Chinese characters, he was aware of Chinese culture and military arts. He was tired of militarism, conservatism, and dictatorship in Dang Ngoai headed by the Trinh and the Restored Le. Dang Trong was the land of freedom where the Nguyen treasured talented persons without any discrimination. The recommendation of talented persons was the earmark of the new administration in the new land. Allowing a herdsman to marry his boss’ daughter, and to discuss with his boss and his guests was uncommon in feudal time in Vietnam. Dao Duy Tu helped the Nguyen establish a center of power in the South which was independent from the Le and the Trinh in Dang Ngoai.

Dang Trong was the new land. It was less populated than Dang Ngoai. Compared with Dang Ngoai, Dang Trong was weak economically, politically and militarily. However, the Nguyen resisted the Trinh troops heroically. Sometimes their troops invaded Nghe An. Dang Trong was really independent thanks to good leadership of Lords Nguyen, who gained popular support with their open- minded policy. Democracy, hope and freedom reigned in Dang Trong while dictatorship, fear, worries and oppression reigned in Dang Ngoai. The Nguyen had popularity. The Trinh lost it. They became the losers in the people’s hearts and minds. Dictatorship and conservatism could not lead the country to progress and prosperity but to stagnation and backwardness.

Trang Phạm Đěnh Lân