The events described in this legend are said to have taken place during the reign of the Emperor Le Anh Tong, who ruled over Dai Viet from 1556 to 1573.
Since the exiled princess was a daughter of Ngoc Hoang, the Emperor of Jade, supreme deity of the Taoists, we may suppose that the story is of Taoist inspiration.
The legend is sometimes entitled “The Exiled Fairy” since the celestial princess was of course an immortal or fairy (tien).
One autumn night, the Emperor Le Anh Tong had a strange prophetic dream. Under the high ceiling of a vast hall, the supporting columns of which were made of the four precious stones he saw two rows of mandarins, arrayed in magnificent court dress, standing attentively. In the center of the hall, at the top of the nine steps, Ngoc Hoang, the Jade Emperor, dressed in a magnificent tunic embroidered with golden dragons, was seated on his throne.
A young maiden then entered the hall; as she walked toward, the pearls dangling from the sash at her waist tingled harmoniously. Standing near the steps leading up to the throne, she held in her hands a jade cup in which she offered Ngoc Hoang the Wine of Longevity. As the Jade Emperor learned forward to receive the cup, it fell from the maiden’s grasp and crashed to the floor, breaking into a thousand pieces.
Immediately, a genie seated to the Jade Emperor’s left was seen to open a large book and inscribe two characters therein. Two courtiers then conducted the unfortunate maiden towards a door over which was written in golden characters “EXILE BY IMPERIAL DECREE.” This inscription was followed by the character for “south (nam)”. It was evident that because of her carelessness in serving the Jade Emperor the maiden had been banished from the Celestial Empire and thenceforth would have to seek an existence on the dark, unfriendly Earth below.
Emperor Le Anh Tong awakened with a start. The palace was filled with a bright light, and the sweet smell of incense invaded his chamber. A courtier was kneeling on the phoenix-embroidered mat; when ordered to speak, he informed the emperor that during the night the empress had given birth to a princess. She was named Lieu Hanh.
As Princess Lieu Hanh grew to womanhood, she became famous throughout the Empire of Dai Viet for her perfect beauty. She preferred to live in a small palace at some distance from the court, which her father had been pleased to build for her there so that she might pursue her studies in quietude.
The princess loved to sit at the edge of a pool fringed with lotus blossoms, painting rustic landscapes or playing the lute or the flute. She would oftentimes compose verses in honor of the four seasons of the year, and these she would then sing to her own accompaniment.
As the pure tones of the maiden’s lute floated through the soft air of the garden, the Emperor would go there to listen. Then he would be struck by a sad melancholy which seemed to penetrate to his very soul. He would frown as he spoke.
“Why must you play these sorrowful airs?” he would ask.
Having no answer for her father’s question, Princess Lieu Hanh would remain silent.
When the Emperor decided that it was time for the princess to marry, he selected a handsome young mandarin named Dao Lang to be her husband. Although she seemed quite happy with married life, three years later the princess took sick and died.
After his wife’s death, the mandarin was rarely seen at court. He spent most of his time in the princess’s little palace, where he could sit at the edge of the lotus pool. He had kept a few locks of his wife’s hair, which still retained the fragrance of her perfume. In the silent garden he seemed to hear again the pure tones of the lute of former times.
At the end of a year, as was the custom, Princess Lieu Hanh’s coffin was opened so that her remains could be laid to rest in her permanent tomb. When the coffin was found to be empty, Dao Lang turned pale and was unable to speak or move.
The following day, the mandarin requested an audience with the Emperor and begged to be permitted to resign his position at court so that he might retire to his native village of Ton Huong, in Nghe An province. His resignation was accepted.
On Dao Lang’s return to his native village, he again visited the sites dear to the Immortals. The rumble of the sea was heard beneath the purple slopes of Mt. Hoanh Son, the home of flocks of colorful herons. The little village of Ton Huong was backed against a hill covered with fragrant plants. Dao Lang was fond of strolling about under the tall trees, where he could listen to the murmur of a hidden spring that seemed to accompany his reveries.
One day, the young widower set off along a path shaded by century-old sophoras; it led to an old temple, the half-broken steps of which lay hidden under piles of dead leaves. On a branch he saw a piece of red paper on which were written some verses in old characters, their meaning unclear. For a moment he thought he detected footsteps on the soft moss; but he saw no one.
The following day, he returned to the temple and waited. There was a mysterious rustle in the silent woods; then a little puff of wind bearing a familiar fragrance met his steps as he moved forward. Suddenly he perceived the shadow of the loved one of yesteryear appear under the dark vault of the sophoras.
The princess’s approach was signaled by the sound of the pearls dangling from the sash at her waist. When they met, she told her husband of her origin and of how she had come to be exiled to the Earth.
“The period of my exile has come to a close,” she said, “but the magic peace of the garden and the lotus pond will remain with me forever. Today we have met again; however, no one can say how long we may be able to remain together.”
In the shade of a mango tree, a son was born to the reunited couple; their happiness seemed complete. One evening, the princess played some old familiar melodies on the flute. The cold tones slipping from the instrument produced a feeling of nostalgia. When the last note had faded away, Dao Lang stood motionless, looking at the moonlight on a quiet bay.
From afar, as if from an unknown land, a serene melody rose through the air. Then it faded into space, although the effect seemed to remain. Lieu Hanh shuddered; laying aside the flute, she walked towards her husband.
“It is time to part again,” she said simply. “Farewell.”
Dao Lang gave no sign of comprehension. Slowly his wife receded towards he door and raised the curtain. The sound of her pearls tinkled harmoniously and then everything was silent.
Their son became a famous scholar.
Dao Lang erected a small altar under the sophoras in the sacred woods hat had witnessed his meeting with Princess Lieu Hanh. This altar is till to be seen in the vicinity of Ton Huong.