So what do you do if you woke up one day and found that a Mongol army was about to invade your country? That is an issue which the Trần Dynasty monarch, Trần Thái Tông, had to deal with in 1257. His first reaction was to lead an army to confront the Mongols. This strategy, however, failed as Trần Thái Tông’s forces were routed by the Mongols. Trần Thái Tông then went and asked one of his top commanders, Defender-in-chief Trần Nhật Hiệu, what to do. Nhật Hiệu sat leaning on his boat and did not get up. He just traced in the water beside the boat the two characters, “enter Song.”

What Defender-in-chief Trần Nhật Hiệu was saying was that Trần Thái Tông should go and seek the protection of the Song Dynasty. Why did he trace these characters in the water rather than say this to Trần Thái Tông directly? Although we can not answer that question with certainty, it would appear that Trần Nhật Hiệu was suggesting that Trần Thái Tông should abandon his kingdom and go to China to save his own skin. My guess would be that Trần Nhật Hiệu expected to accompany the monarch on such a journey, in which case they would both save their skins, but many others would likely suffer as a result of this decision. Hence, Trần Nhật Hiệu’s reluctance to state this verbally, out of fear that someone might hear.

The royal family of the Trần was divided by rivalries. In 1256 a member of the family, Prince Vũ Thành had tried to flee to the Song, but had been apprehended by a Tai man who was serving as a border official for the Song and sent back to Vietnam. This same man, Hoàng Bính/Huang Bing, then sought to save his own skin from Mongol attacks in 1257 by offering his daughter to Trần Thái Tông and submitting with 1,200 of his followers.

So what is evident here is that in times of danger, self preservation is a very strong impulse. The official Vietnamese narrative of the past which declares that Vietnamese have always united against “foreign aggression” is not easily supported by the historical record. In times of danger, the powerful seek first to save their own skins. That is a basic human impulse, one which is shared by Vietnamese, Tai and every other people on the planet.