There was once a very poor man who lived near the forest. He was able to earn enough for a bare existence by cutting firewood, which his wife would barter for rice in the market place.
One day, when this man was cutting wood at the river’s edge, the ax slipped from his hands and fell into the water. Although the woodcutter searched for it everywhere, it was not to be found. Discouraged, he sat down on the bank, lowered his head sadly, and wondered how he would be able to earn a living in the future. When the man raised his eyes again, he saw a little old man standing in front of him. The newcomer asked the woodcutter the reason for his unhappiness. The latter described what had happened and added that the lost ax had been his most valuable possession. Only with it would he be able to earn his daily rice.
“I am the dragon of this river,” said the old man sympathetically, “and I am going to help you. If you will wait here for a minute, I will recover your ax for you.”
With these words the old man plunged into the water. A few moments later, he reappeared, holding a golden ax in his hand.
“Is this your ax?” he asked.
“No,” replied the woodcutter, “that is not mine. My ax was made of iron and had a wooden handle.”
The river-dragon plunged into the water again and then emerged holding aloft a silver ax.
“Is this ax yours?” he asked.
Again the honest woodcutter replied in the negative.
The dragon then submerged for a third time. When he reappeared, he was holding a very ordinary iron ax in his hand.
“Is this your ax?” he asked the woodcutter.
“Yes,” came the reply, “that is mine, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your assistance.”
“You are an honest man,” said the river-dragon then. “For that reason, in addition to this iron ax, I am going to give you one of silver and one of gold as well.”
It was difficult for the simple woodcutter to find words with which to thank his benefactor. He picked up the three axes and returned to his cottage.
The evidence of all this new wealth soon aroused the speculation of the woodcutter’s neighbors. With the exception of one man, however, they all wished him well.
This man was full of envy and was greatly desirous of obtaining for himself a golden or silver ax. From the woodcutter he obtained an exact description of the place on the river bank where the miraculous event had taken place. The greedy man then found an old, rusty ax and went there with it. He threw the iron ax into the water and pretended to be greatly troubled because of its loss.
The little old man appeared before the man and asked the cause of his trouble. Falsely the man described his loss and begged for the old man’s assistance.
“You shall receive justice,” was the reply. Thereupon, the old man plunged into the river and reappeared with a golden ax in his hand.
Before the dragon even had time to ask the question, the man shouted, “That’s my ax. Give it to me at once.”
“You are lying,” replied the dragon angrily. Raising the ax high in the air, he struck the liar a blow on the neck, killing him instantly.
Since that time, no one has ever tried to obtain a golden ax or even a silver one from the river-dragon’s hoard.
Note. This story is probably of Buddhist inspiration but Confucianists would also approve of its moral: Greed is indicted and punished; honesty is rewarded. It also illustrates Vietnamese belief in the supernatural river-dragon, a generally beneficent creature, who is said to inhabit the depths of every stream and to be able to assume human shape at will.