Overview of traditional festivals
Festive activities are living museums in which typical cultural values of the nation have been preserved for centuries.
Vietnam Puppet Show
Formation and meaning of traditional festivals
Traditional festivals constitute a form of cultural activities, a spiritual product which the people have created and developed during the course of history. From generation to generation, the Vietnamese people preserve the fine tradition of “remembering the source while drinking water.” Festivals are events which represent this tradition of the community as well as honour the holy figures named as “gods” – the real persons in national history or legendary persons. The images of gods converge the noble characteristics of mankind. They are national heroes who fought against foreign invaders, reclaimed new lands, treated people, fought against natural calamities, or those legendary characters who affect the earthly life. Festivals are events when people pay tribute to divinities that rendered merits to the community and the nation.
Festivals are occasions when people come back to either their natural or national roots, which form a sacred part in their mind.
Festivals represent the strength of the commune or village, the local region or even the whole nation. Worshipping the same god, the people unite in solidarity to overcome difficulties, striving for a happy and wealthy life.
Festivals display the demand for creativity and enjoyment of spiritual and material cultural values of all social strata. Festivals become a form of education under which fine traditional moral values can be handed from one generation to the next in a unique way of combining spiritual characters with competition and entertainment games.
Festivals are also the time people can express their sadness and worries in a wish that gods might bestow favour on them to help them strive for a better life.
Process of festivals
Generally speaking, every festival will include the following three steps:
Preparation: The preparation work is divided into two phases: prior to the coming festive season and in the immediate time before the festive day. The preparation work for the coming festive season starts right after the previous festival comes to an end. When it is coming to the festive day, people need to check the worshipping objects, attires, decoration, and cleaning of the worshipping place and statues.
The festive day: Many activities take place, including rituals of procession, incense offering, and rejoicing games, among others. They form the most important and significant part of any festival. These activities also play a decisive role in attracting tourists and deciding the timing of the festival itself.
The ending of the festival: The organization board expresses their thanks to all festival goers and closes the worshipping place.
Time for festivals
In Vietnam festivals often take place during the three months in spring and in autumn when people have a lot of leisure time. In addition, the climate in spring and autumn is especially suitable for holding festivals and for festivals goers to enjoy.
Festivals require many compulsory rituals, which are carried out in a strict order from the preparation to the ending of a festival. In general, a festival has the following rituals:
Statue washing rite is performed at mid-night of the day before the festival. This rite is preceded by a ceremony of water procession in some places. A ceremony to inform gods must be held prior to this statue-washing rite.
Next is the rite of wearing hats and costumes for gods’ statues or putting them in their worshipping tablets if gods have no statue. After that, the statues of gods (or worshipping tablets, even costumes) are put in the palanquin, ready for the procession on the opening of the festival.
Procession ritual: A festival often includes the procession of gods, tutelary gods, royal order and water, of which the first and fourth rite are most popular. The content and meaning of the procession ritual vary from festival to festival with regard to the object of procession, its organization and participants. The procession of gods and water processions are usually carried out prior to the opening and closing ceremonies of the festival accordingly.
Festivals, as mentioned above, are to honour holy figures, i.e. gods or divinities to whose temples and shrines are dedicated. Very often a festival takes place in the courtyard of the village’s communal house which is spacious and convenient for the conduct of liturgical processes and rejoicing activities. As such, the ritual of god procession is held along the route from their places of worship to the place of liturgy. At the end of the festival, another procession will bring gods’ statues back to their temples. After the procession ritual are the ritual of presenting offerings to gods and the opening of the festival. In many festivals, a procession of the oration dedicated to gods is held every day. Each day a different oration is used.
In traditional festivals it is required that participants in the procession ritual must be men above 18 years old who are selected carefully on the basis of their physical strength and good ethics. Women can join the procession group in such festivals as Phu Day or Ha Loi which dedicate to goddesses. Anyone who is chosen to become a member of the procession group must consider it his/her own honour and his/her family.
On its way, each procession bears its own symbol. People beat drums and gongs (formerly firecrackers were used) to signal the departure of the procession. On the closing day of the festival, a final ritual is held with all processes required.
Rice cooking competitions (thi thoi com)
During Tet, a number of villages in northern and central Vietnam hold cooking contests that may sound simple, but follow strict and complex rules: Cooking in the wind and rain. Tu Trong Village, Thanh Hoa Province has a temple dedicated to the 11th century warrior Le Phung Hieu.
Rice cooking festival
During the temple’s weeklong festival the first week of Tet, villagers hold culinary competitions: cooking ordinary rice in water, steaming sticky rice and making rice cakes.
Contestants cook in the open air while in a bamboo boat floating on the village pond. Charcoal, the usual fuel, is prohibited. Instead, each competitor receives some dried sugar cane, which burns only with difficulty. The challenge increases if it is windy and raining. Each contestant must set her rice pot in exactly the right place to take advantage of the wind and avoid extinguishing the fire.
The competition begins precisely at dawn. Hundreds of boats are tied up along the pond bank since as many as 200 young women may participate.
After a salvo of drumbeats, competitors step into their boats, bringing along cooking tripods, rice pots, some damp straw and fuel. They row to the centre of the pond, make a fire and wash the rice.
A second salvo of drumbeats sounds, punctuated by three final beats, the competition starts. The cooking may be done in one pot after another or by using all pots al the same time. The tiny, light boat sways with the competitor’s every movement, keeping the craft stable while cooking is like performing a circus act. The competitor who finishes first wins, but quality also counts. People from many villages watch from the pond bank, mothers who have trained their girls for months impatiently wait for the results of their efforts. Other women take advantage of the occasion to look for prospective daughters-in-law who are both good cooks and can also face difficulties with calmness.
Contests for boys and girls villagers in Chuong Village of Ha Tay Province organise similar competitions separately for boys and girls. Female participants must cook rice on the ground while simultaneously carrying a six-to seven-month-old baby from another family on her hip. She must console the infant when he or she cries. At the same time, she must prevent a toad from jumping out of a chalk circle drawn around her. The competition is all the more difficult because the spectators, especially children, take every opportunity to tease the baby.
The contest for boys is no less rigorous. Each boy must stand ready with all the necessary items (rice, water, matches and firewood) on a light boat moored the pond bank. At a given signal he paddles with his hands to the opposite bank, where a row of pots is placed on tripods. He must stay in his unmoored boat while cooking the rice on the bank. The least loss of balance tosses him over into the water.
In Tich Son Village of Vinh Phuc Province, a cooking competition takes place on the morning of the fourth day after Tet. The finished rice must meet particular criteria of taste and consistency. Contestants use two pots. First they boil the rice in a copper pot over the fire. Once the water boils, they pour both the rice and water into an earthen pot and cook the rice over charcoal until done.
Spinning Tops (con quay)
In summertime, groups of children often play with tops along Hanoi’s streets and alleys. Their enthusiasm and happy laughter attract an audience, old and young, and remind older viewers of their younger days.
The folk pastime of top spinning still charms city children despite the popularity of modern games such as bowling, skateboarding, billiards and video games.
In the countryside, most children make their own tops out of guava, jackfruit, or longan wood. Sometimes they fashion tops from buffalo horn, though there tops are rare because horns are harder to obtain and more difficult to shape. City children frequently use wood scraps left from making furniture to fashion their tops. To Tich Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is famous for trading tops. A top has three parts: the head, body and nail. The head is shaped into a cylinder. The body is a sphere; the string is wound around its upper part. The nail must be accurately fixed into the bottom point of the top. Children in the countryside make strings from dry maize leaves; Hanoi children often use parachute string or cord.
The simplest way to spin a top is to “drop” it. The player uses his or her ring finger and little finger to press the cord or string against the nail at the knot. He or she holds the top firmly with the thumb and two remaining fingers so that its nail points upwards. Then he or she “drops” the top in three rapid steps: first, pushing the top forward while turning the wrist to point the nail downwards, then releasing the top; and rapidly pulling the string.
Once the top is spinning, players can use the string to move the top in the desired direction. When the top wavers, the player runs the string against the nail and pulls powerfully in the direction the top is turning. This keeps the top spinning longer.
Although tops are among the simplest of toys, excited children spinning tops create one of Hanoi’s most vivid and boisterous games.
Bamboo Jacks (choi chuyen)
This girls’ game (choi chuyen) includes ten thin, well-sharpened, round bamboo sticks and a ball, which traditionally is a fig, a miniature variety of eggplant, a small rock or a clod of clay.
These days, tennis balls are becoming more popular as a substitute. The player tosses the ball into the air. While the ball is in the air, she must quickly pick up the sticks and then catch the ball.
Players often recite a singsong nonsense rhyme: “Cai mot… Cai mai… Cai co… So mang… Thang chang… Con chit… Ngam nga… Ngam nguyt… Chuot chit… Sang ban doi…”
In the first round, the player picks up the slicks one by one. Next, she gathers two sticks at a time, and so forth up to ten. In these stages she plays with only one hand. The girl picks up sticks and catches the ball while reciting the rhyme. Meanwhile, her face reddens and her eyes become intense as she performs in front of her friends.
The peak of the game is the last, most animated stage with all ten sticks in a bundle. During this stage, the player losses the ball and then transfers (chuyen) the pack of sticks from one hand to the other. She must successively switch the bundle, first once, then twice, then three or even more times before catching the ball. The hands of a girl playing chuyen open and close like small, nimble butterflies. If a player’s hands are not swift or if her eyes are not sharp, or if she fails to coordinate the two, she will lose her turn. The game will pass to the next girl. Playing chuyen warms up the body and creates a lot of fun. During summer or autumn, small girls play it everywhere, from the shade of a village banyan tree to a deserted market stall.
Kites that make music (dieu sao)
Kite flying is popular throughout the year in Viet Nam but especially so in summer. People of different ages make kites of many shapes, sizes and materials.
Children’s kites are often small, simple and covered with paper, while adults’ kites may be more complex, cloth-covered, and feature one or more wind flutes that play melodies as the kites fly.
A typical adult’s kite has four parts: the body, the steering string, the flying string and flutes. The frame is made of the smooth outer bamboo stalk and is well polished. Kite-makers shape bamboo straps into a crescent two to three metres long and one metre wide. After that, they cover the frame with pieces of cotton cloth or carefully glued paper. If one half of the kite is heavier than the other, the steering string will help balance it. This string also serves lo direct flight and protect the kite wings from breaking if the wind is too strong. The flying string is also made of bamboo and can be as long as 100m to 150m. Young bamboo straps the size of chopsticks are tied together, then boiled in water or even in traditional Chinese medicine and salt so that the string becomes soft and flexible.
Kites not only attract people by their shapes and colours but also by their flutes. Flutes of different sizes and materials can make the sound of birds, car horns, gongs or music. The mouth of the flute must be skillfully carved so that it can properly receive the wind and create the desired sound.
Today, villagers build more sophisticated kites in the shape of phoenixes, butterflies and dragons. They replace thick bamboo strings with thinner bamboo or plastic rope. Modern kites are very light and cost little since the materials to make them are readily available.
People often fly kites in the late afternoon as the sun begins to set. Normally, two people fly one kite. One person holds the flying string while the other takes the kite and runs into the wind until the wind lifts the kite.
The two may keep the kite high in the sky from day to day, even from summer to autumn.
Every year, kite-flying competitions take place in many northern and central provinces. The rules vary from place to place. In general, the most beautiful kite with the most interesting flute melodies wins. However, Quang Yen Townlet (Quang Ninh Province) holds a kite-fighting competition: regardless of design, kites that hit or break other kites win.
The game of squares (O an quan)
Either boys or girls, usually age’s seven to ten, play the two-person game of O an quan (literally “Mandarin’s Box”). They draw a rectangle on the ground and divide it into ten small squares called “rice fields” or “fish ponds. “They also draw two additional semi-circular boxes at the two ends of the rectangle, which are called”mandarin’s boxes,” hence the game’s name. Each person has 25 small pebbles and a bigger stone.
Game of square
Each player places the stone in one of the mandarin’s boxes and five small pebbles in each of the other squares (see diagram above). Then the game begins. The first player takes up the contents of one square on his or her side of the board (but not a mandarin’s box) and distributes the pebbles one by one, starting with the next square in either direction. (Since each square contains five pebbles at the beginning, the first move will distribute five pebbles to the left or right).
After the last pebble is distributed, the player takes the contents of the following square and repeats the distribution process. But if the following square is one of the mandarin’s boxes, the turn ends and passes to the other player.
If the last pebble falls into a square that precedes one empty square, the player wins all the contents of the square following the empty square and removes these pebbles from the board. If this square is followed by another empty square, the player wins the contents of the square after that, and so on. However, if there are two or more empty squares in a row, the player loses his or her turn.
Once a player has taken pebbles from the board, the turn is handed to the other player. If all five squares on one player’s side of the board are emptied at any time, that player must place one pebble he or she has aside back in each of the five squares so that the game can resume.
The game continues until the two mandarins’ boxes have both been taken. At the end of the game, the player with more pebbles wins, with each of the large stones counting as ten points. If each player retrieves an equal number of points, then the game is a tie. O an quan remains deservedly popular among older children since it requires good counting skills and forethought in order to win.
Cat and Mouse Game (meo duoi chuot)
Each game requires between seven and ten people. They stand in a circle, hold hands and raise their hands above their heads. Then they start singing the song.
Cat and Mouse game
Please come over here
Hand in hand
Stand in a large circle
The mouse will run through the hole
The cat will run after it
The mouse tries to run as fast as possible
But it can’t escape
Then the mouse will act as the cat and chase the cat, which is now the mouse.
How to play the game:
Each game requires between seven and ten people. They stand in a circle, hold hands and raise their hands above their heads. Then they start singing the song above. One person is chosen as the cal and another as the mouse. These two stand in the middle of the circle and lean against each other. When the others sing the last sentence, the mouse starts to run, and the cat must run after it. However, the cat must run in exactly the same route and manner as the mouse. The cat wins the game when it catches the mouse. Then the two exchange roles. If the cal runs into the wrong hole, it will be dismissed from that round.
If it fails to catch the mouse in a certain period of time (usually from three to five minutes for kindergarten-age children) it will exchange its role with the mouse. The game will then continue.
The Game of the Dragon-Snake (rong ran)
A large group plays the children’s game rong ran (dragon-snake). In One person sits on a small hill or some location above the other players; he or she acts as the doctor. The other children stand in a line, holding each other’s belts to form the body of the dragon-snake.
Snake and Dragon Game
The dragon-snake approaches the doctor. The following dialogue occurs between the doctor and the head of the line:
– Where are you going, dragon-snake?
– I’m searching for medicine for my son.
– How old is he, your son?
– He is one year old. – The doctor is not well.
– He is (two, three, four, five… repeated each time) years old. – The doctor is not well.
The dialogue continues until the dragon-snake says:
– He is ten years old.
Then the doctor answers:
– All right, the doctor is well.
With this, the doctor stands up and says:
– Give me your head
– Nothing but the bones
Responds the dragon-snake
– Give me the body.
– Nothing but the blood.
– Give me the tail.
– Pursue at will!
At this, the doctor flies into a rage and attempts lo catch the child who represents the tail of the dragon-snake. The head of the line stretches his or her arms to bar the doctor while the dragon-snake tries to make a circle. If the dragon-snake succeeds in rolling into a circle before the physician can touch the tail, it wins. On the contrary, if the doctor catches the tail of the dragon-snake, the entire group loses the game. All losers must stretch out their hands, palms downwards, to the winner, who slaps them one after another.
Throwing a sacred ball through the ring (nem con)
Each ethnic group in Vietnam has unique ways of celebrating Tet. The Tay people of Cao Bang and Lang Son Provinces have a special Tet game that not only ushers in the spring but also serves as a matchmaker.
Throwing a sacred ball through the ring
According to Tay legend, Pia, an orphan, war poor and lonely. Discouraged with life, he went to the forest and gathered pieces of fruit to throw around. One time, he threw a fruit so hard it flew straight to heaven, where a fairy caught it. The fairy flew down to the earth to play with Pia. Before long, they fell in love and became husband and wife.
The people of the mountain village believed that the fruit had brought Pia happiness. To celebrate this story, young men and women toss balls (nem con) each year from the third day of Tet until the end of the first lunar month.
Players gather on a level field where villagers have planted a tall bamboo tree. A bamboo ring about 30-40 cm in diameter hangs from the tree. Gaudy fabric covers the balls, which the makers have stuffed with rice grains (representing food) and cotton seeds (clothing) along with their hidden desires. A multicoloured tassel decorates the balls.
According to tradition, before playing, the Tay people first prepare a tray of food, which they take to the field and offer to the Sky and Earth. Two balls and a bamboo ring on the tray represent vitality and virtue. The festival leader, who must have high status, prays to the Sky and Earth lo brings rain so that the community will have a good harvest. After this ceremony, the leader tosses the two balls high into the air. Everyone competes to catch them, signaling the beginning of festivities.
At that point, each family may throw its own household ball through the bamboo ring for good luck. Naturally, some balls do not make it through on the first try. The owners may try over and over until they are successful.
The festival leader closes with a prayer for a good planting season, then slashes the ball open and distributes seeds to everyone. These seeds bring good luck and will sprout quickly because they unite the forces of am and duong (yin and yang) in the warmth of women’s and men’s hands. Everyone receives the holy seeds of the Sky, the Earth and Humanity with the belief and hope that their crops will increase, people will prosper and the entire village will have sufficient food, clothing and happiness. For this reason, the ball game is a major feature of Tay tradition.
Releasing pigeons (tha chim)
A long with other traditional festival games, releasing pigeons has attracted numerous participants since the distant past. Some villages including Tam Giang and Hoan Son villages in Bac Ninh Province still maintain the tradition.
Releasing pigeons festival
Every year, Hoan Son and Tam Giang villagers organise bird-releasing festivals in the early summer and mid autumn during the third and the eighth lunar months. Each family raises two or three flocks of pigeons. Judges stipulate that each flock in the spring contest may have ten pigeons but only eight in the autumn. The contests are open to anyone-not just Bac Ninh residents. Bird lovers use these occasions to exchange experiences and learn from each other.
The Judges consist of the trich ha, who distributes numbers to participants and then call the numbers for the birds’ release, and the trich thuong, who observes the arrangement of birds in the sky to determine the winner, a flock of birds flies beautifully when all their heads huddle together. Seen from the ground, they look like an arrow disappearing on the horizon.
“Before the contest every trainer practises releasing his birds so that the pigeons are familiar with the flight direction. All the birds return unless they lose their way in a heavy storm. Intelligent pigeons can return to their owner seven days or even two years later”.
The bird owner should pay attention to the pigeons’ eyes, nostrils and wings to have birds that fly both high and well. Good birds usually have eyes with small, round pupils. Birds with translucent, dry eyes do best at the hot summer festival, and those with wet eyes are best for the dry autumn contest. Birds with small nostrils are better than those with big ones because they can withstand windy conditions and fly higher. Large wings, short tails and narrow shoulders also enable birds to be strong, skilful fliers.
Releasing pigeons is considered a refined form of entertainment. As a traditional saying goes, “Men enjoy many kinds of games, but nothing is as pleasurable as releasing birds”.
“Human chess” (co nguoi) is a popular game at village and temple festival. The game follows the general rules of Chinese chess. The concept is recognizably similar to Western chess, but with a different-sized board and different pieces, including cannons and guards, each of them marked with a distinct Chinese character.
Human Chess Game
In human chess, however, the pieces are all people: 32 people in all. One side consists of 16 boys and the other of 16 girls. Each team wears a different colour.
The chessboard is marked by paint on flat ground. Village festivals usually use the yard in front of a communal house or pagoda or a nearby field. Organisers select players plus a referee well in advance. All should be children of families with a good reputation. The referee and the two generals should come from wealthier families so they can treat their players to food. As the selection finishes, the referee convenes the 32 people, describes the costumes, and tells each person how to move as a chess piece. Players may sit on chairs and wear hats if it is sunny. They either wear boards with the Chinese names of their pieces or carry sign poles with the characters. The generals wear traditional costumes. The two contestants who direct the pieces have their own seats outside the board.
In contrast to some other games practiced at festivals, human chess is known for its quietude and delicacy.
Battle of the Chickens (choi ga)
Cock fighting, a long-standing form of popular entertainment, is organised during traditional festivals throughout Vietnam.
Fighting Cock Festival
Raising roosters for cockfighting requires heavy investments in time and labour. Professional trainers choose young chickens carefully, individually preparing their food and drink, bathing them, separating them from hens, and training them in fighting positions. A fighting cock must be so acquainted with its owner that it will allow only the owner to hold him. Fighting cocks, which come from three main species, are colloquially called “sacred chickens” or “combat roosters”. Black roosters with a red comb and a long neck are full of stamina and will fight to the bitter end. White roosters with ivory-coloured feet and round yellow eyes are hot-tempered and perform “lightning battles”. Also popular are “five-coloured cocks” coated with black, yellow, brown, red and blackish blue feathers. They fight with flexibility and often run away if they lose.
The owners prepare a 1.5m-wide ring walled by a 20cm-high bamboo screen. Spectators stand outside the screen. Only the owners of the fighting cocks are allowed to enter the area to care for their animals. A rooster loses if it leaves the ring twice and does not return.
Before a cockfight begins, owners agree on the terms among themselves. They compare the size, weight and combat achievements of their roosters. If one rooster has longer spurs, its rival is allowed to wear artificial spurs. After the discussion and agreement, the owners bring their birds into the ring. The cocks are kept in two separate halves of the ring until a signal is given to start the fight. Cocks usually attempt some trial feints to gauge their competitor’s reactions before giving mortal thrashings: a double kick against the rival’s body, a cut to the neck using spurs, or pecking out the rival’s eyes.
The fight continues until one bird is defeated. Contestants time the rounds by burning an incense slick or draining water can with a hole in it.
Vietnamese cockfights have two forms of compensation. In one version, the loser pays an agreed-upon sum lo the winner; in the other, the loser forfeits both money and the defeated bird.
Nu Na Nu Nong
This is a girls’ chanting game. Several girls sit side by side with their legs stretched out. The head of the game recites a song; at each word, she uses her hand to touch another girl’s leg or foot.
Nu Na Nu Nong Game
There are several variations of the song, all of which start with the alliterative nonsense phrase nu na nu nong. One example goes as follows:
Nu na nu nong
Danh trong phat co (Beat the drums and raises the flags)
Mo hoi thi dua (Open the festival to compete)
Chan ai sach se (The ones whose feet are clean)
Got do hong hao (Their heels are pink)
Khong ban ti nao (And have no dirt)
Duoc vao danh trong (Are allowed to beat the drums).
As she sings the last word, the girl whose leg is hit must withdraw it. Normally, the leader recites the song slowly as it is about to end, so that the other girls feel anxious about whose leg will be hit. The game resumes until every child has withdrawn her legs. The girl who withdraws both her legs first wins and the last one with legs in the game loses.
Bamboo Swings (Danh Du)
Swings have been traditional game at village festivals for centuries. A Complete History of Dai Viet (Dai Viet su ky toan thu) states: “In the Ly Dynasty, in spring or the first lunar month, boys and girls get together and play this game”.
Swings in Vietnam
The game is most popular in the northern delta, especially along the banks of the Duong River in Bac Ninh Province. Residents in many villages around Hanoi, including the ancient capital of Co Loa, also set up swings during spring festivals.
Villagers usually build their swings on a dry, harvested rice paddy near a communal house. The area should be large enough for spectators to stand around all four sides.
Swings and the associated games come in many kinds and variations. However, the most common Vietnamese swings involve a wooden platform, not a seat. One or two people stand on the platform and swing themselves high in the air, even tens of meters, until their bodies are almost parallel to the ground. Their goal is a prize hanging from the top of the swing’s frame.
The frame of the swing is constructed of solid bamboo. The handles are also made of bamboo that is straight, without knots and wide enough for a person’s palm. The swing’s platform must be close enough to the ground that players can jump on easily.
To ensure safety, builders must choose the right bamboo, for young bamboo is weak, while old bamboo is less elastic and tends to break. They seal their completed frame with paper and invite an elderly villager to check its quality. If the frame meets his standards, he will remove the seal. With that, someone beats a drum. He clasps both hands in front of his chest and bows to his fellow villagers. Then, on behalf of the community, he opens the game.
Players should dress smartly and neatly. Boys wear red purse-belts and girls greenish pulse-belts over traditional four-panel dresses (tu than) and then headscarves so their hair won’t come loose. Often a boy and girl will swing together.
First, the couple steps onto the swing platform and stands face to face. Then they press their feet against platform floor and bend their knees. Gradually, the swing begins to move like a pendulum. The harder they press, the higher the swing flies, as described in a poem by the 19th-century woman poet Ho Xuan Huong:
The boy bends his knees
The girl bends her back
The four red panels of her skirt fly in the air
Two parallel lines of stretched legs.
At the height or their swinging, the two almost lie on top of one another. The crowd cheers. As soon as the couple reaches the highest point, one of the two will stretch out a hand and try to snatch the prize. This is the most difficult part of the game, for it requires that both players be calm, clever and acts as a team. They lose if they drop the prize. The crowd is just as anxious, hoping the couple manages to secure the prize as a reward for their long days of practice.
This type of swinging is not for those who get dizzy!
The Pull of Natural Forces (keo co)
Villagers across Vietnam play various forms of tug of war (keo co). The game is always symbolically linked to the seasons, weather and crops. Tug of war is a popular game for both children and adults since it requires no particular skill or training.
Keo co Game
However, the moment a competition begins, the viewers’ noisy acclaim inspires the participants, increasing their zest to win.
Players divide into two teams and stand face to face along a bamboo cord. A red piece of cloth marks the middle of the cord, which is above a line drawn with lime in the dirt. After a signal from the referee, players tug the cord as hard as possible to pull the red cloth towards their side. Eventually one team loses strength and let’s go of the cord; the audience cheers the other team as winners.
Tug of war has become a sport, but in many regions it still reflects traditional Vietnamese beliefs. For example, in Tich Son Village, Vinh Phuc Province, tug of war fur men only is held on the third day of the first lunar month after Tet. Organizers arrange the cord in an east-west direction, evoking the trajectory of the sun. Older men stand to the east, younger men to the west. After three matches, the team that compels the other group to take three steps forward is the winner. According to traditional belief, if the eastern (older) team wins, the villagers will have bumper crops throughout the year.
Therefore, the western team often “volunteers” to lose. Spectators cheer their favorite team from outside a circle drawn with lime. They toss into the air and pass around over their shoulders any villager-old or young-who steps over the line, whether inadvertently or from pushing.
In Huu Chap Village, Bac Ninh Province, the tug of war takes place on the fourth day of Tet. Players form two teams of unmarried boys and girls. The boys represent the duong force (yang) and the dry season, while the girls represent am (yin) and the rainy season. Although the boys are frequently stronger than the girls, the girls often “win” the tug of war so that the rainy season can outdo the dry season and the harvests that year will be plentiful. The ritual meaning of the tug of war is even clearer among the Thai ethnic minority.
Not long ago, Thai people in Con Cuong District, Nghe An Province still performed a ritual called “pulling the dragon’s tail” as part of a prayer for rain. Thai people believe that drought occurs because the dragon has overslept or is trapped underground. Thus, they must extract the dragon by pulling its tail.
To this end, villagers bury rice plants and an areca branch, which represents the dragon’s tail, in a 50-deep hole. Then they place a hollow section of the areca branch over a neighboring hole to serve as a drum. Since the dragon is a female, the person officiating is a woman and should be a widow as the bearer of the rice plant’s soul. The moment surrounding villagers beat the drum, which symbolises thunder, the woman tugs on an areca leaf to make the rice grow. One after another, young girls come to help her, forming a long row. Finally, they liberate the areca branch from the earth for an omen of good harvest.
The Art of Traditional Wrestling
On a beautiful spring day in Nam Dinh, a light breeze blows over the multicoloured traditional flags planted at the four corners of the arena where the finalists of the National Wrestling Championship are about to compete.
Were it not for the dry rhythm of the drum and the overheated ambiance appropriate for sporting events, the surroundings might be a set for an artistic performance, insofar as Vietnamese traditional wrestling (vat) resembles dancing. Indeed, the most impressive aspects of this extremely popular sport are its picturesque and well-choreographed qualities.
Wrestlers waiting for the fights to begin sit around a “carpet.” There is no ring or rope. Using lime, villagers have drawn a square of around 10m on each side. The audience sits around the square, watching with anticipation as wrestlers rub their sweaty hands on the earth, all the while watching their opponents out of the comers of their eyes.
“Toong! Toong! Toong!” The drum calls two competitors to the fight. Like all traditional Vietnamese sports, a drum, a gong or sometimes both accompany wrestling. The drum adds rhythm and stimulates the athletes. A speaker announces the competitors, who stand up and step forward to the middle of the “carpet.” They are barebacked and wear red shorts with a silk belt around their waist, red for one contestant and yellow for the other.
They dance with light footsteps recalling those of birds. Their arms make supple and undulating movements, displaying their musculature.
Then go the warm-up stage, a spectacle full of panache and rich in colour. Normally, this lasts two minutes while the drums continue beating. Although the performances vary according to schools of martial arts, ail warm-up dances must match the drum’s rhythm. Once the wrestlers have finished their warm-up, the principal referee introduces the wrestlers by raising their arms as in boxing. Then the wrestlers turn away, facing opposite sides of the arena. The drum resumes with well-spaced rolls. The two adversaries turn, face to face, and shake hands. Then, with hands on their hips, they stare at each in defiance. As the drum gives a dry beat, they turn and step away from each other. They take further steps as the drum continues, this time at a greater and greater speed. With this, the “artistic” part of the match ends. There are no gifts once the fight officially begins. The wrestlers turn around. They bend their backs and, lowering their knees until they almost crouch, extend their arms. Eyeing one another, they advance toward each other as if gliding, preserving their equilibrium for the first strike.
The beating of the drum regulates the fight. The rhythm accelerates as soon as one of the adversaries initiates a hold. It returns to normal once danger has passed, as if the drum wants to let the wrestlers recover their breath and preserve their guard. When a wrestler falls, the rhythm accelerates, becoming more and more pressing. A finishing stroke of the drum puts an end to the combat when the loser’s shoulders touch the ground. The winner and loser stand up, applauded by a prolonged drum roll.
Each wrestler has his own holds, passed down by his coach, who is the only person who knows these secrets. The winner is the wrestler who turns his adversary with his “face to the sky” and forces his shoulders to touch the earth. Under modem regulations, a match is composed of three four-minute rounds. But traditional matches often lasted for hours, since the rules did not allow a draw.
Vietnamese Rugby or Vat Cu
The rhythmic sound of a drum echoes for kilometers-vibrating, pressing, increasing in urgency. Any spectators arriving late from neighbouring villages hasten along their way. The crowd grows larger and larger around a flat piece of empty space in front of the village pagoda.
Suddenly, the drum stops. Then it resumes, but this time in three long series and accompanied by the metallic sound of a gong. Three respectable old men in long blue robes with puffed sleeves appear. The man in the middle holds a multi-coloured flag; the man on the right, a small drum; and the man on the left, a gong. These are the referees. Behind them come two teams of twenty players each. These young, well-built men are barebacked, with colourful loincloths and red or yellow belts designating their team. The captain of one team holds a tray with a ball on it, covered with a pink cloth.
The referees and players stop once they reach the centre of the playing area. The team leader places the tray on the ground, lifts the pink cloth and delicately places the “ball” in a hole dug in the middle of the playing field. The ball (cu) is made from the root of a banana tree and is twice as large as a football. It weighs four to five kilograms.
Organisers have already dug two goals-holes from 50cm to 60cm deep-at the two ends of the field. During the game, players must catch the ball, as in rugby, and throw it into the goal. Once a player has caught the ball, he may run or pass it to a team-mate. But unlike rugby or soccer, the ball may not touch the players’ feet. A single goal wins the match.
This particular match is about to start: The two teams move to the middle of the field. There are no fixed positions. The drum and the gong strike their last notes. With this, a member of the red team passes the ball to a team-mate, who pushes past one, two then three opponents. But a fourth player relentlessly blocks him and grabs the ball. The “yellow” team runs, heading for its goal. The yellows soon regroup to protect the ball. Like fencers en graded, with bent knees and arms stretching forward, they are ready to deal with any opponents who want to interfere.
But the “reds” reorganise and counter-attack. Around ten red players worm themselves into the yellows’ defending circle. Then go a collective struggle to possess the ball. Within several seconds, the ball passes back to the reds. They are now in the offensive position and make a lightning attack towards their goal. But they fail. A “yellow” runs even faster and prevents the score. The game continues amidst struggling arms and legs. As the competition grows heated, someone suddenly throws the ball dozens of steps away from the players. A red retrieves the ball and, before any of the yellows can react, races towards his goal. After some quick passing, in the blink of an eye, the ball lies in the reds’ goal. Cries, applause, and the sound of the drum and gong bring the players back to reality: The reds have won.
This game requires speed, skill, strength and daring. General Pham Ngu Lao, the “right arm” of Vietnam’s great general Tran Hung Dao, invented vat cu (literally, “ball wrestling”) in the 13th century to train his soldiers to defeat the Mongol invaders. Like many uniquely Vietnamese sports, vat cu almost disappeared during the French occupation. However, the National Sports Committee has studied the game’s original rules and is trying to revive the game. Without doubt, vat cu has returned to become one of the most popular games at Lunar New Year festivals
Blind Man’s Buff
Children between ages six and 15 enjoy playing bit mat bat de (“catching a goat while blindfolded”). One participant volunteers to play the “goat” and another, the “goat catcher”. Other players form a circle around the players.
Bit Mat Bat De
The goat and goat catcher are blindfolded with handkerchiefs. The game begins when the catcher yells, “Done!” The goat can move wherever he or she likes but must occasionally bleat. The catcher listens for the bleats and grapples to find the goat. In turn, the goat must move quietly to avoid being trapped. Since both players are blindfolded, the goat and goat catcher must use both their ears and wits to win.
The other players distract the goat and goat catcher to make them turn in the wrong direction. This creates hilarious moments and prolongs the game. A new round begins once the goat has been caught. Other players who want to join the game may ask to play the goat or goat catcher.
Chanting While Sawing Wood (keo cua lua xe)
Both boys and girls play the game of keo cua lua xe. Two children sit opposite each other, holding each other’s hands tightly. While reciting a song, they push and pull each other’s arms and pretend as if they are sawing a piece of wood between them.
Keo Cua Lua Xe
They say each word as they push or pull. The song goes as follows:
Keo cua lua xe (Keo cua means “to ‘pull’ a saw”; lua xe means “to adjust the saw to the wood grain)
Ong tho nao khoe (The worker who is strong)
Ve an com vua (Returns to eat the king’s rice)
Ong tho nao thua (The worker who cannot catch up)
Ve bu ti me (Returns to suck his mother’s milk)
Or, an alternate version:
Keo cua lua xe
Lam it an nhieu (Work a little, eat a lot)
Nam dau ngu day (Sleep wherever we lie down)
No lay mat cua (They steal the saw)
Lay gi ma keo (How will we saw?)
Vieing for Ball
The game of vieing for ball is a ritual in some festivals or a custom in others. Its names and rules can be different from locality to locality. It is an activity wishing for bumper crops of the peasants.
Vieing for Ball
A round wooden ball, sometimes a coconut or grapefruit must undergo the ritual of presenting to god before being taken into game.
In the courtyard of the village communal house, two groups of youth wearing loincloths compete enthusiastically to vie for the ball to throw it at either a hole in the east or in the west amidst the boisterous sound of drums and cry of the audience. The winner is the side with higher number of times of throwing the ball at the other side’s hole.
In some places the hole is dug in the middle of the courtyard of the communal house. Some other localities require that the ball be thrown at a bottomless basket hung in a tree. Still some others set the rule that whichever side that can throw the ball at its own hole becomes the winner.
This game develops in Hoa Lu, Tam Ðiêp (Ninh Bình). A word-arrangement team includes 32 boys under 15 years old. They wear blue trousers, leggings, and white shirts with red hem.
They hold sticks to which is attached colourful tassels. They are often divided into two lines with two leaders (tong co tien and tong co hau) standing at either end of each line. These leaders usually put on white trousers with three-knotted cloth belt, gauze tunics, turbans, holding square flags.
In the game, tong co tien and tong co hau guide their lines to arrange different words in accordance with rounds of drum by tieu canh. The two leaders direct their line to run spirally with complicated acts to arrange such words as Thai Binh (Great Peace), Thien Phuc (Heaven Luck), or Quoc thai dan an (Peaceful country, prosperous people).
From time immemorial, boat racing has appeared in Vietnam. It is not only a competition but also a ritual in honour of the Water God, stemming from the act of praying for water among agricluture-based people.
Xá, Phú Tho), a male boat with the figure of a bird at its head and a female one decorating with a figure of a fish. These two figures symbolize the yin-yang harmony (bird: in the sky – yang, fish: in the water – yin). The movements of the ores waken up the Water God. This kind of boat racing only takes place at night and ends at the crack of dawn. For fishermen boat racing conveys their wishes for bumper fish catches. In other places, boat racing is held to honour general who were good at navy operation. At present boat racing constitutes an important part in the program of many festivals from the North to the South, especially the localities with rivers and lakes or near the sea. It has gone beyond a belief activity to become a fascinating sport event, which attracts a large number of participants. As such, boat racing has become an event to compete and display collective strength.