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.

 
       

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.

   

 

   
 

 

Human Chess

“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.

 

 
   

 

   

 

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.

 

 
   

 

   

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.

   

 

   

 

Word arrangement

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).

 
   

 

   
 

 

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".

 

 
   

 

   

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!