Overview of traditional festivals

Festive activities are living museums in which typical cultural values of the nation have been preserved for centuries.





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. 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.





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.





 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






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






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.





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.






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.

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.






Vietnamese Rugby or Vat Cu

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.