Deeper insight

Visiting one of the myriad festivals held around Vietnam can give foreigners a better perspective on life in the country.

By LE DIEM on March 15,2018 10:28 AM

Deeper insight

Photos: AUGUSTUS ROE

As a big fan of martial arts, Augustus Roe was excited to attend the Lieu Doi wrestling festival in northern Ha Nam province, one of Vietnam’s most famous festivals and held during Tet. It not only provided him with some useful information for his book on Vietnamese martial arts but also gave him the chance to meet local people and learn about local culture. Attending spring festivals - which many Vietnamese do - is a good way for foreigners to discover more about the country.

‘The first lunar month is the month of pleasure and relaxation,’ according to an old Vietnamese saying. As people had leisure time at the beginning of the year, when the harvest was done, dozens of festivals began being organised and gave people the chance to enjoy the beauty of spring.

When joining some Vietnamese friends on a trip to the Chua Huong (Perfume Pagoda) Festival on the outskirts of Hanoi, Sara Dubois, a French teacher from France, enjoyed passing through vast fields and rural areas along the way and especially the boat trip along Yen Stream amid a beautiful landscape of trees and limestone mountains.

Similarly, David Green, an English teacher from the US, had one of his most amazing trips in Vietnam when visiting a local friend during Tet in Ta Xua village in the north-western mountainous province of Son La. At 2,865 metres above sea level, Ta Xua is among the highest peaks in the country. While it’s a challenging trek it also offers stunning views over terraced rice fields in a thick ‘sea’ of white clouds. ‘I felt like I was in heaven on earth,’ he remembered. ‘It was a refreshing break before getting back to work to start the new year.’

A picture of Vietnamese culture and people is portrayed at these festivals, especially the diverse array of habits, customs, and traditions.

During Vietnam’s biggest festival, Tet, David joined in the activities of local ethnic minority people to welcome in the new year. He had a unique experience preparing and cooking bánh chưng (a traditional glutinous cake) throughout the night of Tet Eve. ‘It was great to see people here still doing it and enjoying it,’ he said. ‘It’s a good chance for family and neighbours to spend time together. I don’t see this tradition in the cities. A friend told me that city people today prefer to buy bánh chưng rather than cook it.’ Together with discovering traditional music, David also had fun joining in some of the traditional games played by local kids, such as rope skipping and bamboo pole dancing.

A martial arts instructor in England, Augustus was impressed by the community ambiance at the wrestling festival at Lieu Doi village. Almost everyone joined in the celebrations and the whole village came to watch the matches. Participants included people of all ages and skill levels, from five year olds to a pair that were 87 and 89. All were keen to win prizes that consisted of sprigs of bamboo symbolising the season and lucky money, which is a key Tet tradition.

England, Augustus noted, also has traditional folk wrestling, music and dance as part of important festivals (such as the summer solstice). Nowadays, though, these festivals and their traditions are losing popularity and it is rare for any young people to attend. So he was very much impressed to see all of the village’s youngsters participating or keenly watching the wrestling, keeping a local tradition alive.

At the Perfume Pagoda Festival, meanwhile, Sara learned how strong religious beliefs are among Vietnamese, who visit pagodas and temples at the beginning of every lunar year to express their respect for Buddhism and the saints while praying for good fortune. ‘It’s interesting to see how many people are willing to travel a long distance and take part in the pilgrimage,’ she said.

Another memorable feature of these trips taken by foreigners was the hospitality they found everywhere, even more so in the countryside than in the cities. It helped them become truly involved in the festivities and the local community, and they count among only a few foreigners who visit one of the country’s festivals.

Augustus remembered that the elders of the village wanted to tell him about the history and culture of the festival and how proud they clearly were of the local tradition that’s continued for a thousand years. He was also invited to stay with a local family for the week and enjoyed a host of traditional food and drinks. ‘It was an amazingly authentic experience,’ he said.

Along with the new experiences and fun, there are also other lessons to be learned. While Augustus enjoyed bánh chưng and giò (Vietnamese pork sausage), the amount he was given to eat over the week was unbelievable, and it’ll probably be a long time before he tries them again.

Meanwhile, after drinking local rice wine for the first time, David found it’s taste ‘sweet’ and downed little glasses until everything became a bit hazy. And the next morning he had to grapple with a major hangover. ‘The ethnic minority people can drink a lot of alcohol and love it when guests join in,’ he said. ‘I think I need to be ‘less polite’ next time, and occasionally decline a glass.’

Though she wasn’t overfed or asked to drink too much, Sara did find the size of the crowds a bit of an issue. While she enjoyed the boat trip, she was a little concerned at the number of people squeezed on to some of the other boats. She was relieved when her own boat berthed safely, and admired how well the rowers went about their job.

But her relief was short-lived. As there were hundreds of people lining up to buy cable car tickets, she and her friends decided to climb up the mountain to the pagoda. ‘It was a sweaty journey of elbowing and shouldering,’ she said. ‘Sometimes motorbikes joined pedestrians in the rush. But I liked the trip; it was fun and the scenery is beautiful. Next time, though, I may go after the festival has finished, so I can feel more relaxed. I may also attend other festivals.’

Popular Festivals In Vietnam

Deeper insight

Lieu Doi Wrestling Festival: 5th day of the first lunar month (20 February this year) at Lieu Doi village, Thanh Liem district, northern Ha Nam province.

Huong (Perfume) Pagoda Festival: 6th day of the first lunar month to the 25th day of the 3rd lunar month (21 February to 10 May) in Huong Son village, My Duc district, Hanoi.

Giong Festival: Held to pay respects to the legendary hero Giong, who fought against invaders, at Phu Dong village. 6 - 8th day of the first lunar month (21 - 23 February) in Soc Son district, Hanoi.

Truc Lam Monastery Festival: 10th day of the first lunar month (25 February) on Yen Tu Mountain in northern Quang Ninh province.

Fish Praying Festival: 12th day of the first lunar month (27 February) in Thuan An town, Phu Vang district, central Thua Thien Hue province.

Tran Temple Festival: 13th - 15th day of the first lunar month (28 February - 2 March) in Loc Vuong ward, Nam Dinh city, northern Nam Dinh province.

Lim Festival: Featuring a unique combination of northern culture with folk singing, food and folk games. 13th day of the first lunar month (28 February) in Tien Du district, northern Bac Ninh province.

Ba Chua Kho (Lady of the Storehouse) Temple Festival: 14th day of the first lunar month (1 March) in northern Bac Ninh province.

Buffalo Fighting Festival: 16th - 17th day of the first lunar month (3 - 4 March) in Lap Thach district, northern Vinh Phuc province.

Ba Den Temple Festival: 18th - 19th day of the first lunar month (5 - 6 March) on Ba Den Mountain in southern Tay Ninh province.

Long Tong Festival: Celebrated by the Tay ethnic minority people, who mostly live in the northern provinces of Lang Son, Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang, Ha Giang, Thai Nguyen, Lao Cai, and Yen Bai, during the first and second lunar months (mid-February to mid-April) with a range of activities worshiping the God of Agriculture as well as traditional games and folk singing contests.

Nghinh Co Festival: 12th day of the second lunar month (28 March) at Co Temple in Long Hai town, Long Dien district, southern Ba Ria Vung Tau province. It celebrates the birthday of Co, a legendary woman regarded as a symbol of power.

Tay Thien Festival: 15th day of the second lunar month (31 March) at the Truc Lam Tay Thien Zen Monastery in northern Vinh Phuc province.

Quan The Am Festival: 19th day of the second lunar month (4 April) on Ngu Hanh Mountain in Danang.

Ba Trieu Temple Festival: 20th - 22nd day of the second lunar month (5 - 7 April) at Ba Trieu Temple, Hau Loc district, northern Thanh Hoa province, to worship Ba Trieu, one of the most famous female heroes in the history of Vietnam, who led Vietnamese to resist the Ngo regime from China in 248 AD.

Phu Day Festival: 8th day of the third lunar month (23 April) in Vu Ban district, northern Nam Dinh province, expressing spiritual life and the Holy Mother worship custom.

The Bach Dang Festival: 7 - 9th day of the third lunar month (22 - 24 April) at Tran Hung Dao Temple - Vua Ba Shrine and other temples and communal houses in Yen Hung district, northern Quanh Ninh province. The festival celebrates the Bach Dang victories by national heroes against foreign aggression: Ngo Quyen (in 938), Le Hoan (in 981), and Tran Hung Dao, and famous generals under the Tran Dynasty (1288).

Hung King Temple Festival: 10th day of the third lunar month (25 April) at Hung Temple, Viet Tri city, northern Phu Tho province. It is a national ceremony in honor of the Hung Kings, who were instrumental in the founding of the nation.

The Thap Ba - Po Nagar Festival: 20th - 23rd day of the third lunar month (5 - 8 May) at Po Nagar Tower, Nha Trang city, south-central Khanh Hoa province. It is largest religious festival in the region commemorating the Mother of the Region who, according to Cham legend, created the homeland, discovered rice, and taught people how to cultivate.

Le Mat Festival: 23rd day of the third lunar month (8 May) at Le Mat village, Gia Lam district, Hanoi. It aims to commemorate Hoang Duc Trung, who took poor people from Le Mat village to the centre of the capital to reclaim wastelands, setting up 13 barracks to the west of Thang Long Citadel (Ba Dinh district today). Le Mat is famous for snake breeding and snake dishes, which are offered at the festival.

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