Nearby view from afar

The meaning of many Vietnamese festivals is left for the Western visitor to decipher when no interpreter is at hand.

By GRANT RILEY on August 10,2019 10:46 AM

Nearby view from afar

Drums are beaten, gongs are struck, and a few hand cymbals crash together as the parade weaves its way around the village. | PHOTOS GRANT RILEY

I was invited to a festival in Tra Co in Mong Cai city in Quang Ninh province, on Vietnam’s border with China. It’s a very traditional affair, I was told, and would last for a week. Such scant details left me wondering what the festivities would entail. A quick Google search yielded brief information in pidgin English: “Tra Co Festival is an occasion to memorize tutelary genies of the village and wish the best for the village.” Festivities and rituals begin on the 30th day of the fifth lunar month and end on the sixth day of the sixth lunar month (July 2 to 8 on the solar calendar).

I was the only Westerner in the village. Sadly, my conversational Vietnamese remains woeful, and neither any member of my team nor any of the villagers I met, even the children, could exchange anything more than pleasantries or the names of English football teams. So, as a journalist reporting on a festival, most of what I am about to reveal is guesswork.

Let me set the scene. Traditionally and culturally I feel like I’m in the heart of Vietnam, but geographically it’s more like the tip of Vietnam’s eye, in the far north-eastern corner of the country. China is just a kilometer or two away, over the river Ka Long. We are in a small coastal village, out on a peninsula. The first day starts after lunch and we assemble in the community temple. It’s absolutely awe-inspiring. A huge wooden complex and extremely ornate structure built in 1511AD, it’s a wellmaintained shrine to the community’s spiritual guardian. We are early, but preparations are well underway. We wait.

It’s not long before a flurry of villagers of all ages appear, carrying various bags of clothing and paraphernalia. School-aged boys dressed in white wear identical Panama hats, while their female peers, also in white shirts, start unpacking various musical instruments. Other children don vividly-colored traditional robes. Pillar boxes of red with bright yellow piping and belts and matching headwear are on one side of the temple yard. Intensely-colored banners and flags are gathered by all, as middle-aged women in silky red pajama suits with white baseball hats hold drums.

Nearby view from afar

Young women gather in groups in beautiful white “ao dai” (Vietnam’s traditional dress) and conical hats, while others wear red or yellow “ao dai”. Some of the young men from the village sport red aprons and carry big drums and gongs carried on stretcher poles. Older men arrive in various groups, wearing all black or Royal blue “ao dai” with hats that are priest-like. A few of the male elders are dressed individually - one wearing a vibrant yellow polka dot “ao dai” and another in a chocolate brown monk-like robe with a large red headdress, with complex embroidery, ear flaps, and a tail.

At this stage I’m beginning to glean that each and every single step, from dress, grouping, and trappings, is all very distinct and hierarchical. Age and sex are the most obvious, but I think there are further subdivisions, by family or region. I was curious as to the whereabouts of the female elders, but eventually they emerged and mingled towards the back of the parade in various yet delightful garb. Questions unfold in my mind as I start to run around and perform my part as a photographer.

The parade rolls out of the village center and onto the road. It’s 40oC in the shade and the sunshine is extremely bright.

Kids, then young women, followed by men and finally elders all form a curious and spectacularly colorful procession. Drums are beaten, gongs are struck, and a few hand cymbals crash together as the parade weaves its way around the village. Young men appear with a red and golden throne with a dragon made from fruit and a mane of red chilies. They carry it out into the alley at shoulder height. It looks heavy. I have nothing but total respect for them, as I feel like I’m going to die in this heat.

Parades follow each day at 7am, while the elder men gather at night around 8pm for goings-on in the temple. The major procession takes place from the center of the village and down along the beach in a stunning long line of color. A small temple, just up from the beach, is visited and gifts of food, drinks, and all the guardian spirits may require are presented. Those that have sea-based livelihoods have their safety and prosperity protected for another year. That evening there is a stage with music and dancing.

Nearby view from afar

One of the highlights of the festival is a heaviest pig competition. The huge and overstuffed pigs are pushed down the road in red barred cages by proud and ornatelydressed owners. It’s in the peak of the day’s heat and is a positively bizarre spectacle. The beasts appear well cared for, with plenty of cooling water, but they’ve been so overfed they act as though drugged.

The rituals in the temples go on over the following days and nights. I tried to decipher as best I could. It is as beautiful as it is mysterious. At one point it’s indicated to me that a red pole is the center of this night’s ritual. Lots of incense, chanting, and shouts go out as priests light candles and place them atop the horizontal pole. It’s eventually placed across the temple’s entrance. I think I get it - it’s for reverence; make sure you bow, lower your head, and respect this place when you enter.

Much worshipping and offerings are made by representatives of every family in the area. I was curious to see that different groups of young women of maternity age in colorful robes are made to kneel for serious lengths of time outside the temple, at times in the sun. Inside is very much old men’s business.

On the final morning, again I was left guessing as to what was going on. I watch the eldest women of the village don their beautiful robes and all check and adorn each other with final touches of makeup. The eldest female, probably in her nineties, is given a microphone and sings a deep and moving song inside the temple. Only slightly younger women then perform a dance with headdresses topped with lit candles. The finale is a final word from a 65- year-old woman who swirls a tinseled baton. I can’t help but think it’s a fertility-based ritual, though I could be mistaken. The rod is finally thrown outside of the temple to a gathering of young men, who promptly tear it apart in a frenzy to take a piece.

The safety, prosperity, and fruitfulness of Tra Co are secured for another year; long may it be so.

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