Only those directly involved should be able to decide whether long-standing festivals around Vietnam are distasteful and need to end.

By Le Diem on February 08,2019 12:00 AM



Organized on the ninth day of the eighth lunar month since the 18th century, the festival derives from the belief among local people that buffalo fighting is enjoyed by their guardian gods.

The communal house in Nem Thuong village in Tien Du district, Bac Ninh province used to be quite animated when spring arrived. Villagers and visitors alike were eager to gather together to attend the village’s biggest festival of the year - a pig slaughter, which had been organized for about 800 years. The festival has become quieter and more private nowadays, however, attended only by villagers since 2015 after there was public criticism and opposition, including from Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based charity that seeks to end cruelty to animals in the region. While some people support ending certain traditions regarded as outdated or brutal in modern times, others want to see them preserved as a cultural characteristic of the country.

The festival celebrated by the Nem Thuong villagers is held on the sixth day of the first lunar month to commemorate a general who took refuge in the area while fighting foreign invaders. He killed wild hogs to feed his soldiers, hence the long-lasting ritual of slaughtering a pig.

Other places around Vietnam hold similar festivals, expressing their own culture and beliefs.

Also organized in spring, the annual Buffalo Sacrifice Festival in the central highlands is an event looked forward to by local ethnic minority people. The buffalo is regarded as one of the most valuable belongings of a central highlands’ family and is therefore selected as an offering to deities who in turn protect the people and give them a bountiful crop and good health. After the ritual ceremony, dance, and the playing of gongs (an instrument specific to the central highlands), the most important part of the festival is when a strong local man stabs a buffalo, with the meat then shared among all households in the village. The festival continues with people dancing, eating traditional food, and drinking amid a boisterous atmosphere.

Meanwhile, buffalo fighting in Do Son district, northern Hai Phong city, is not only associated with Water Goddess worshiping and sacrificial customs but also expresses bravery, chivalry, and risk-taking by people in the coastal city.

Organized on the ninth day of the eighth lunar month since the 18th century, the festival derives from the belief among local people that buffalo fighting is enjoyed by their guardian gods, who will give local people safe voyages, abundant crops, and health and wealth.


After the ritual ceremony, the buffalos, which are trained for the festival, are brought into an arena to fight in pairs. After much tension and drama, at the end of the day the winning buffalo is killed in a ceremony worshipping the Water Goddess. According to local people, the village that raised the winning buffalo will have a new year full of good fortune and security. It is also widely believed among villagers that eating the meat of participating buffaloes will bring them good luck.

Although these traditional festivals have been the pride of local residents for hundreds of years, they have faced criticism in recent times, with those opposing such practices pointing to their brutality and calling for their end.

One, 25-year-old Thuy Tien, said these kinds of festivals are barbaric and wholly unsuitable in the 21st century. “I went to the pig-slaughtering festival but couldn’t watch it,” she said. “It was inhumane to tie up these gentle animals and kill them that way. There was a lot of blood too. I couldn’t understand why people were excited to watch it.”

Another, 32-year-old Ngoc Diep, is worried about their effect on the young generation, including kids. “Research proves that those who do cruel things to animals may do them to people too,” she said. “And if they witness such brutal scenes regularly, they could become immune to the feelings of others and perhaps hurt them.”

Many, though, feel differently, especially people who live in areas where such festivals are common, and refuse to give up long-lasting traditions.

Van Nam, one of the two slaughterers at the Nem Thuong Festival, said he was honored to be chosen to perform the ritual. The selection process is strict and only those with a happy family and good health are chosen by the village elders.

Meanwhile, Van Duc, who sits on the management board of the Nem Thuong Festival, told local media that the festival has been held for centuries and does not break any laws. It tells the story of the village, and villagers have the right to maintain it as a cultural legacy inherited from their ancestors.

Support comes from many others, who believe long-standing traditions should continue as they have for hundreds of years and should be respected and preserved as part of local cultural diversity. For them, the killing of domestic animals is just part of the ritual and not barbaric in the least. “Most Vietnamese eat meat and, obviously, many animals are killed for our meals, but we just don’t see it,” 27-year-old Nguyen Quyen said. “These festivals take place where others live, not near where you live. If you don’t want to see it, don’t go.”

He added that he feels fortunate that Vietnam still holds such festivals today, as they give him an opportunity to see the tradition and customs of the ancestors and understand more about Vietnam’s history, culture, and national character. “Vietnam is known for its rich culture and traditions,” he said “Taking them away is easy, while preserving them is much more difficult. If our traditions are taken away, what do we have left?”

Traditional customs and festivals are among Vietnam’s most attractive features in the eyes of foreigners. Though most say they don’t support anything that is brutal, most understand and respect local traditions. “I respect the fact that people always have a reason for doing something,” said expat Sammy Paterson. “And I try to understand and reflect on why before jumping to conclusions about right or wrong. Many people are involved in these rituals, so why change it?”

The practice of eating dog meat in Vietnam, which most foreigners consider wrong as they see dogs as pets, has come under threat in Hanoi recently, where authorities have discussed banning it to create a better image among international friends. For Sammy, though, it’s another cultural trait that should be left as is, even though he likes animals. “If it is tortured, then of course it’s bad, but I personally don’t see a problem with eating dog meat. Do Vietnamese want to see it banned, or are authorities doing it on someone else’s behalf? I don’t like the way some people force their ideals on to others. People from elsewhere should not impose their views and culture on Vietnam. Nothing is right or wrong. It’s just different.”

There are no barbaric festivals in Vietnam, according to cultural researcher Professor Duc Thinh. In his view, all festivals stem from the spiritual and religious beliefs of the local community, who view them as a means to acquire happiness and prosperity. Only outsiders, he said, who don’t understand the cultural aspect, see these festivals as brutal. Only recently, as the internet has developed, have pictures of such festivals attracted negative commentary. “These festivals belong to local communities and only they can decide whether to stop them or keep them going,” he said.

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