From spring to winter, years in Vietnam often follow a rhythm of festivals and religious observances, ranging from solemn family gatherings at the ancestral altar and countless local festivals, most notably in the Red River Delta and along the south and central coastal areas, to various national celebrations.
While the New Year’s festival, Tet, is all about starting the year afresh, other occasions are for expressing reverence, commemorating important historical events, or remembering the dearly departed. Thanh Minh, or the Holiday of the Dead, which is on the third day of lunar March, is where people show their respect for their ancestors and deceased relatives by visiting graveyards, cleaning and painting tombs, and preparing offerings of food, flowers, votive papers and incense. On this day people also eat cold food such as sugar seed or rice dumplings.
Meanwhile, Summer Solstice (Doan Ngo), celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, is to wash off pestilence and keep epidemics at bay by eating fermented purple sticky rice and other fruit for breakfast
Wandering Souls Day (Trung Nguyen) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month and is a day for remembering the dead while offering rice porridge and gifts to their lonely wandering spirits.
Besides these national occasions there are also local festivals held at the village level throughout the year, especially before and during the spring planting season or in the autumn months.
Carrying a wish for a prosperous agricultural or fishing year ahead or expressing appreciation for a good crop, these festivals are marked by worship ceremonies, colourful parades, feasts, and singing and dancing and are held to invoke the local tutelary gods and to ask for their protection and blessing. Various activities mark these festivals, from religious rituals to dragon dances, puppet shows, folk songs, traditional music, and sports such as wrestling, rowing, cockfighting and buffalo fighting.
Associated with Water Goddess worshipping and sacrificial customs, the Do Son Buffalo Fighting Festival attracts thousands of visitors every year. Buffaloes between four and five years old are carefully selected, well fed, and trained during the year in order to enter the main competition on the ninth day of the eighth lunar month. The big day starts with 24 young men dressed in red performing a flag dance to an urgent rhythm of drums. After the opening sound of gongs, two buffaloes are led into the ring and made to stand near two Five Phoenix flags. At a signal, they are released from their leads and begin fighting each other amid shouts and cheers from spectators until one of them runs out of the ring. All fighting buffaloes are later sacrificed to Heaven and Earth, which, it is hoped, will bring local people good fortune and abundant crops.
Ngu Xa Village in the centre of Hanoi holds a festival to celebrate the craft of bronze casting. Casters display their works, such as vases, Buddha statues, cranes, or dragons and villagers join in a procession in which the famous Bat Cong Palanquin is carried around the village by 36 strong youths. The festival is also famous for its cock fighting, with contest lasting 15 minutes each.
Over the last few decades, along with the new-found economic prosperity in Vietnam, many of these traditional festivals have made grand comebacks, attended not only by local villagers but also visitors from other regions of the country as well as some international tourists.
One of these traditional festivals has recently become a topic of heated debate in local media and social media. The Nem Thuong pig chopping festival in northern Bac Ninh province would certainly upset animal lovers or anyone else with a weak heart. The celebrations include a live pig being carried around the village in a procession before being placed on the ground with its legs parted and belly exposed. Soon after, the pig is hacked with a large blade while the crowd smears the blood on banknotes, believing good luck would come in the new year.
Many animal activists inside Vietnam and abroad, including the Hong Kong-based NGO Animals Asia, are applying pressure to have the festival ended. According to the NGO, animals suffer tremendously in such rituals and, moreover, it can normalise insensitivity in children, making them numb to the suffering of living beings. Activists have started petitions calling for an end to the festival and some local officials have suggested changes to the festival’s name or restricting the number of people who can attend.
While it is very easy for anyone who has never participated in such a local ritual and only watched a video of it on the internet to strongly condemn the practice at Nem Thuong, it should be remembered the festival has been held for hundreds if not thousands of years, as has those at Do Son and Ngu Xa. If it wasn’t for social media and the internet, the name Nem Thuong would mean nothing to most people. Internet and globalisation have obviously brought people and cultures closer together but also triggered debate over how whether certain local traditions should be maintained or eliminated. While some may say that killing a live pig is cruel, it could be also argued that the ritual is simply a way for people in an agricultural community to pray for good harvests, vitality, and happiness.
From my personal viewpoint, I am happy to see discussions among different social groups on this issue but I believe that only local people, who create, relive and revive these customs, can decide if they would like to continue to observe their original rituals into the future.