UP for GRABS

The main goal of games at some spring festivals in Vietnam is to seize an object and carry it safely over a finish line of sorts.

By Le Diem on February 09,2019 09:18 AM

UP for GRABS

PHOTOS: NAM NGUYEN, HOANG HIEP

While singing and dancing are popular at most traditional festivals in Vietnam, shouting and running are also commonplace, surrounded by a big noisy crowd. These are not martial arts festivals or sporting events; they’re chaotic scenes at unique “snatching festivals”.

Phet Festival - Hien Quan Commune, Tam Nong District, Phu Tho Province, on 13th day of the first lunar month (February 17).

Flower Tree Snatching Festival - Son Dong Commune, Hoai Duc District, Hanoi, on 13th day of the second lunar month (March 11).

Spring Ball Catching Festival - Cam Pho Village, Gio My Commune, Gio Linh District, Quang Tri Province, on 7th day of the first lunar month (February 11).

Mat Snatching Festival - Phu Lieu Village, Dong Tinh Commune, Tam Duong District, Vinh Phuc Province, on on 8th day of the first lunar month (February 12).

Like many others, these festivals take place in spring, usually in the first lunar month, and are part of celebrations for Tet. Held for hundreds or even thousands of years, most originate from the country’s long history of war and commemorate national heroes who stood up and led the people in the fight against foreign invaders, expressing the Vietnamese proverb “When drinking water, remember its source”.

For example, the Phet Festival in Hien Quan commune in Tam Nong district, northern Phu Tho province, honors Lady Thieu Hoa, who gathered 500 people from the area to support the Trung sisters in expelling Chinese invaders in 40AD, and the Flower Tree Snatching Festival in Son Dong commune, Hoai Duc district, in Hanoi, which commemorates Ly Phuc Man, a General under the Ly Dynasty (544 to 602AD) who chose the place as a garrison and held a competition where his soldiers had to compete to seize a bamboo tree and show who could lead from the front in battle.

Stemming from war stories, these festivals encourage people to honor strength and bravery and compete for rewards. Rewards differ depending on the traditions and beliefs of local people, and while virtually worthless they possess a spiritual quality.

As its name suggests, the Phet Festival offers a “phet”, a type of ball made from wood with a diameter of 6-7cm, as the reward in the main festive activity. For months, six “phet” are placed put on the altar in Hien Quan Temple where Lady Thieu Hoa is worshipped. On the day of the festival, after the ceremony, each “phet” is thrown in front of the temple and people gather to catch it. After someone successfully seizes one “phet”, another is thrown to the crowd, which is repeated until all six have been seized. It’s believed that those who manage to get a “phet” will receive good luck and good health for the whole year.

UP for GRABS

Possibly because of its round appearance, a ball is regarded as bringing something full and complete, as it is also chosen to symbolize a bountiful harvest, good fishing, and luck in the Spring Ball Catching Festival at Cam Pho village, Gio My commune, Gio Linh district in central Quang Tri province. The ball is made from banana trees and has a diameter of 20 cm. Different from other types of festivals, this game is very competitive. Peo ple are divided into two teams that try to get the ball and throw it into a basket hung on a pole at a height of 6-7 meters. The basketball-type game is unique, as instead of trying to score in the opposing team’s basket, players have to score in their own. There are also no limits on the number, age or gender of the players, so everyone can join in and have some fun. “In recent years, no team has managed to score, so people are very excited as the festival approaches and crave for victory,” said villager Nguyen Nguyen. “Those who are not strong to play the whole game still try to have a touch of the ball in the hope of some good luck.”

Having similar beliefs, people in Son Dong commune have chosen the bamboo tree as a symbol of rewards in luck and wealth. The tree must be 1.2-meters-tall and is decorated with whittled wood resembling blooming flowers. Someone dances with the tree before it is thrown into the crowd to mark the beginning of competition. “If you can’t get the tree but do get some of the ‘flowers’, you will also have good luck,” said 54-year-old local resident Xuan Dinh.

These are not martial arts festivals or sporting events; they’re chaotic scenes at unique “SNATCHING FESTIVALS”.

These are not martial arts festivals or sporting events; they’re chaotic scenes at unique “SNATCHING FESTIVALS”.

While most people compete for luck, those in Phu Lieu village, Dong Tinh commune, Tam Duong district, in northern Vinh Phuc province do it for other reasons. The reward at their festival is also quite unusual: a mat. Three strong, young, unmarried men from good families are selected as “saints”. They perform a parade ceremony and have a mud bath before being covered in a mat. One of the mats is tightened with rice plants on the top. The men are then the main characters in a humorous folk tale about the daily life of the villagers. After it finishes, they leave the mats for people to try and seize. Those who get one of the mats, especially the one with the rice plants, is believed to have a son in the future. The festival expresses the important role men play in Vietnam’s thousand-year-old patriarchal society.

Despite the differing beliefs and rewards, however, all festivals boast a similar ambiance. It’s an exciting time for all the villagers and they gather in their thousands. While most have a smile on their face, those competing look a little more serious.

Once the competition is underway, all are focused on the reward. Those who are quick and seize the object first can’t rest easy, as others will try and snatch it from them. The winner is the one who gets out of the “arena” with object in hand. The chase is a boisterous and fun affair, as the crowd shouts at others in hot pursuit. It’s even more fun when it involves various body movements, like standing, sitting, jumping, crawling, or sliding.

Sometimes, the first to get the object then tires and ends up losing it. Some ask for friends or family to make a cordon of protection. The road to victory may only be a few hundred meters but feels like a few hundred miles. By the end, the object may be in a number of pieces after the scramble to the line.

Those who have only a little piece are still happy, though, as some degree of luck can be expected to come their way over the course of the year. Those who make much effort but end up empty-handed always look a little crestfallen, but with all the fun they soon feel better

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PRIDE IN CULTURE

12AM, 08 February

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

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