After 4,000 years, Son Tinh (the God of the Mountains) and Thuy Tinh (the God of the Water) may have thought that their descendants had forgotten about them. But they haven’t. Instead, the legend of the two gods has been told in a new and unique way by young creative minds at the country’s first and only live music and arts festival - Quest.
Quest Festival was held recently at Son Tinh Camp, under the shadow of Ba Vi Mountain, about 45 minutes by road from the centre of Hanoi. Surrounded by mountains and next to a large lake, it offered a fresh escape from the city and camping amid nature, with blue skies, white clouds, yellow sunbeams dancing on the waves of the lake and a cool breeze whispering through the trees in late autumn.
During the three days of the festival, a non-stop feast of music emanated from Quest’s four stages. Just a few steps beyond the entry gate, with has two-sided scenic view to the lake and the mountains, the décor of the main stage resembled a human face with lighting effects in the eyes. This Emperor Stage was a tribute to Emperor Hung Vuong from the legend, who gave Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh the task of finding three unique gifts in a contest to win the hand of his daughter. The one who first brought a nine-tusked elephant, a nine-maned horse, and a nine-spurred cock would be the winner.
The modern ‘Emperor’ of the festival tasked artists to bring the best gifts to music lovers. And they did. For many people, especially local people, this was the first time they had heard the raw sounds of punk and stoner rock and right through to hip-hop, R&B, funk, jazz and traditional Irish and Celtic music from leading local and international artists, including some first-timers in Vietnam such as Say Yes Dog (Luxembourg), Windstar Soul and Squideye (the US), IPhaze (France), Matt Montez Duo and Jon Kennedy, (the UK), Aqatuki (Japan), and Hazard Clique, Kimmese, Windrunner, MXM, Dr Peacock, Phuc Tap, Saigon Soul Revival, Slainte, James and the Van Der Beeks, and Hanoi De Ska Y? (from Vietnam and mixed-nationality bands based in Vietnam). There was always a crowd at the front of the stage, chilling on the grass or moving their body to the music, from the morning to … the next morning.
Another interesting event on the Emperor Stage was the musical performance of the battle between Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh. The disappointment and fury of Thuy Tinh after losing the contest was expressed remarkably by musical notes. The crescendo was like the high tide he raised three times to try to sink his rival and innocent people, and the three times Son Tinh levelled up the mountain to escape - hence the name Ba Vi (three level) mountain. The sad sound at the end was like the cry of Thuy Tinh for his loss.
Thuy Tinh was understandably desperate. He knew the princess long before Son Tinh did and had been in love with her since watching her playing with water when she was a little girl. And it was unfair for the Emperor to name wedding gifts that were all products of the mountains and not one from the sea. Unrequited love and a sense of unfairness turned him into a monster seeking revenge every year by bringing storms, rains and floods. But he was always defeated by Son Tinh in solidarity with the people.
His tears became frozen into large ‘ice’ blocks at the exceptionally white Thuy Tinh Stage close to the camping area at the festival. You could feel the chill there, not because of the symbolic ice boxes made from plastic but because of the talented DJs from the Hong Kong-based agency and record label Cliché and its Funktion One Sound system, universally acknowledged as the clearest sound system on the planet. Their electronic music served up chunky house, techno and disco. Flying from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi just for the festival, Thuy Duong and her friends said ‘We can’t help dancing until we’re exhausted. This is the best electronic music we have ever heard, and there are plenty of good nitespots in Saigon.’
The miserable heart of Thuy Tinh may have been cheered up by the vibrant music and enthusiastic dancing by the happy neighbours at the nearby Quest Embassy Stage. The electronic genres of psy trance, progressive, bass and breakbeat, with famous Bangkok-based party-starters Kolour, painted a ‘kolourful’ scene at the Embassy Stage.
Seductive disco and dance floor anthems from eclectic 80s gems also shook the stage with Khong Sao (It’s OK) Commune, which seemed to suggest the victims were ‘OK’ after the battle in the legend. ‘The varied music menu at this festival is amazing,’ said Antonio Blanco, a tourist from Spain. ‘In similar festivals in Europe there is only one type of music, and if you don’t like it it’s terrible. It’s also interesting to hear some traditional Vietnamese music, which sounds good, and obviously is not played at other festivals. A very different experience.’
Together with musical amusements, live art and pop-up performances added an animated touch. The eyes of audience members were satisfied by the intriguing gestures and movements of contemporary dance, belly dancing, fire spinning, aerial silks, magic acts, circus acts, spoken word, improv comedy, and theatre.
Another highlight was the costume catwalk, a competition for the best ‘transformer’ into Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh. Like a carnival party, creative minds brought back the early days of Vietnam with the typical costumes of the Van Lang culture: loin-cloths and hats with drawings like an Indian tribe, or fun looking outfits showing the spirit of the mountains, the jungle and the sea, such as tree-like figures, ‘birdman’, and ‘fishman’.
Everyone was able to create their own original costume or illuminate their appearance by attending workshops in T-shirt transforming, face painting, or tie-dyeing. Others seeking more physical pursuits could take part in yoga, improv acts, hula hoops, and poi spinning, or jump into the lake for a swim, swing on some swings, tackle obstacle courses, climb structures and take a ride on water rafts, which were all available at the place for team building.
Meanwhile, those who love visual arts lay down in the outdoor space of Quest Cinema to enjoy three- to ten-minute short films from the Quest X DocLab Short Film Festival, under a collaboration between Quest and DocLab Short Film Competition and with sponsorship from the Goethe-Institute Hanoi. The world’s largest pop-up short film festival, Future Shorts, which now takes place in over 90 countries and 300 cities across the globe, presented their Autumn program of short films alongside live music, DJs and art performances. The legend of Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh was also shown on screen by talented filmmakers.
Those who just wanted to relax gathered in the grass next to the lake, enjoying the music, sipping on drinks and nibbling on food from outstanding restaurants and bars in Hanoi or just lay down looking up at the sky through the leaf canopy. ‘Thanks to the natural surroundings and various activities, we found many ways to have fun together,’ said Duong. ‘We hope a similar festival will be organised soon in Saigon.’
Quest Festival is quite small compared to those in the West but many foreigners actually preferred it. People came of a range of different countries and were enthusiastic, just like at other larger festivals, according to Marcus Samanni, a member of the improv theatre The Rotten Grapes. It’s easier to make new friends or find people when you get separated. ‘Many other festivals are too big and everything is a mess,’ he said. ‘It’s difficult to get food and you maybe have to wait for hours just to get to the bathroom. I feel invisible in big crowds but here I feel “alive”.’
Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh must have smiled at the sight of their descendants shaking hands with foreign friends and enjoying life and respecting the traditional values of a thousand-year culture.