The northern border province of Lao Cai is famous for its festivals all year round and visitors to the area are certain to be mesmerised by the great celebrations held at Tet. Events are spectacularly celebrated by ethnic minority peoples such as the Mong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Ha Nhi. With spring arriving, boys and girls play around and sing romantic songs, and it’s also the season of beautiful peach blossoms. Among such colourful events is a culturally significant celebration called Dance Tet, organised by the Red Dao ethnic minority people in Ta Phin commune in Sapa district.
The Dao people in Lao Cai in general and in Ta Phin in particular still preserve many traditional values, including old books and pictures of worship and especially traditional rites and festivals like the title granting festival, the maturity rite, and Dance Tet.
The ‘giangchaudao’, which is a ‘stride dance’, is also called ‘Dance Tet’ because it is celebrated at Tet. It is a long-standing custom of the Red Dao people, celebrated from 7am to 7pm with 54 special dances displaying images of the Dao people welcoming their ancestors home for the Tet celebrations.
Dr Tran Huu Son, Ph.D., is Vice Chairman of the Vietnamese Folk Music Association and former Director of the Culture, Sports and Tourism Department of Lao Cai province. He is very interested in the cultural features of the Dao and other ethnic minority people and has been collecting, restoring and preserving their cultural festivals. According to Dr Son, every year the Red Dao people in Ta Phin celebrate with Dance Tet, which takes place for two days on the first and second day of lunar January. A few families may celebrate it into the third day. The event presents offerings to the ancestors and prays for their blessing so that everyone in the family can have good health, bumper crops, and healthy domestic animals.
From the 28th day of lunar December, the Red Dao people in all villages kill fattened pigs and capons (castrated roosters) and make glutinous cakes. The Red Dao people celebrate spring with many long-standing customs. This is a time for all family members to gather at the house of the head of the family, where they exchange wishes for good health and success, drink to their health, and discuss ways to celebrate Dance Tet.
The Dance Tet celebration is held at the house of the head of the family. The main parts include dances performed by a group of men and women in the village with directions from the chief instructor. The dances include opening a path, building a bridge to welcome the gods, and inviting the ancestors. Dancers move on one leg, lower their heads, and raise their index fingers. In the fairy-inviting dance, dancers act like flying storks, while in the master-inviting dance, they mimic the way a tiger moves.
Each dance is a highly descriptive account of the ways the angels, gods and goddesses or their ancestors come down from Heaven to celebrate events with their descendants. The dance rite is followed by a rite welcoming and washing the statues of ancestors, then a rite presenting red capons and yellow capons, before the final flag-dance rite.
First, a group of young men, called ‘sai co’, with directions from the chief instructor called ‘chai peng pi’, perform 14 dances to open a path and build a bridge to welcome the ancestors and gods for the Tet celebrations. The dancers can only move on one leg, lower their heads, and raise their index fingers. To welcome fairies, the dancers perform a stork dance called ‘peho’, showing the way storks stretch their wings, fly around, and look for a place to land. To invite the gods to celebrate Tet the dancers depict the strong stalking movements of tigers.
The dances are a reflection of the images of gods and ancestors coming for Tet. After the path-opening and god- and ancestor-welcoming dances, families welcome the statues of ancestors, which are the work of sculptors among the Dao people. They are elaborately carved and bear traditional costumes. They are 20-25cm in length, with a body 5cm long. The right hands of the statues all hold a card.
On ordinary days the statues are covered in white cloth, and when Tet comes the descendants hold a rite to wash them and cover them with new cloth. The water used for washing the statues is fragrant water made from the bark of a tree called ‘sum mu’.
After the statue-washing rite, the descendants hold a rite to present the capons. The chief instructor and three young men hold red and yellow capons in their hands and dance with several steps. In one step they have the capons on their heads, while in another they have the capons on their shoulders. There is also a step in which they break the heads of the capons while they are dancing. And, finally, they perform the flag dance.
At every Tet festival, villages around Ta Phin are alive with the dances of the Red Dao people. Tet and spring celebrations also include songs exchanged between boys and girls and a variety of folk games reflecting the cultural properties of the ethnic minority people in the northern part of Vietnam. Games include blind man’s bluff, stick combat, and cloth ball throwing, and are popular among both domestic and international visitors.