Traditional Festivals of Vietnam

by Barbara Cohen, Feb 1, 1995 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

The first month of Tet is for family and festivities
The second month is for gambling
The third month is for games and parties
..................old Vietnamese saying

Vietnamese festivals combine ancient religious rituals, lively performances of music and dance, and colorful images from mythology. They feature the solemn aspects of high mass on Easter Sunday, the skill testing and competitions of county fairs, the bonding of a block party and the uninhibited mass entertainment frenzy of a rock concert. The extravagant brilliance and religious elements of the rituals were curtailed after World War II. It was a time of austerity and of co-operativization of villages into large centrally controlled collectives. But since the market-oriented agricultural and economic reforms of the late 1980's, villages' authority and community consciousness have been re-established. The festivals are being revived, and with the new open policy it is now possible for international visitors to participate in the quintessential social and religious experiences of the Vietnamese people and to catch a glimpse of the country's soul.

Some festivals in Vietnam can be traced back thousands of years. Bronze Age artifacts such as bronze drums depict folk festivals (a Bronze Age civilization in Vietnam flourished 2,000 to 1,000 years BC.) The celebrations can be held at any time of year, but Spring and Autumn are the most favored times. Dates are set according to the lunar calendar, just as Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Vernal Equinox (March 21.) The Spring festival season in Vietnam starts with the Lunar New Year, and closes with the celebration honoring the mythical founding fathers, the Hung Kings, on the tenth day of the third lunar month.

Underlying the origins of these rituals is the farming cycle and its association with fertility rites and ancestor worship. Ancestor worship is a belief of wet-rice farmers who keep their ancestors' graves in their village. This strong attachment to the village of one's birth and the recognition that the inhabitants all descend from the same ancestral line creates strong bonds. The village festival is based on the spirit of unity and family. The farmers are the festivals' creators, actors and audience.

Ancient ceremonies related to farming sometimes take on additional meanings: the commemoration of heroic deeds and the village heroes' birth or death. The Viet people were not just farmers. Many times they had to take up arms to defend their community against foreign enemies, hence the feats in battle performed by historical and cultural heroes are remembered and even re-enacted. About the 11th century there appeared a tradition of the king granting a special certificate of recognition to legitimize a village's patron saint. Each village in the North of Vietnam has such a heroic or super-human figure as a tutelary or guardian spirit. The heroes were honored in their own temples and communal houses which became the heart of the village activities.

There are basic themes which are common to all Spring festivals in the Red River Delta. For instance, water takes on an essential role. Water is collected and blessed and later used for ritual washing. There are boat races, fishing contests, snake dances and water puppet performances. In Chem village, in the suburbs of Hanoi on the banks of the Red River, the main part of the festival actually occurs on a barge carrying over 200 people waving flags, singing, dancing and chasing a unicorn. The barge sails from the temple out into the middle of the Red River, while elders in smaller boats fetch three large jars of water to be blessed and used in rituals during the year. The next day the blessed water is used for the symbolic washing of the wooden statue of the village guardian - a 15 foot giant.

The Thay pagoda festival also includes traditional water puppet performances. Water puppetry, with its origins in the swampy areas of northern Vietnam, is uniquely Vietnamese. Puppets are manipulated from below the water and seem to use the water's surface as the stage floor.

Festivals are the time to bring out the best. The best food, animals and talents must be found and then it is the best that is offered to the god. For example, at the Lang pagoda festival, the rice cooking competition takes on elements of sacrament as the winning pot of rice is offered to the god. In the yearly buffalo fight at the Do Son festival it is the winning buffalo who has the honor of being sacrificed to the guardian spirit.

Another important aspect consistent to all Vietnamese festivals is the blending of opposites. The Vietnamese word for festival is composed of two words: le hoi meaning prayer-gathering. The le is the ritual or spiritual part of the event and consists of praying and sacrificing. The hoi means gathering and represents the secular aspect. Hoi is fun; an occasion for the whole community to come together. Festivals thus achieve the complementing of opposites, of the yin and yang, male and female forces of the universe. Festivals are both deeply sacred and great fun. While there are the ritual offerings of incense, sacred water, flowers, and fruits to the guardian spirit, there are also roulette games and cock fighting and wrestling matches. A game with sensual overtones (which harks back to the fertility purpose of the festival) is played by young couples. They try to catch an eel with their hands in a large jar of water containing several slippery eels. Games of swinging, and tug-of-war represent the movement of the seasons, the fertile coupling of opposites. The most popular activity at the Lim festival in Ha Bac is the back-and-forth, alternating male and female singing called quan ho. At festivals we also often witness the graceful sacred dancing of unmarried women dressed in white. Behind these young girls are several men dressed as women mimicking the girls. The men are garishly made up and have pillows stuffed inside their blouses. They dance while beating small traditional drums in a high camp take-off on the virgin dance. Through the symmetry of opposite pairs in a festival, a kind of balance is achieved.

Another important aspect of village festivals is the procession. The villagers carry the statue of the holy guardian on a palanquin from its usual place inside the temple or communal house to another nearby temple where it is dressed, washed or blessed and then returned to its original spot. The entire village takes part in the procession. The unmarried women dance; strong bachelors carry the statue; matrons dressed in gold or pink make offerings; elders offer prayers and provide music.

Each local festival is based on the myth of its guardian spirit hero. For example, in the myth of the hero Phu Dong, a three year old mute child quickly grew into a giant warrior to fight off the northern invaders. During the festival commemorating Phu Dong's achievements, four strong and handsome "generals" are selected among a village of young men. These "generals" lead other young men to the river's edge in a dramatic re-enactment of the decisive battle against the invaders. At the Keo pagoda in Thai Binh province, boat races performed yearly represent the journey of the village guardian, a mystic monk named Khong Lo. The miracle-performing monk, a healer, journeyed to the capital to cure the king. In Le Mat village, the myth of the village hero killing the monster snake is re-enacted by a powerful villager performing a warrior dance around a "snake." The "snake" is played by nine village youths.

If festivals are religious events, then what religion do they represent? Taoism was born in the end of the second century in China. When it came to Vietnam it mixed with local folk beliefs and practices. Taoism in Vietnam became a richly textured religion of gods, super heroes and ghosts, and it integrated shamanism, agricultural religious beliefs, ancestor worship and the worship of heroes, especially the guardian spirit of the village. Buddhism developed in Vietnam in the Middle Ages and became the spiritual foundation of ordinary people, while Confucianism became the basic ideology of intellectuals and state officials called mandarins. When Buddhism integrated with Taoist and folk beliefs in Vietnam, it became transformed into a new religion, called "Folk Buddhism." For example, the folk-female Vietnamese deity, the goddess of rain, merged with the Buddhist pantheon. She is still worshipped for her powers over rain at the Dau Buddhist pagoda where her statue is larger than Buddha's. A yearly festival is organized to pray to her for rain and a good crop. Festivals are an encyclopedia and living museum of Vietnamese spiritual and cultural activities, of mores, traditions and mythology. That is why to understand traditional Vietnamese people whose civilization evolved from the region of the Red River, one will want to understand their festivals. So long as their presence doesn't distract from the sanctity of the occasion, villages along Red River delta welcome visitors to their festivals.