Traditional Festivals in Vietnam

by Steven K. Bailey, Aug 1, 1996 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

More than once in my travels I've stumbled upon a festival in progress. In Malaysia I witnessed a street carnival involving crashing gongs and ornately costumed actors on a gilded stage. In Sri Lanka I found myself in the midst of a procession of children dressed in swan costumes made of white tissue paper. In Zaire I stumbled across a ceremony involving drummers smeared in white tree sap, a just-shot leopard mounted on a crucifix, and assorted elders in their Sunday best. In all three cases I enjoyed myself immensely but had absolutely no idea what was going on. I could not figure out the history, meaning and significance of the festivals, partially on account of the language barrier and partially on account of not knowing the culture.

Thanks to The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi, however, I won't be so clueless when I go to Vietnam. I'll be bringing along one of their newest titles, Traditional Festivals in Vietnam (1995) by Do Phuong Quynh. Traditional Festivals in Vietnam takes up where a more general traveler's guidebook leaves off, going into great detail about the festivals found throughout Vietnam. Armed with this book I'll know when, where and why the traditional celebrations of Vietnam occur.

The first portion of the book describes thirty festivals celebrated by the Viet, the country's largest ethnic group. These festivals include the Dong Ky Firecrackers Festival, an ear-splitting affair honoring an ancient military hero named Thien Cuong. During this celebration "the firecrackers give a big explosion, belching a lot of smoke and broken pieces of paper, amidst the sounds of drums and gongs and shouts from the crowd." The buffalo fighting festival held in the seaside town of Do Son promises an exciting time, with jousting water buffaloes knocking heads and their handlers occasionally "dragged as far as ten meters." More sedate celebrations include the Rice-Cooking Festival in Thi Cam village near Hanoi and the Quan Ho Folk Song Festival of Ha Bac Province.

The second part of the book describes ten festivals celebrated by various ethnic minorities in Vietnam, including the Muong, H'mong, Tay, Thai, Khmer, Cham, Jarai and Ede. One of the more intriguing festivals is the Sen Ban/Sen Muong festival of the Thai ethnic group. During this festival local townspeople present offerings to the spirits of the earth and soil to ensure a bountiful harvest. The festival also includes a flintlock shooting contest in which participants try to hit three grapefruits as they roll in succession from the roof of a house. The best shot receives "glutinous rice and meat dishes and knife provided with an ivory handle." The worst shot, presumably, gets to patch the bullet holes in the roof.

The book's third section contains black and white and color photos--check out the picture of stilt-walking Muong women--and the final section lists festivals in chronological order. This allows you to see at a glance what festivals will be on while you are in Vietnam. The list remains an invaluable travel-planning feature, and shows that for July and August the following festivals will occur in Vietnam:

July 9-10: The Dao Xa Village Festival (Tam Thanh, Vinh Phu Province)
August 7-16: The Dang Kim Festival (Thi Cau, Ha Bac Province)
August 15-18: The Phu Nhieu Festival (Quang Trung Commune, Thuong Tin District, Ha Tay Province)
August 15-20: The Dong Bang Festival (An Le Commune, Quynh Phu District, Thai Binh Province)
August 18-20: The Co Trach Temple Festival (Nam Dinh, Nam Ha Province)
August 18-20: The Quat Temple Festival (Yet Kieu Commune, Hai Hung Province)
August 20: The Bao Loc Temple Festival (My Loc, Nam Ha Province)
August 20: The An Cu Temple Festival (Nghia Khanh Commune, Yen Khanh District, Ninh Binh Province)

If you plan to see any festivals, be sure to bring along Traditional Festivals in Vietnam. It will provide you an extra layer of insight that will make watching--or even participating in--a Vietnamese celebration all the more rewarding. Even if you don't expect to visit a festival, bring this book along. It won't take up much space in your bag and as I've discovered in the course of my travels, you never know when you might stumble upon a celebration in progress.

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Review of: Traditional Festivals in Vietnam, Do Phuong Quynh, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi 1995, 5" x 8 ", paper cover, 220 pages, color plates.

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