Thursday, November 27, 2014

To Pray and To Play: Attending Vietnamese Festivals

                                                               by Jim Goodman

festival procession, Hanoi
       Rising prosperity and increasing modernization have not undermined religious traditions in Vietnam.  To the contrary, religion appears to be enjoying a national revival. It never really disappeared during the decades of war and austerity, just went private.  Now in the more relaxed atmosphere of contemporary Vietnam, along with material improvements in their lives, people are freer to indulge in their religious beliefs and customs, to spend money on temple donations and making their annual festivals bigger and better than the oldest villager can remember ever having witnessed.
       Devotees throng the temples on these dates, dressed in their very best clothes and jewelry, bearing offerings for their deities, murmuring prayers and making requests for divine assistance of one kind or another.  Village elders, costumed in rick silk robes, carry out rituals.  And in the courtyard stalls hawk incense sticks, flowers, woodcrafts, statues, mobiles and pendants, snacks and drinks, toy birds made from real bird feathers,  colored rice dough figurines, paper turtles and caterpillars on strings, cotton candy and other items.  The crowd consists mainly of religious-minded local folks, but also includes both residents and visitors whose interest in religion is token at best.  There have come for the same reason the devotees linger around the area after performing their rituals—because festivals are fun.
The dragon salutes the deity at the đình in Chèm village. 
        The Vietnamese word for festival, l hi, like the event itself, has two parts—the rituals (l) and the entertainment (hi).  Besides the scheduled hours for the formal rites carried out by village authorities, the festival program will also announce the entertainment, which sometimes might occur simultaneously with the rituals.  The nature and type of entertainment varies from place to place, as well as from year to year, perhaps depending upon whether it was a good year for agriculture that year.  It could include one or more kinds of participatory games and contests and/or a show staged for the festival audience.
       Actually, the rituals are a show as well, especially the processions.  Long lines of devotees march through the village or on the roads leading to it, bearing offerings, beating drums and playing musical instruments, carrying an ornate sedan chair housing an emblem of their deity, brandishing spears, lances, halberds and other weapons used to fight nefarious spirits.  Sometimes dragon dancers lead the way.  Sometimes the sedan chair-carrying sector proceeds to the river and boards a boat to collect water further out, to be used in the mc dc ritual back at the temple.
Thổ Khối's recalcitrant deity
       The most interesting mộc dục procession is that conducted by Thổ Khối village, across the river from Hanoi in Gia Lâm, 8th day of the 2nd lunar month.  Five deities, each housed in a separate palanquin carried by six bearers, participate in the long walk to the river.  Two of these deities are petulant, reluctant to go and make trouble the whole way.  A group of young women carry one and young men shoulder the other.  While the other three palanquins march in a stately manner, these two sway, tilt at such an angle they appear bound to topple, straighten up, then suddenly run backwards and forwards and scatter people out of their way. 
       Nobody stands in front of the palanquins and directs their movements.  None of the bearers stumbles or loses control.  Their unpredictable, erratic turns and tilts are in total synchronous coordination, as if they had rehearsed everything for weeks in advance.  But in fact they hadn’t.  They had just been selected for the task a couple days prior.  One of the bearers, a university student who spoke good English, told me there was no plan, no rehearsal and he himself didn’t understand why no one ever fell in spite of the chaotic movements.  “I want to go this way and something makes go another way.  I had no control over my movements.  Something else made me do what I did.”    He also claimed the other bearers felt the same way and no one could explain it.  He concluded that perhaps the spirits really did exist.
village elders conducting rituals
       Compared to the excitement of a Thổ Khối procession, or even the pomp and color of village contingents making their way to the festival site, the rituals at the temple are rather sedate.  A group of elderly men in long, embroidered silk tunics, shoes with upturned toes and tall, tasseled miters on their heads walk slowly and solemnly to the main altar, bow or kowtow, raise their arms in supplication, recite prayers and then basically repeat the procedure a few more times.  Then it’s the turn of the women, also in splendid silk attire, more solemn prayers and rites. The garments are all quite photogenic, of course, but without a special interest in the proceedings it’s a bit tedious to watch for very long.
quan họ singers o teh pond at Chùa Thấy
       All this takes some time, but the action is not confined to the temple altar.  Outside other shows may be taking place.  A local or visiting water-puppet troupe may be setting up a pavilion for a show in a nearby pond.  Quan họ singers from Bắc Ninh, popular at many northern festivals, could be performing in the vicinity. Sometimes they sing from a designated place.  Other times they sing while riding a boat in the temple compound’s pond, dressed in what used to be the traditional northern clothing. A stage might be in place for historical skits, the performance of Chinese-style tuồng opera or a drama from the indigenous chèo tradition.
evening stage show at a Hanoi festival
       Elsewhere the festival activity features contests and games.  Besides the games of skill and chance offered at the market area, this could include the very complex traditional card game called tổ tôm diếm, with an emcee sitting in a booth and an assistant handing out cards to several players seated next to a rack to hold them.  Another popular game, requiring no prior knowledge, is that of trying to whack a hanging gourd with a stick while blindfolded.  Participants pay 5000 đồng to try, for a reward far greater if they succeed.  But rare is the one who does succeed.
festival market at Cổ Lễ Pagoda
Chess is another popular festival game.  Players pair off against each other along one of the paths with portable sets.  The host đình (communal house) may have a chess field for either stick chess or a performance of human chess.  It may erect a small corral for cockfights, a popular rural amusement.  Owners spend years raising and training their birds.  The long-necked black ones are known for stamina and tenacity.  The white cocks are hot-tempered and quick to attack.  The multi-colored ones are warier and more flexible in their fighting tactics. At the festival in Chèm near Hanoi, the corral is used for catching a rooster while blindfolded.

       Less frequently than cockfighting, festival organizers will arrange fights between smaller birds, the arena being a table with a pair of adjoining cages.  The contestants are laughing thrushes.  The two cages sit flush to each other, with a thin slab of wood separating the openings in each.  When the emcee withdraws the slab the two thrushes fly up and peck at each other.  The fight goes on until one succeeds in noticeably wounding the other.
wrestling at the festival
       As for the contests, the participation ranges from just a pair, such as a wrestling match, to a large number of villagers, like a tug-of-war.  The tug-of-war could be between two neighborhoods of the host village, between the boys and the girls, or between the youth and the older generation, as at Tích Sơn in Vĩnh Phúc province.  In the latter case, it’s less of a contest and more of a ritual.  Villagers believe if the older men win the crops will be bounteous.  The youth are expected to put up a respectable fight, but lose, out of respect for the tradition.
       Some đình compounds have a pool that may be used, besides for floating quan họ performers, to stage contests in the water.  Lê Mât’s festival includes a fishing contest, while Thổ Khôị’s pool is the venue for a duck-catching contest.  Organizers release four ducks into the pool and a minute later five youths jump into the water to catch them.  The onlookers cheer on their favorites, who get to keep the duck they capture and it usually doesn’t take long. 
boat-racing team at Cổ Lễ Pagoda
       At the event I witnessed scarcely two minutes had passed before one lad emerged with a duck in hand and left the pool.  A few minutes later another contestant grabbed two ducks.  But the last duck somehow managed to elude its three pursuers for over fifteen minutes.  One boy tired of the effort and withdrew.  By this time the crowd began cheering on the duck.  It would appear to be cornered, dive under the water as the boys reached for it and emerge in the middle of the pool, far from its pursuers, to hearty applause, until captured at last.    
boat race at Thanh Toàn, near Huế
       Since many villages lie near streams or rivers, boat races might be on the festival program.  They could be boats with teams of rowers, like that held at Quan Lan Island’s festival, where teams practiced their skills in the days preceding the festival.  In the climactic encounter one side of the island competes against the other, in boats modeled after those used in the 13th century battle against the Mongols.  Or they could be races of several individuals paddling small boats, as at Thanh Toàn, near Huế, or basket boats as at Cát Bà Island.  Other places will hold swimming races, with lines of long floating bamboo poles separating the lanes.       
nón-making contest, Thanh Toàn
       Contests also take the form of competition making something.  At the Chùa Long Đôi Sơn festival, 18th day of the 4th month, the adjacent village of Đội Tam, a craft village specializing in drum manufacture, stages, naturally, a drum-making contest.  Pairs compete assembling the components of a large temple drum and fastening on its cowhide head.  In Thanh Toàn teams of women race each other to make the traditional conical cap (nón la) popular all over rural Vietnam.  In these kinds of contests speed cannot be achieved at the price of skill.  Emcees inspect the results before announcing the winner.  The drum has to sound right.  The conical cap must be perfectly put together.
cooking contest, Thanh Toàn
       Several northern villages include cooking contests in their festival programs. The competitors are usually young, unmarried women and the spectators are largely older women with marriageable sons, on the lookout for a prospective daughter-in-law.  Contestants are rated both according to how skillfully they keep the fire going as well as how good the rice is at the end—fully cooked, nothing raw on top and no burns on the bottom.
       Rules and conditions vary.  At Tư Trang in Thanh Hoá the contest is held on bamboo boats and the designated fuel is dried sugar cane, which is more difficult to keep burning.  At Tích Sơn in Vĩnh Phúc the competitors first boil the rice over a wood fire in a copper pot and then empty it all into an earthen pot and finish the cooking over charcoal.  At Chuông, the conical hat village south of Hanoi,  the women cook while carrying a 6-7 month-old baby at the hip and simultaneously prevent a frog from leaping our of the chalk circle drawn around them.
cooking contest, Hai Bà Trưng festival, Hanoi
       At the Hai Bà Trưng festival in Hanoi the 8th and 9th days of the 2nd month contestants first start preparations on the ground, lighting the fire under the pot.  Then they suspend the cooking pot and the fire from a shouldered pole, stand up and walk around.  They have to keep the fire going while in motion and not let the rice boil over.  And of course, in the end the rice has to be perfectly cooked.
       In another location it might just be how fast competing teams can prepare a certain local dish, with all its peculiar garnishes.  The race could end in a tie, with both results as tasty as required.  But no real disappointment follows.  The point of the contests is entertainment; thrilling for the participants and amusing for the spectators.  Like the shows and the games, they demonstrate that Vietnamese religious festivals are not just dour ceremonials but also embrace the secular enjoyments of life.  Religion doesn’t have to be a strictly serious affair.  It can also involve a lot of fun.
traditional quan họ singer at Chùa Thấy
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