Thursday, January 19, 2017

New Year Part Two: Early Festivals Around Hanoi

                                                                        by Jim Goodman

boats on the Đáy River heading to Chùa Hương
       Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, falls on 28 January this year.  People across the country are already preparing for it, buying the decorations, ritual items and gifts for the occasion and arranging a schedule for which days they will visit which relatives.  In Hanoi as elsewhere Tết is mainly a family affair, a time for strengthening the bonds among household members and renewing ties with both living relations and ancestors.  Some activities are public, most notably the government-sponsored midnight fireworks at Hoàn Kiếm Lake that heralds the New Year.  For several nights residents can also watch staged entertainment and circus performances at various venues around the lake.
       On the fourth day of Tết families hold their ancestor rituals and many businesses reopen after that.  The seventh day is Khai H--taking down the New Year Tree—which marks the official end of Tết.  But the general good will towards everyone and genuine conviviality (no one wants to start the year off with any expression of social enmity) continues at least until the full moon day the fifteenth.  It’s still the holiday season to most folks and local festivals have already begun.
musicians at Đền Trịnh
       On the fourth day festival action begins in Mai Đng, Hai Bà Trưng district and Chùa Trằm Gian, an hour south of Hanoi.  The latter includes a water-puppet show and both feature wrestling matches, events held in what us usually pretty chilly weather.  On the fifth day Hanoi residents attend the festival in Đống Đa that honors Quang Trung’s victory in 1788 over the Chinese invaders.   A very history- conscious people, Vietnamese also flock to the one-week festival beginning the following day at the ancient capital of C Loa, across the Red River in Gia Lâm.
       One of the most popular excursions the first fortnight of the New Year, particularly the even-numbered lunar dates, is a pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương), about 60 km south of Hanoi.  Sited up in the steep limestone hills that mark the topographical terminus of the flat Red River Delta plains, it has been popular with devotees since the temples were established in the 17th century.  
wild game market at Đền Trịnh
       Anticipating the crowds, Hanoi folks set out as early as 5 a.m. for the hour and a half drive to Đức Khê village, where hundreds of boats lie waiting to transport visitors down the Đáy River for an hour to the landing point below the temples.  Early mornings are usually rather foggy this time of year, the picturesque hills in front of the passengers only visible as dark gray shapes.  
       The boats first make a stop a short distance downriver to the 17th century Đền Trịnh, the temple dedicated to the Trịnh Lords, who ruled northern Vietnam from 1592 until 1787 and commissioned most of the more than thirty temples and shrines in the area.  It’s a festive atmosphere here, for besides the pilgrims making their offerings and praying inside the temple, musicians entertain in the courtyard and the carcasses of wild game, mostly deer but also fox, boar and leopard, hang from rafters in an adjacent marketplace.      
Thiên Trù Pagoda
       From here it’s a longer ride, passing local fishermen, to the pier below Chùa Hương.  After a 20-minute walk past concession stands, and maybe a stop for a bowl of morning noodles, the pilgrim arrives at Chùa Thiên Trù, another 17th century temple, dedicated to Quan Âm, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion.  She is supposed to have lived here as a nun in the distant past, 
       Behind the temple a path leads up to mountain to the cave shrine that is the ultimate destination.  In the past, this took one and half to two hours, depending on how slippery it was, with scarcely a any scenic vista.  Since 2006 pilgrims have the far less strenuous option of a cable car to the top, with splendid views on the ride, especially if the fog lifts and the sun comes out.
reaching for the water drops, Hương Tĩch Cave
cable car ride at Chùa Hương
       The mountain is called Hương Tích—Traces of Fragrance—after the sweet selling flowers that start blossoming a month or so later, during Chùa Hương’s festival, which lasts until the end of the third lunar month and is the other popular visiting time.  Both the cable car and pathway end just outside the Hương Tích Cave.  Several shrines and statues of Quan Âm have been set up inside the cave, reached by a stone staircase of 120 steps.  Stalagmites and stalactites, many with designated names, dominate the interior.  Pilgrims jostle under one breast-shaped stalactite to catch the drops of water, associated with good fortune and prosperity.
pilgrims inside Hương Tích Cave
         From the enthusiasm and eagerness with which the pilgrims reach for the water drops one could assume that they are, at least for the occasion, true believers.   It is the first fortnight of Tết, though, when traditional rituals, customs, activities and entertainment accentuate the days and nights.  The holidays remind them that, however modernized they have become in recent decades, they still take pride in their cultural heritage.  At this time all things traditional are revered:  offerings to the gods or the ancestors, pilgrimages to famous temples, dress-up village festivals and ancient indigenous entertainment like water puppets and quan h singing.
female duet at Lim Hill
male soloist at Lim Hill
       One of the oldest singing traditions in Vietnam, originating in the 13th century, quan h is a type of antiphonal singing in which the male and female singers take turns belting out an old tune and then responding to it.  The melodies are those handed down from classical times and the lyrics romantic and sentimental.  In the past the lyrics were spontaneous and the responses to the songs would be applauded when the answering lyrics seemed especially appropriate, or perhaps amusingly risqué.  Nowadays hundreds of quan h songs have been recorded and singers can choose from a vast repertoire of standardized song dialogues.
wrestling match at the Lim festival
       The quan h tradition is especially strong in Bc Ninh province, its birthplace, across the Red River east of Hanoi.  Bc Ninh quan h singers perform at many festivals throughout the Red River Delta.  The most important event for them, though, is the annual festival at Lim village, held the 13th day of the first lunar month.  Besides neighboring villagers, the festival draws many thousands of Hanoi residents, more than the biggest day at C Loa. 
       Before the government rebuilt and widened Highway 1A, the road was just a two lane route, 25 km from Hanoi, with sloping shoulders that even motorbikes couldn’t use.  If you didn’t depart Hanoi before 7 a.m., the traffic jam might prevent you from getting there at all.   Anyway, local people start setting up early, while it’s still foggy, cold and drizzly, and by 8 a.m. performers have already started singing.
riding the swing at the Lim festival
       They are from several villages besides Lim, even from neighboring Bắc Giang province.  For two days prior to the 13th festival authorities vet the singers and award the winners a spot on Lim Hill, the festival venue, about a half-kilometer off 1A on the southwest side of the village.  Thus, although the program includes other activities, the festival is like an Expo Quan H, showcasing the year’s most talented singers.
       The last stretch of the road from the highway to the hill, as well as the field at the foot of Lim Hill, is full of commercial stalls of various kinds, typical for a Vietnamese festival.   Gambling booths stand at one end, followed by stalls selling noodles, snacks, confections and drinks.  Others hawk decorative items like pine boughs, colored dough figurines on sticks, paper turtles and bamboo dragonflies.  Cheap votive objects and temple offerings may also be on sale, for a modest pagoda stands on top of the hill.  But it doesn’t attract much attention this day.  It’s not really a religious festival as it is one of fun and games.
quan họ singers on the pond beside Lim Hill
       Besides the games of chance and skill offered in the booths along the entrance road, chessboards line a lane on Lim Hill itself.  Here players can indulge their passion in a place with a setting of quan h singers right behind them.  Two or three large swings also stand in the vicinity.  These comprise a pair of three long bamboo poles lashed together and a thick rope hanging down from the yoke between the pole sets.  Riders, solo or with a partner, stand on a plank in the loop of the bottom end of the rope and pump their bodies to attain height.  They can easily get so high as to be parallel to the ground.  But not for very long, for swing handlers grab the rope to ease them down and allow the next person in line a ride.
bats on the belfry at Và Temple
       In another area a wrestling contest takes place.  Bare to the waist, two young men face off and grapple one another.  It could be quite chilly weather but this is a chance to win public acclaim, so they don’t mind the weather.  The match ends when one pins the other to the ground.  Winners then pair off until a final champion can be declared.
         The main attraction, of course, is the music.  About ten or twelve tents, with a guard rope in  front to keep visitors at a respectable distance, house separate village ensembles.  The men wear long gray and black tunics, split on each side, over white trousers, and round black caps.  The women dress in a maroon tunic, split on four sides, over black silk trousers, and wear or carry a large round bamboo hat.  A donation table stands in front of their tent and visitors usually drop banknotes there.  Some want to take the microphone and give their own sort of karaoke version of quan h, but companions quickly persuade them their inebriated, off-key performance won’t get any applause.
village contingent arriving at Và Temple
playing a conch in the procession
       The tents are rather close to each other, so the overall audio effect wandering around the area approaches cacophony.  On the other side of the hill, though, away from the competing amplifiers, a quan h troupe performs aboard a small boat, poled around a pond.  Here the sound is unsullied by other noises and skillful renditions of the male and female singers most easily appreciated.
       With so many performances going on at once, quan h at the Lim festival is atypical.  In the past, pairs of villages in Bc Ninh and Bc Giang, for kinship or other reasons, became ‘twins,’ like contemporary ‘sister cities.’  A troupe of one village performed with a troupe of its ‘twin’ and the antiphonal singing was a dialogue between them, often with very local references in the lyrics.
at the start of the rituals, Và Temple
       Elsewhere, inter-village bonds could extend beyond pairs.  On the full moon day of the New Year month, five associated villages west of Hanoi near Sơn Tây hold a festival of their solidarity at Và Temple.  The compound lies in a wooded area a little southwest of the town.  Dedicated to the ancient Mountain God Sơn Tinh, its original construction was in the 8th-9th centuries, when the Chinese still administered northern Vietnam.  The buildings there now date to the 18th century. 
       At the end of the entrance path is an elevated square, for the compound stands a little higher than the grounds around it.  Next to the massive, red wood entrance gate stands a towering sacred tree.  On festival day a table in front of it holds the offerings of the faithful—trays of fruits, flowers and food.  The contents change constantly, for devotees return to take them away after their prayers in the temple.
offering liquor to Sơn Tinh
       The five associated villages hold their processions at various times.  Long lines of men and women, young and old, dressed in colorful traditional garments, make their way down the road to the temple.  Some carry the palanquin of their own village tutelary deity.  Others brandish flags, banners and ceremonial staffs of various kinds.  Some carry trays of offerings on their heads.  Musicians play fiddles, drums, flutes and conch shells. 
       The compound is rather modest.  Besides the temple it also features bell towers with circular upper tier windows, around which are low-relief bats.  When the processions from all five villages have arrived the courtyard is full.  Then the rituals commence, first with the men, carrying small trays of liquor, with drums beating and horns blaring to either side.  After their prayers conclude the rest of the villagers make their ritual rounds.
       When all have concluded, the separate village contingents pick up their palanquins, staffs, flags and instruments and begin the processions home.  Tết is officially finished and so is their own role in it.  But when the twelfth lunar month rolls around, and people start anticipating New Year again, some people will have more on their minds than fireworks, presents and family banquets. They’ll be thinking about their festivals, the costumes they will wear, the wrestling and swinging skills they’ll display, or the songs they’ll perform in front of new holiday audiences.

palanquin bearer in a procession to Và Temple 

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