Journeys of Heroes and Deities
Community Gods on Parade
Large and exuberant festivals in honor of local gods are central to village life among the Kinh majority in Vietnam. In a procession that may stretch nearly a mile, marchers in vivid costumes snake through the village lanes and on dikes between rice fields, bearing on their shoulders a palanquin, or ornate platform-type conveyance, containing a sacred object, perhaps an image of the god. With all the pomp of a king surveying his domain, the god proceeds from his temple to a community house. There he may accept petitions from local dignitaries on behalf of the village.
The festival tradition, important for hundreds if not thousands of years, had disappeared during the past half-century of wars and economic hardship. But the 1980s saw a revival of these celebrations, which enhance local pride and reinforce a sense of community. As festival organizer Mr. Nguyen Tuan Mac observes, "The festival is a source of invisible strength."
Honoring a Hero: The Red River Delta's Gia Festival
A military hero of the sixth century, Ly Phuc Man died while bravely defending his country from foreign invasion. Today, in the village of his birth, Ly Phuc Man is honored as a patron god during the spring festival. As part of a three-day event—called the Gia festival, after the village where Ly Phuc Man was born—young men in historic dress enact mock battles and a mile-long procession carries Ly Phuc Man's ornate palanquin.
The modern Gia festival was reconstructed from the memories of elders, combined with research by Vietnamese scholars. Rituals reflect current as well as traditional values: for instance, women may now participate, but as in the past, no one who has violated the community's moral code may take an active role in the festival.
Praising Sir Fish: The Central Coast's Cau Ngu Festival
The fishermen of Vietnam's south and central coast honor "Sir Fish," the spirit of the whale, who protects them as they head out to sea. Ngu Ong, as he is called, may calm the waves, quiet the wind or lead endangered sailors home to port. The whale itself is revered as well: the people do not hunt these animals and attend carefully to those that have died natural deaths. Deceased whales are buried, and after three to five years, the people dig up the bones, shroud them, and carry them to the temple to be worshipped, as if the animal were a beloved community god.
The Cau Ngu festival has marked the opening of the spring fishing season in this region for centuries. Local gods as well as Buddha and the souls of drowned sailors are among those invited to gather in Sir Fish's temple. The celebration includes folk games and songs celebrating the virtues of Sir Fish and the life of a fisherman.
"Because we fishermen go to sea, facing the winds and waves, we attach great importance to honoring Sir Fish."
—Tran Van Tan, Man Thai Ward, Danang
A Magical Tradition: Water Puppets of the Chua Thay Festival
Performances by water puppets are a magical part of festival entertainment at the Chua Thay festival in northern Vietnam. Controlled by underwater strings or wires up to 30 feet long, or by shorter bamboo rods, the puppets seem to swim, transplant rice, or even dance on the very surface of the lake. A procession of these puppets, which echoes the pageantry of a human festival parade, introduces most performances. Some of the most astonishing shows occur at the Chua Thay festival, held to honor the 11th century monk Tu Dao Hanh, believed to have originated water puppetry.
The puppetry tradition occurs in provinces throughout the Red River Delta, where more than a dozen guilds of dedicated amateur puppeteers preserve the old techniques and stories, making these shows educational as well as entertaining.
"Water is the essential element of water puppetry. A liquid capable of reflecting light, water provides a stage on which illusions include changing reflections of the sky, clouds, trees, and landscape." —Mr. Nguyen Huy Hong