As a photographer we can lament about the loss of long practiced traditions and customs in Vietnam to more recent, modern times. However, one aspect of Vietnamese society that has flourished along with its growing economic affluence is the advent and resurgence of its traditional festivals.
Long regarded by the governments of the 1970’s and 1980’s as the domain of the wealthy and a luxury that could not be afforded due to decades of war and the fight for nationalism, festivals and cultural ceremonies were kept to a bare minimum and, for many, simply disappeared completely. Since the mid 1990’s however, many provincial, district and village communities have begun to place a far greater emphasis on the importance of these traditional events and the status it accords them.
There are now some 8,000 festivals taking place throughout the country in any one calendar year. A remarkable figure by any stretch of the imagination, however, it is fair to note that this would also include minor worshipping ceremonies or events at local pagoda’s or community halls which have always formed the backbone of Vietnamese society.
Despite the obvious attraction to the photographer or to the visiting foreigner these ceremonies have, I have always been surprised to find myself alone to enjoy these events and, in that sense, walk away with a greater sense of understanding Vietnamese culture that is rarely experienced by an outsider.
The most recent festival I attended was the Do Temple festival in Bac Ninh province, lying some 40kms from Hanoi.
This festival takes place from the 14th to the 16th days of the third lunar month, which, based on the solar calendar for 2010 was the 27th and 28th April.
Vietnamese legend has it that the 15th day of the third lunar month was the coronation of King Ly Cong Uan. Later generations chose the day as a common festival to pay homage to Kings of the Ly Dynasty.
According to customs in Dinh Bang Village, a chief officiate was appointed to administer the festival. The person then presents himself to the genie in a set of solemn rituals and votive offerings including a drum, a platter of betel, and a small bottle of wine.
Residential groups, cultural organizations and local authorities administer the festival to such accuracy and co-ordination that can only impress the onlooker. Each particular series of events are assigned according to the ages, relevance and the significance of each person in the community and nearby hamlets.
The palanquin procession is often the highlight of any festival in Vietnam and this particular one took place on the afternoon of the 14th day, starting from Do Temple to Dan Pagoda where prayers are read. This ritual takes King Ly Cong Uan to the location where the founder of the dynasty was born and raised. Ceremonies of gratitude are paid at the pagoda to those individuals who cared for and helped raise the king including various gods and Buddhist spirits. After this ceremony, a tablet of the king’s mother is taken to the temple for the coronation.
On the early morning of the 15th day, the procession returns from Dan Pagoda to the Do Temple. By then, it is accompanied by another palanquin and altar representing the king’s mother. En-route the procession pauses at Dinh Bang Communal House where the festival manager enters the house for rituals performed in front of the village’s tutelary god. Thereafter the procession of hundreds continues on its way back to the temple – a journey that lasts some three hours in total.
When the procession arrives at the temple yard dragon dancing commences and is followed young girls performing traditional dance with castanets. Shortly thereafter three men in the role of the king’s bodyguards, enter the dragon yard. The two palanquins are placed alongside the yard and the chief officiate steps into the main sanctuary and reads King Ly Thai To’s edict on the movement of the Vietnam capital to Thang Long (present day Hanoi). The document is then placed on the main altar together with an incense offering and festival inauguration rituals. Others then follow in degrees of importance, opening up a mass of local pilgrims descending upon the pagoda to pay their respects.
After the formal ceremonies are completed activities continue with cock fighting, wrestling, human chess and more modern ‘fun’ elements that hold little bearing on the meaning and significance of the festival itself. By this time, however, I am heading back to Hanoi having captured the wonderful visual feast such traditional festivals present to any photographer.
Please click on below thumbnails to view other images from this series