THE DONG Village Festival

Dong village, aka Phu Dong village, is now part of Gia Lam, a suburban district of Ha Noi. To reach this village, one should start from the inner part of Ha Noi, follow Highway N°. 1, cross Chuong Duong and Cau Duong bridges, then turn right to the bank of Duong River and then go four kilometres further downstream.
The village is the native place of the Dong Genius, a mythological figure in the treasure of folkloric tales of Viet Nam. Legend tells how, during the reign of the 6th Hung King, Van Lang State (now Viet Nam) was attacked by the An invaders, whose power and cruelty struck fear into the population. An envoy of the King toured the villages appealing to talented people to help save the country.
In the Dong village there lived an unmarried mother, whose pregnancy was associated with a mysterious incident. One day she went into the garden to gather egg¬plants. She saw a colossal footprint. Out of curiosity, she put her foot on it. Thereafter, she became pregnant and in due time gave birth to a child. In spite of her elaborate care and feeding, the baby continued to lie in bed and could not even speak at the age of three. However, on hearing the appeals of the King’s envoy, the boy suddenly sprang to his feet and begged her mother to invite the envoy to enter. After listening to the envoy’s message, he replied: “Sir, please request His Majesty the King to provide me with an iron horse, an iron hat and an iron whip. I will wipe out the enemy”. From then on, the boy started eating with an extraordinary appetite. He ate so much that his mother could not afford to feed him, and the whole village had to bring in huge amounts of rice and egg-plants to satisfy him. When the royal messenger came back to the village with the requested items – iron horse, hat and whip, the small boy stretched his arms, legs and shoulders and suddenly became a colossus who took the whip, put on the hat, and with a great shout, jumped on the horse. The horse then gave out a big scream and galloped at full speed toward the enemy. While the horse spat fire on the invaders, the young cavalier hit them hard with his whip and made them ran away helter-skelter. When the whip broke, he uprooted a bamboo tree and continued to fight with the new weapon. When the enemy had been wiped out, he galloped to Mount Soc Son. Upon arriving there, he took out his suit of armour and hang it on a sandal tree. Thereafter, both the man and the horse flew into the sky.
In remembrance of this great feat of arms, the people of Dong village, hold an annual festival on the 9th day of the 4th lunar month.
Organization and Background
Previously Phu Dong Canton comprised four villages: Phu Dong, Phu Duc, Dong Vien and Dong Xuyen. The villages jointly organized the festival. However, the former two villages played the leading role, the last two were allowed to play only a minor role as they were guilty of driving out Genius Dong’s mother when she became pregnant.
But the real organizers of the festival were not the entire villages but smaller population units in each village. They were called “Giap”. Thus Phu Dong Canton had 15 “Giap”: 6 in Phu Dong village, 4 in Phu Duc village, 3 in Dong Vien village, and 2 in Dong Xuyen village.
Thus, the 10 “giap” of Phu Dong and Phu Duc villages were the “leading Giap’ of the festival; that is, they assumed the main responsibility in organizing it. Among other things, they appointed:
– a flags commander,
– a drum commander,
– a gong commander,
– a commander of the army headquarters,
– two commanders of the advance guard, comprised of villagers from Dong Vien and Dong Xuyen. They also set up a 30-strong detachment led by its officers for reconnaissance and food carrying duties.
As officers of Dong Genius, these commanders were covered by two parasols while the flags commander was provided with 4 parasols, as the flags symbolized the power of Dong, the genius. While most of these commanders were chosen among the unmarried young men, some of the married men could be appointed to such posts, provided they were no more than 26 years old. They were, indeed, the commanding staff of the battle.
Dong’s troops comprise 120 regular troops, and 12 members of his bodyguard. The regular troops were made up of young men from 18 to 36 years. They came from all the 4 villages, and were divided into 8 groups, each having 15 troopers headed by a low-level commander. The members of the bodyguard were chosen from young men of Phu Dong village.
Soldiers were bare-bodied except for a black loincloth and a scarf hanging from the left shoulder to the right ribs across the chest. Each soldiers wore a black and embroidered bag on his left rib; the shape represented the blade of a scythe, with a violet string hanging from the right shoulder. Each wore a hat made of print cloth, decorated with gold thread and a small round mirror, and a hanging piece of cloth covered the neck. Each soldier also carried a paper fan, not for cooling their bodies, but to perform the order of the commanders in military fashion.
A music band and dance troupe from Hoi Xa village comprising 20 young drum and gong players and a number of dancers also took part in the festival. Hoi Xa village, located on the right bank of Duong River, sent this troupe to the Dong Festival for religious ceremonies, and entertainment purposes. The troupe performed two traditional dances (a dance of worship for the genius and a dance on catching the tiger) and 12 traditional songs expressing respect, admiration and gratitude to the patriotic hero for his feat of arms. For this purpose, the troupe started rehearsals on the 15th day of the 3rd lunar month in Hoi Xa village. From the 6th day of the 4th lunar month, they moved to Kien Son Pagoda near the Dong Temple to attend the festival.
Preparations
The Festival’s agenda was quite heavy and required quality performances, so preparations were usually undertaken one month in advance.
On the 1st day of the 3rd lunar month, the Council of the “Giap” met to prepare the “betel presenting” ceremony to Genius Dong. The ceremony was to be officiated by the head of a leading “Giap” to whom the Festival book (containing instructions on the holding of the Festival) was handed over.
On the 2nd day of the 3rd lunar month, the Council of the “Giap” met to discuss the programme and the division of work.
From the 6th day of the 3rd lunar month, all the commanders must lead a pure life. In particular, the flags commander must live alone in a separate room at the Temple, with his needs catered for by the organizers.
On the 15th day of the 3rd lunar month, the head of the leading “Giap” and his men escort the incense burner to the Temple so that the commander can introduce themselves to the Genius in a ceremony and receive flags, drums, gongs to practice in their homes. The previous year’s flag is used for practice, and a new flag must be made for the Festival: a 2-metre long reddish silk flag, with the word “Order” (in Chinese characters) inscribed on it, as the flag will be used by the commander to give orders. The new flag must be provided with a long pole. Thereafter, the flag is wrapped and, together with the pole, is put in a rectangular fringed envelope and decorated with embroideries of dragon and phoenix figures. The flag envelope also contains paper butterflies and small shavings of sandalwood (which will be used during the festival). The flag with its envelope, the paper butterflies and the sandalwood (called collectively as “Mieu”) must be brought in a cortege to the Thuong Temple (the temple dedicated to Genius Dong) and then to the Mau Temple (the temple dedicated to his mother).
On the 25th day of the 3rd lunar month, on orders from the head of the leading “Giap”, a number of villagers clean the two temples and all cult implements and furniture therein, and repaired the roads and places where the festival will be held.
On the 2nd day of the 3rd lunar month, the Council checked on the enrolment of young men into the regular troops and the bodyguard.
The 5th day of the 4th lunar month is the day for the general rehearsal for the dancers and singers, the drums and gongs players; the troops, who march in ranks are arranged in battle formations in front of the Thuong Temple. Also present are the “An” invading troops, represented by 28 female fighters led by one commander and one deputy commander. The “An” female fighters are ten to 13 year-old girls who are selected by the “Giap”. They wear beautiful costumes and make-up, with flower embroideries on their hats, and they arrive on palanquins, with parasols, carried by their relatives. The villagers come in their numbers to views the rehearsal.
Main festival days
The festival starts on the 6th day of the 4th lunar month and lasts for several days, with ceremonies succeeding one another until and main event which takes place on the 9th day of the 4th lunar month.
At 3 p.m of the 6th day of the 4th lunar month, the water procession begins. All the commanders, the troops, the group of singers and dancers from Hoi Xa village, and a large group of villagers take part. The procession carries two big ornamental jars from the Thuong Temple to a well located in the Mau Temple. There, the jars are put on a pedestal near the bank of the well while a number of “troops” stand on both sides of the stairs leading down to it. The man who stands at the head of the lines uses a bronze dipper to take water from the well and pours it slowly into the jars through two pieces of red cloth. Each jar receives 3 dippers of water. Then, the jars are brought back to the Thuong Temple. The ceremony means that the villagers take water in order to wash and clean the weapons of Hero Dong’s troops, while the Genius will provide them with enough rain and a good crop.
At 11 a.m. of the 7th day of the 4th lunar month, a procession carries vegetarian food (cooked rice and eggplants) from the Mau Temple to the Thuong Temple, as offerings to Dong, the Genius.
On the 8th day of the 4th lunar month, the heads of the “Giap” and the notables from the 4 villages hold a review of the female fighters who will act as the “An” invaders.
The main festival day, the 9th day of the 4th lunar month, is marked in the morning by a procession carrying the flag from the Mau Temple to the Thuong Temple, the rites of which are similar to those of the water procession. When the procession arrives at the temple, the “troops” perform a ceremonial military display in honour of Genius Dong: now marching in two rows, now turning into four rows, turning right, turning left, marching forward and then backward in an orderly manner, first at a slow pace, then at a quicker one, and then running around. Finally, they stand in rows before the altar of the genius and pay their respects to him.
Then, at 10 a.m., “Catching the Tiger” is a game that is played by the group of dancers and musicians from Hoi Xa. Before starting, the whole group, including the tiger, perfoms a series of lively dances while singing to the accompaniment of drums and gongs.
In the mean time, at the “enemy camp” near a lotus pond in Dong Vien village, 28 female fighters of the “An” invading army, surrounded by their relatives, sit on their palanquins, ready for the battle.
At one p.m., reconnaissance groups report that the enemy troops have occupied Dong Dam area of Dong Vien village. The new is greeted by 3 rounds of tumultuous drum and gong beats that signal the decisive hour has come. While the troops tighten their ranks waiting for the battle order, the group of singers and dancers perform a song praising Dong as the general sent by God to help our nation repel the aggressors. As the song ends, the commanders prostrate themselves before the altar, a gesture which means that they received the order from their commander-in-chief and vow to fight to the last. The commanders then return to their formations accompanied by several rounds of drum and gong beats. The soldiers shout in unison “Da, Da” (Yes, we obey the orders) and then start moving.
The troops are preceded by 24 adolescent clad in black and red clothes and armed with red rattan rods. They who clear the way for the soldiers by shouting while marching: “Way, please!”. Then come the two advance guard detachments marching under red parasols with golden fringes. They wear yellow pants, red dresses, hats with embroideries figuring dragons, and hold small drum. Then come the tiger and the group of musicians and dancers with their red flags, marching to the sounds of drum beats.
They are followed by the drum commander, the gong commander, the commander of the army headquarters and the flag commander. Just behind the commander is the cult horse. The horse is wooden and painted white, it has a saddle made to look as if of brocade, embroidered with a dragon, and has small bronze bells on its neck. It is mounted on a 4-wheel cart drawn with ropes by soldiers. While marching and pulling vigorously the horse, the soldiers shout in unison at the command of an officer standing behind the horse. Last in the column carrying cult weapon such as scimitars, spears, clubs is a group of soldiers who march solemnly to the accompaniment of the band.
Indeed, it is a long column stretching over several kilometres, moving in a chorus of drum and gong beats, shouts and hurrahs.
It makes a stop at the Mau Temple where the troops bow in respect to the Mother of Genius Dong.
It is supposed that the enemy troops are in full occupation of the Lotus pond area, including Dong Dam, a small patch of land lying between two dykes. Dong Dam has been duly cleaned and smoothed out in advance, and three mats are put there. In the middle of each mat is a sheet of paper covered by a bowl: the mat symbolizes the plains, the bowl symbolizes mountains and the sheet of paper the clouds.
As the column arrives at Dong Dam, the white wooden horse stays on the dyke, while the commanders come and stand at assigned places around the three mats (which symbolize the battlefield). Near the mats is the altar of Genius Dong.
At about 2 p.m., after the troops have been arranged in order, (in battle positions), three rounds of drum beats resound, followed by deep silence. Then, the commander of the army headquarters beats the drum in front of the “order” flag. That is the attack signal. The advance guard also beats their small drums, signalling that they are ready for battle.
Then the flag commander steps forward and stands in the middle of a mat near the altar. An attendant opens the flag bag, while the flag commander takes out the flag and brandishes it, thus releasing paper butterflies and shavings of flagrant sandalwood that fly in the wind. His gesture is greeted with drum and gong beats. The enemy also signals that the battle has begun.
The process of the battle and its unfolding is symbolized by a number of rituals performed by the flag commander. At first, his left arm stretches forward and brandishing the “order” flag, his eyes focus on the top of the flag while his left leg swings to the left. Then, he brandishes the flag again, but with his right arm, while his right leg swings to the right. With his right leg, he removes the bowl lying in the middle of the mat, thus releasing the sheet of paper that flies away with the wind (this means that Genius Dong is so powerful that he can remove mountains and move the clouds). Thereafter, the flag commander makes two quick jumps, shouting “Hay- Hay”, then kneels down and vigorously waves the flag from right to left and around three times and finally hits the mat with the flagpole. As the crowds watch him in an emotion-charged atmosphere, the flag commander performs the same ritual on the remaining two mats (this means that the battle is most violent and fierce). The end of the third round of rituals (on the third mat) means that the battle has been won, as by then the female military commanders turn their heads toward the ThuWng temple with deference. The victory is greeted with drum and gong beats.
Then three rounds of drum and gongs beats are sounded as the signal for troop withdrawal. The column, in full order, returns to the Thuong Temple.
When it stops for a few minutes at the Mau Temple, the news of victory is reported to the hero’s mother. On arrival at the Thuong Temple, the flag commander puts the flag in front of the altar of Genius Dong, while the drum, gong and cult horse are put at their usual places. Commanders and soldiers take a rest at places assigned to them, while villagers start bringing in food and drinks to feed the victorious army.
Hardly has the feast begun than bad tidings come in. The enemy has counter-attacked and is now approaching Phu Dong village in an attempt to encircle our troops. After three new rounds of drum and gong, all the commanders and soldiers leave their tables, seize their arms and set out for the front, that is the Soi Bia area lying in between the Thuong Temple and the Mau Temple which has been reported occupied by the invaders.
In term of arrangements, the battlefield in Soi Bia was similar to the one in Dong Dam. Again, after three rounds of “order” drum beating, the flag commander performs the three traditional rituals, with a slight difference: this time, he waves the flag from left to right. The end of the third ritual is greeted by three resounding rounds of drum and gong beats which signal complete victory over the aggressors. Enemy commanders are taken to the Thuong Temple and are made to kowtow 4 times in front of the altar of Genius Dong. An “officer” uses a trophy sword to push away the hat and tear open the dress of enemy prisoners (gestures which symbolize the beheading and skinning of enemy troops). Then he and assembles all the trophies for the purpose of reporting the feat of arms to Genius Dong in the back chamber of the temple.
Afterwards, the feast continues with added zest till the evening and is followed by fireworks, theatrical plays and other games until past midnight.
Subsequent days
The 10th day of the 4th lunar month: A ceremony is held to review the troops, to check up the weapons, and to offer thanks to Genius Dong.
The 11th day of the 4th lunar month: Water is carried in a procession to the Thudng Temple to clean the cult implements, including weapons. Various games are played together with songs and dancer performances.
The 12th day of the 4th lunar month: A flags planting procession takes place in which our “troops” search the Dong Dam and Soi Bia to find whether there are any remnant “enemy” troops. After due checking, flags are planted to show that enemy troops have been driven out and that peace has been restored.
In the evening, a victory ceremony is held in which the news of victory is reported to the heavens. The ceremony also marks the end of the festival.
This general account of the main features of the Dong Festival, as held in the past, shows that it contains most of the ceremonies, rituals, and artistic performances that characterize the festivals of Vietnamese peasants in the plains of North Viet Nam, the Red River Delta.

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