The Hoa Lu Festival

The paddy fields of Gia Vien and Yen Khanh districts (Ninh Binh province) are part of a valley bathed by several rivers and surrounded by 99 limestone mountains which follow one another in a continuous stretch. In some places, the peaks overshadow other mountains and stand like massive watch towers. As a scenic spot, this place can, in some ways, be compared to Ha Long Bay. What is no less important is that herein lies the vestiges of Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of the Dai Co Viet Kingdom of Viet Nam (10th century AD), which are mainly located in Truong Yen Thuong and Truong Yen Ha.
Taking advantage of the mountains and rivers, citadels and ramparts were built around Hoa Lu capital which covers about 300 hectares of land. It comprises two parts: the outer citadel on the east and the inner citadel on the west. The areas are linked to each other by a mountain corridor interspersed with big stone gates, stone bridges (Cau Dong, Cau Den), and spanning deep ditches. From the reign of King Dinh Tien Hoang to that of King Le Hoan (968-1009), many palaces, a one-pillar pagoda and a big octagonal column (Kinh Lang Nghiem) were built here. Also found in this place are the remains of hundreds of smaller columns displaying Buddhist sutras built by Dinh Lien, a successor to King Dinh Tien Hoang. The Phat Kim Pagoda was dedicated to Phat Kim, a daughter of King Dinh Tien Hoang. She married Ngo Nhat Khanh, a vassal of the King, and when Ngo Nhat Khanh revolted against the King, the princess, overwhelmed by indignation, committed suicide by diving into a well. Am Tien was the cave where wild beasts devoured persons condemned to death by the King. Later, the cave was turned into a Buddhist shrine. Noteworthy in the eastern fortress area are the 200 metre high Cot Co mount and the Thanh Lan mount.
To visit Hoa Lu, one should start from Ha Noi, go south and along Highway 1 for 86 kilometres, then take Tien Yet road and drive for 4 kilometres more.
It is said that the two temples, dedicated to King Dinh Tien Hoang and King Le Dai Hanh (Le Hoan), were built on the foundations of the old palace, in the outer citadel area. The temple dedicated to King Dinh Tien Hoang leans on Mt. Phi Van and faces Mt. Ma Yen. The temple of King Le Dai Hanh, which is half a kilometre away, leans on Mt. Bia – near a tributary of the Hoang Long River – and faces Mt. Ben.
The tomb of King Dinh Tien Hoang is located on the flat and lower part of the saddle-shaped Mt. Ma Yen. Leading to it is a flight of stairs consisting of 300 stone steps. The tomb is built with stones and provided with a stone altar. The tomb of King Le Dai Hanh is located at the southern part of the foot of the same mountain, and is flanked on both sides by two smaller mounts. In traditional thinking, this is an auspicious sign, as it means that the tomb and its occupant are greeted by a dragon and an elephant.
From the tomb of King Dinh Tien Hoang atop Mt. Ma Yen, one can have a panoramic view of the old capital area (Hoa Lu) surrounded by a chain of mountains that overlook the winding Hoang Long River. On the left of the river is Mt. Kiem Linh, associated with a legend about King Dinh Tien Hoang’s childhood. As a child, the King whose name then was Dinh Bo Linh, used to be a buffalo boy. He organized mock battles with other children, using reeds as flags. One day he went so far as to slaughter the buffalo entrusted to him by his uncle to treat his victorious troops to a good meal. Brandishing his sword, the angry uncle gave chase to the young boy. Dinh Bo Linh ran to the bank of the river and then plunged into it. Suddenly, a golden dragon appeared and carried him on its back to the other bank. Awestruck, the uncle stuck his sword into the soil and went home.
King Dinh Tien Hoang is well remembered by the whole nation as the national hero who reunified the country. An annual festival is held on his birthday – the 10th day of the 3rd lunar month – by the people of Truong Yen and Hoa Lu area, with visitors flocking in from various parts of the country. The festival comprises, among other things, three main events: presenting joss-sticks, a mock battle with reed flags, and a display of figures in the form of Chinese characters.
Previously, the mock battle with reed festival was organized as follows: Participants were healthy boys aged 14 to 16 years, with one of the fittest playing the role of Dinh Bo Linh; all were disguised as buffalo boys and wore red turbans, blue cloth belts, brown puttees, and each held a reed plant with white flowers. The children assembled in Truong Yen commune from where they would carry Dinh Bo Linh on a “folded-arms palanquin” (two children linked their folded arms in the form of a seat for a third child to sit on it). The procession would cross the Hoang Long River and head for Uy Vien village where the Uncle of Dinh Bo Linh had lived. There, the reed festival troops danced around the palanquin of Dinh Bo Linh and re-enacted the maneuver and mock battles in the way Dinh Bo Linh had directed them. After the mock battle, the procession carried Dinh Bo Linh back to Truong Yen commune.
In recent years, the game has undergone some changes, the participants comprise 100 boys and are divided into two opposing camps engaged in a mock battle. Dinh Bo Linh wears a royal yellow dress. The battle also involves 5 full-size black buffaloes made from interlaced bamboo laths. The procession takes place in Truong Yen commune, but does not proceed to Uy Vien village.
Another game, with a unique cultural character, is the display of figures in the form of Chinese characters. This involves a group of 32 male and female adolescents aged 15 to 18, uniformly clad (white dress, dark pants with tight legs, blue and red cloth belts) and each holding a roll of coloured paper and a stick with a tuft of fringes at one end. They stand, a meter apart, in one long row on a stretch of grassland. After a roll of drum and gong beats, the row starts moving into various shapes and in the end definitely takes the form of the Chinese character “Thai Birth”, that is, the dynastic title of King Dinh Tien Hoang. Recently, the conclusion of the festival has been marked by a new item: fireworks at the Buffalo Cave, near the Sao Khe Brook and Mt. Ma Yen. The first stage of the fireworks provides the picture of a group of dancing people clad in clothes decorated with birds’ feathers that symbolize national peace. The second stage of the fireworks gives the picture of a mock battle with reed flags. The third stage provides the picture of Dinh Bo Linh clad in a royal dress, riding a dragon and flying over the Hoang Long River to establish the first Royal Court of Viet Nam in Hoa Lu. The fourth stage involves big sky-rocket firecrackers that give the image of 9 dragons greeting a flag bearing the words “Thai Binh”.
As the annual festival in Hoa Lu comes to an end, its inhabitants and visitors look forward to the next year’s spring.

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