The Tra Co Village Festival

Tra Co village, which is 8 kilometres from Mong Cai town, is part of Mong Cai town, Quang Ninh province. It is located on a small peninsula, at the northernmost end of the country in the latter’s northeastern region. On the north east, it borders on China; on the south, it borders on the sea, with a magnificent 17- kilometre long beach. Tra Co has an area of 12 sq.km and over 1,000 inhabitants, and is endowed with many scenic spots and historical and cultural vestiges as the Mang dunes, the Tra Co communal house, the Linh Khanh pagoda, the Xuan Lan pagoda and a number of interesting customs. Consequently, Tra Co is quite popular with Vietnamese and foreign visitors.
The Vietnamese people have lived in Tra Co for thousands of years. But a legend of the local villagers say that they are the direct offsprings of fishermen from Do Son (Hai Phong). It is said that about 600 years ago, while on a distant sea fishing trip, 12 fishing families from Do Son encountered a heavy storm which drove them into a stretch of land in the North. At first, life was extremely hard and 6 families left for their homeland whereas the other 6, managed to overcome difficulties, and achieve prosperity. They founded Tra Co village. The legend is confirmed by a popular saying among the local villagers: “People of Tra Co have their ancestors in Do Son”. When the communal house was wet up in Tra Co, a number of old folks were sent to the home village in Do Scfn to perform a ceremony whereby they could obtain some incense sticks that would be planted in the incense burner of their new village. The same rituals were performed every year, until Tra Co village could build a temple for its own Genius (Nguyen Huu Cau, the leader of a peasant rebellion in the 18th century). The practice then ceased and, instead, the altar was oriented toward Do Scfn to show deference to the ancestors.
The Tra Co village festival lasts annually from the 30th of the 5th lunar month to the 7th day of the 6th lunar month, but actually stretches from the end of the 5th lunar month to the 10th day of the 6th lunar month. Its agenda includes a general ceremony, a pig breeding competition, and a culinary contest. The communal house is the main place where the festival is held.
Preparations
The first item is the selection of “festival hosts”. The hosts are usually selected from among male villagers, around 30, in accordance with the entry order in the civil registry of the festival (each village has a registry recording the name of male inhabitants from the age of 16. People who have gone away from the festival for a long period have to, upon their return, register again. Their names would then go behind all others in the registry. Therefore, they are only eligible at a much later time. Immigrants have to undergo a long period of probation before they can be selected as hosts). Initially, there were only 8 festival hosts, but due to population growth the number increased to 12. Their task is to take part in the organization of the festival and to contribute materially to the ceremonies and other ritual during the festival and the whole year.
The host of the following year’s festival is usually selected on the day that precedes the official concluding day of the current year’s festival. On that day, the new candidate hosts must come, with offerings, to the Communal Ceremony and perform a preliminary ceremony seeking the permission of the Geniuses and the ancestors to assume the task of organizing ceremonies in the village thenceforth till the 7th day of the 6th lunar month of the forthcoming year. The offerings consist of gold and silver paper ingots, betel leaves and areca nuts, rice liquor. The official ceremony takes place on the 8th day of the 6th lunar month with a greater amount of substantial offerings: in addition to gold and silver paper ingots, betel leaves and areca nuts, each candidate must present 10 kg of pork meat and 10 kg of glutinous rice. The village will consider and sanction the new hosts and will act on the basis of the civil registry to provide to all male villagers a share of the offerings. Shares will be brought to the houses of village notables and new hosts, while other people will have to seek and receive their right to shares in the communal house.
From then on, the new hosts start breeding their pigs for the contest. As a rule, the pigs should not be called pigs but elephants. The pigsty must be kept as clean as possible and great care must be taken to feed and look after them. Other fellow villagers often come and extend assistance to the host in feeding and looking after the pigs. Custom and practice help to strengthen the solidarity among villagers and to disseminate pig breeding experience .
The 25th day of the 6th lunar month: A big flag is hoisted in the yard of the communal house, signalling the preparatory stage of the Festival. From that day, no one is allowed to leave the village and offenders are liable to be fined. Village notables and the hosts meet to apportion various tasks: the preparation of offerings, the appointment of escorts, members of the music band, carriers of palanquins. The hosts draw lots for the catering of ordinary and vegetarian food offerings.
The 30th day of the 5th lunar month: In the morning, all festival hosts assemble at the communal house and, in the presence of village notables, contribute money for Festival organization costs, jars of rice liquor, sea food, and scores of kilograms of rice for serving the ceremony and providing food for the participants.
In the afternoon, the ceremony leader and all the “hosts” carry a gilded bamboo pole, 15 to 20 cm in diameter, from the back chamber to the middle of the communal house. After stopping several times to pay their respects and extend their best wishes, they lay the bamboo tree, in a horizontal position, on the upper parts of the two main pillars of the house. This is a signal to all that the village has now entered the Festival. From now on, lamps and incense sticks must be kept burning continually on the altar.
On the same day, the families of the hosts bathe the “elephants” with flagrant leaves and water, and decorate them with coloured ink and red cloth. Thereafter, the Festival hosts, duly clad in traditional costumes escort the “elephants” (contained in beautifully painted cages) to the communal house, where the latter will spend the night.
The 1st day of the 6th lunar month: At 10 a.m., all villagers assemble at the communal house in order to perform the general ceremony (stragglers or absentees are liable for fines). The festival hosts, in traditional costumes, and their family members bring in 10 kg of cooked meat and 10 kg of steamed glutinous rice. Thereafter, the procession, with flags, palanquins, and a musical band, set out for Boi Temple in order to pay respects to the Village Genius and to invite the latter to attend the ceremony in the communal house. The leader of the procession also begs the Genius to give him some incense sticks to put into the incense burner at the communal house (this practice replace the older one of getting incense sticks from Bo Son each year).
When the procession return to the communal house, the pig contest begins. The village notables examine the pigs on the basis of set criteria (size, strength, appearance) and decide on the first, second and third prize.
After awarding prizes, rich hosts slaughter the pig to feed the participants, while poorer hosts sell them.
The 2nd day of the 6th lunar month: The festival hosts organize feasts in their homes in honour of the participants.
The 3rd day of the 6th lunar month: Only simple ceremonies are held, so that participants may take some rest.
The 4th to 7th days of the 6th lunar month: Processions continue, with attendants performing their duties on a rotating basis; conventional and vegetarian good offerings are supplied by the festival hosts, as was established in the division of labour.
Conventional food offerings: Each table contains various dishes served on plates of banana leaves. On the 4 comers of each table chicken and duck meat are arranged in the form of the 4 sacred animals (dragon, tortoise, phoenix, unicorn). Beside the usual 6 dishes, each table must have a piece of belly meat of a pig with 4 nipples. Usually, that is the piece of meat that should be presented to the highest- ranking notable of the village. Each bowl or plate must be filled up with food and decorated with red chilli, elaborately cut into a flower.
Some decorations are in the shape of a young lion, and care must be taken to secure certain fruits – red skin, with white grains – for forming a mouth similar to that of a sacred lion.
Vegetarian food: Vegetarian food must be presented as offerings at the central compartment of the communal house, and must comprise various kinds of cakes and vegetarian food arranged in the form of trees, branches and leaves, and be dispersed at various levels.
Offerings brought to the middle of the communal house must be carried by two male villagers clad in traditional clothings decorated with red and yellow ribbons. Food offerings, brought to the left and right compartments of the communal house, must be carried by girls clad in traditional robes.
A number of games and cultural items are performed during the Festival. In the yard of the communal house, there are cabaret song performances, and human chess (human beings play the role of chess men). There is also the “to tom” card game which involves watch-towers, and a flower dance, after which, flowers are thrown out and people try to snatch them as symbols of good luck.
By the end of the 7th day of the 6th lunar month, the villagers hold a ceremony to remove the bamboo pole from the main pillars and send-off the lamp. The ceremony leader heads the procession, his hands holding a bundle of burning incense sticks. He marches behind the gilded bamboo pole and the lamp, and is followed by the festival hosts. While marching, he loudly recites congratulations and good wishes and, after each reading, stop a while so that the villagers may chant in chorus, to the accompaniment of drums and gongs. The concluding ceremony is thus filled with a solemn and festive atmosphere.
The end of the Festival ushers in a new period. On the 8th day of 6th lunar month a new batch of “festival hosts” takes over and will be responsible for the religious ceremonies and rites during the forthcoming period and festival.

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