People get crowded at the Seal Opening ritual held last month in the northern province of Nam Dinh
For thousands of years, villages all over Vietnam have held cultural festivals, following the Lunar New Year.
Many of the festivals are not only unique to Vietnam, but they are also unique to each village. Each event carries a special cultural and historical significance that draws together each of the nation’s myriad small rural communities.
Some of the country’s oldest regional celebrations began drawing promotion from the provincial and national tourism officials.
Soon enough, they were being submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as “World Intangible Cultural Heritages,” drawing outsized attention to celebrations that have traditionally been small rural affairs.
Experts charge that this new attention has, in some cases, diluted the meaning and significance of the event.
In these cases, they become “cultural tragedies,” said Prof. Ngo Duc Thinh, former chief of the Institute of Folk Culture.
Gilding the lily
Nguyen Van Huy, former director of Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, said the growing tendency to upgrade village festivals to province-wide parties is a “tendency that destroys culture.”
The Lim Festival is traditionally held in the northern province of Bac Ninh from the 12th to the 14th day of the first month on the Lunar New Year.
Once upon a time, according to Huy, the festival belonged principally to the residents of Lim Village, where singers of traditional quan ho (traditional love duet) songs gathered during the festival.
Quan ho songs traditionally required no audience – they were designed for pairs of lovers alone—and was known for its intimacy. The event took its name from a nearby hill, where singers of traditional quan ho gathered to sing.
An ambitious mandarin upgraded the festival to a provincial-wide event in the 18th century.
Now, with UNESCO recognition, unmanageable crowds flood into the small community, which does nothing to improve the cultural value of quan ho, Huy said.
Bui Trong Hien, a researcher from the Vietnam Institute of Culture and Arts, said that in old times, small bands of visitors scattered around the countryside to watch the performances.
Since it gained international recognition, organizers have taken to stuffing quan ho performers into tents that are stacked one against the other. They use speakers so that the throngs of tourists can hear the performances, Hien said.
Each tent tends to play its speakers at maximum volume, so in the end, Hien said the sounds are “usually as terrible as those of karaoke bar.”
Dang Hoanh Loan, former deputy chief of the Vietnam Institute of Music, said the sounds of music, singers, street vendors, and festival goers jumble together to produce a brash and chaotic soundscape. The most horrible feature of this mess, Long said, is that the speakers are placed everywhere.
He’s called on local officials to take drastic steps to “save” the Lim Festival and claims that it and other “rural cultural spaces” are in danger of being lost.
Recent efforts to provide an “unplugged” festival left crowds of visiting tourists frustrated that they were unable to hear the songs.
Loan says that the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism should consider hiring experts to help them figure out how to save the festival.
Show me the titles
The same fate has befallen the Seal Opening ritual, Khai An Den Tran, in the northern province of Nam Dinh.
Nguyen Quang Ngoc, chief of the Institute of Vietnamese Studies and Development Sciences, said the ritual dates back to the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400) and was originally organized to mark the court’s first official working day after a long New Year holiday.
The event was held at the Tran Kings’ Temple in Nam Dinh because former emperors usually resided there while advising their successors on how to govern the country, according to Ngoc.
Originally only seven villages around the capital were allowed to join the royal ritual.
“It wasn’t a ritual for the whole of Nam Dinh, and of course, not the whole country,” Ngoc said.
At some point, the festival was re-cast in the popular imagination as a day in which kings granted feudal officials their official titles.
Currently the ritual, which is held on the night of the 14th day of the first Lunar Calendar month, attracts hoards of tourists from all over the country.
The result is a violent crush of humanity jockeying toward the place where fabrics stamped with the Tran King’s seal are being distributed.
Many in the crowd believe these symbols will bring their owners good luck and so the seals are sometimes sold, rather than given out free.
Despite efforts to maintain peace and security, the ritual often descends into violent outbursts drawing broad criticism every year.
Thinh said changes in culture aren’t rare, but the ritual’s cultural distortion is “unacceptable.”
“A traditional administrative procedure has been distorted into an occasion for people to pray for good luck, leading to the crass commercialization of the Tran ritual,” he said.
Done to death
In the meantime, Huy has raised concerns about what he called “the act of forcing culture,” citing the Giong festival, which was recognized by UNESCO, as an example.
The festival was traditionally held by the residents of Phu Dong Village in Hanoi’s suburb on the ninth day of the fourth lunar month to celebrate Thanh Giong (Saint Giong), who defeated Yin invaders in the third century.
It included a series of processions, rituals and performances.
However, even before the major title, the Giong Festival has been “randomly” performed at other festivals and anniversaries, Huy said.
In fact, it was first “performed” at Ho Chi Minh City’s 300th anniversary in 1998. Last year, it was performed four times, including on National Day (September 2) and Hanoi’s 1,000th anniversary in October, according to Huy.
People now are willing to reproduce the traditional ceremonies attached to the festival as if it were a high school play, he said.
He charged that such random performances “cheapen the festival’s sacredness and spiritual significance,” while “the repetition strips it of its mystery and the power of its dramatics.”
The expert blamed the festivals’ distortion partly to the way they are being promoted.
The media and tourism officials champion a small handful of festivals inspiring visitors to flood some and ignore others.
He said the agencies of tourism and culture need to be held responsible for this, adding that it’s time Vietnam created a calendar explaining the dates of local festivals throughout the country as well as their traditional significance.
Others, meanwhile, have called on related agencies to clarify the festivals’ meanings, so people won’t seek them out to increase their personal wealth.