Women and girls stand in line at the Lim Festival in Bac Ninh Province last week, waiting to set a record for the largest group of quan ho singers. Many cultural researchers have criticized that the record, as well as the use of little girls to attract visitors’ money, were unrespectful ways to promote the art form recognized by UNESCO.
The setting is always idyllic.
Watch any video of quan ho songs, and you get to see calm waters, soft breezes and soft melodies sung by women and men using gentle gestures as they stand in the boats or walk together at a very leisurely pace.
The setting was anything but idyllic as the most famous festival celebrating the UNESCO recognized art form of quan ho – folk songs sung as duets in perfect harmony – got underway this year in its birthplace, the northern province of Bac Ninh.
The Lim festival was marked with a loud cacophony and chaos, although organizers said they had done all they could.
They said they had tried to stop beggars from troubling visitors at the annual Lim Festival, which peaks on the 13th day of the first lunar month, or February 4 this year.
But singers at the festival were themselves focused on getting people to give them money, even using a three-year-old girl for the purpose, the Tuoi Tre newspaper said in a recent report.
The report said that the girl, named Mai Chi, was shaking in a thin four-panel dress, the old traditional costume worn by northern Vietnam women during festivals, as she babbled several lines of a quan ho melody.
Every time she forgot, an older singer sitting behind would fill in the words. Singers at the festival were divided by their villages or communes and each group sat in a tent.
Chi was with singers from Luong Village in Tri Phuong Commune. Her performance was carefully introduced with a call for “support” at the end.
The girl was a little bewildered as the audience kept squeezing notes of up to VND20,000 (around one US dollar) into her hands.
A woman from the team walked around with a tray offering betel leaves to the visitors, expecting money in return.
A quai thao, a flat, round palm-leaf hat, was also placed on the ground in front of the tent for people to put money in.
Some members of the audience waved for the little girl to come take the money. Older members of the team helped out when Chi could not hold it all in her hands.
Thanh Van of Hanoi was not amused.
“It’s no different from children being used to beg for money on the streets,” she told Tuoi Tre.
Festival organizers rejected such accusations.
“There’s no such thing. Quan ho people are very elegant, they won’t do that. This year we had been every strict in asking the singers not to ask for money or attract customers with little singers like that,” an unnamed official told Tuoi Tre.
Lim Festival, which includes many traditional games besides the singing, was originally a pagoda festival of Lim Village.
From the 18th century onwards, its scale was enlarged to paying tribute to mandarin Nguyen Dinh Dien who donated to the village a lot of land and money he was awarded by the king for restoring pagodas and keeping traditional festivals. Dien was buried on the Lim mountain.
But there was no solemnity about the festival last week.
Each tent had its own speaker turned up to the maximum and adding to the din were announcements from guards asking vendors to leave.
Xuyen, a local, said she could not listen to a full song as the speaker fought each other.
“And they were blaring all kinds of music, from old to modern ones,” she said.
Nguyen Quang Nhi, deputy director of Bac Ninh Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said he himself was “really worried” before the festival began that the chaotic situation might be inevitable.
Nhi said his department had asked the festival organizers to learn from the experience of previous years and fix as many problems as they could.
“But there’s a huge number of the festival goers. It’s really hard for the organizers to take care of it.”
More than 100,000 people were estimated to have attended each day of the two-day festival, according to a report by Vietnam Television.
Nguyen Van Tan, police chief of Tien Du District in Bac Ninh whose unit was in charge of maintaining security at the festival, said before the festival that “Every year we have had to receive visitors’ complaints about congestion, pickpocketing and theft. This year we will reinforce security but it will still be a very difficult task.”
Bui Trong Hien, a cultural researcher who has spent many years working to restore quan ho, said, “the Lim Festival in the past was simply a time when men and women met and sang together to get to know each other.
“It was gentle and lovely, not bursting out like a market like this.”
He said many visitors just came to have some fun and did not care to know what quan ho sounds like.
Also on February 4, a controversial record was set for the biggest quan ho singing group, of more than 3,000 people.
The group sang four songs, surrounded by barriers and police standing ready to tackle any disorder.
Many members of the group stood mum on the stage waiting for the record to be announced.
Tran Quang Ung, chief organizer of the festival, said the record was an effort to preserve and promote the art as a commitment to UNESCO.
But To Ngoc Thanh, president of Vietnam Association of Folk Culture and Arts, rejected this explanation.
Thanh said the record was only “a funny community activity.”
To stay committed to the UNESCO recognition, Thanh said, authorities should make people understand the value and the beauty of quan ho.
An unnamed folklore culture researcher said after several years attending the festival, “If you want to listen to quan ho, don’t go to the Lim Festival.”