Story: Huong Quynh
Photos: Kim Dung

S pring is the season of blossoming flowers and budding trees. It’s the time to hope for the best in the New Year. In communities that depend upon agriculture, spring wishes are for favorable weather, good harvests, and a prosperous life. These wishes are expressed in many traditional festivals, one of the most notable being the “Tich Dien” (Plowing) Festival. This cultural activity has a rich history and symbolism rooted in Vietnam’s countryside in the springtime.

Farmers’ friends in the Plowing Festival

Dai Viet, early in the spring of 987, King Le Dai Hanh performed the first Plowing Ritual in history to encourage agricultural production and the expansion of farm land, and to show his desire for a year of abundant harvests. In subsequent dynasties, including the Ly, Tran, Ho, and Nguyen, this ritual was performed by every king in the early spring to acknowledge the importance of agriculture. For more than a thousand years, despite historic ups and downs, the Plowing Ritual is still performed with great reverence by Vietnamese farmers to show their wishes for a prosperous and affluent life. Every January 7th of the Lunar Calendar, the sound of beating drums resonates all over the foot of Mount Doi Son in Duy Tien district, Ha Nam province. The drumming adds to the festival’s exuberant atmosphere, under the warm spring sun. It is here that King Le Dai Hanh performed the first Plowing Ritual, guiding the first plow every year to encourage people to develop the country’s agricultural industry.

Large and beautiful buffaloes are chosen and decorated

Among thousands of spring festivals in Vietnam, the Plowing Festival has a unique cultural meaning. This event is associated with the image of a king plowing a field with a buffalo – a close friend of Vietnamese farmers. It conveys a message about the supreme significance of agriculture and encourages farmers to work hard and contribute to the development of the national economy, and to produce more for a higher standard of living.

Like many other festivals, the Plowing Festival has a formal and an informal part. The formal part is the ritual of offering incense to the Agriculture God, after which elders play the role of the king to remind people of the “Farmer” King who plowed the field on New Year’s Day. When this is done, the farmers join in, followed by women carrying baskets of seeds, which may include rice, corn, peanuts, etc. In recent years, several Government leaders have also participated in this festival. Dressed as farmers, they followed the elders out to plow the paddy field.

The mask worn by the “king”

The festival – the informal part – is the most anticipated event because it features many exciting games and competitions. One of the most popular and interesting events in the Plowing Festival is a drawing competition, in which competitors decorate the bodies of buffaloes. Normally, this contest is held before the Plowing Ritual to select the most beautiful buffaloes to plow with “the king”. Days before the festival, strong and healthy buffaloes from all over the region are selected and gathered in one place. Local artists decorate their bodies with colorful lines and patterns.

An experienced farmer

The most outstanding and gorgeous buffaloes will follow “the king” and the farmers to plow the paddy field for the first time in the New Year. The presence of these colorful buffaloes makes the festival even more lively and exciting.

Thanks to its long history and profound cultural meaning, the Plowing Festival plays a significant role in maintaining and promoting the traditional rituals and culture of our ancestors, reminding us to treasure the development of agriculture and to wish for a full and affluent life.