Story: Nguyet Cat
Photos: Thu Phan

People from Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City “go to District 1 on Lunar New Year’s Eve and back to District 5 for Tet Nguyen Tieu.” Saigon’s “Tet must-dos” include strolling along the Nguyen Hue Flower Street in District 1, which has been held since before 1975, and visiting Hoa (Chinese-Vietnamese) pagodas in District 5 to pray for peace, abundance, and good luck.

A parade winds through the streets of District 5

The Tet Nguyen Tieu Festival celebrates the first full moon of the new year. Vietnamese people say that “praying year-round does not equal celebrating the full moon of the first lunar month,” implying that the first full moon of the new year demands the most fastidious rituals. Hoa people also consider the first month’s full moon as the most important new moon of the year.  Their community comes together for this event, which is a major local holiday. For Overseas Chinese people, the Nguyen Tieu Festival is all about visiting pagodas to wish for health, peace, abundance and ease in business, as well as romantic luck. Everyone wants the best for themselves. Therefore, other Vietnamese people living in District 5 and surrounding districts also flock to Hoa pagodas to join the festivities. The Nguyen Tieu Festival has become a popular holiday and joyful occasion for all Saigonese people in Ho Chi Minh City.

Dressed as a fairy for the festival

The highlight of Nguyen Tieu is a street parade that has been held since 1990. In 2020, the Nguyen Tieu Festival of the Hoa people in District 5 was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage. The festival is a magnificent affair with thousands of participants dressed as popular characters from Hoa culture, such as Guan Yu, the Jade Emperor, the Gods of Fortune, Prosperity, and Longevity, celestial beings, fairies, Tang Sanzang and his disciples seeking Buddhist scriptures, generals and their armies, trang nguyen (the top scholar of the annual Imperial examinations), and civil and martial mandarins. People parade with lanterns, flowers, and trays of five fruits,  accompanied by impressive stilt-walkers. The parade is divided into small groups that march neatly to the thrilling sounds of drums and horns along kilometers-long streets, including Hai Thuong Lan Ong, Lao Tu, Luong Nhu Hoc, Nguyen Trai, Tran Xuan Hoa, and Tran Hung Dao, before finally ending at the District 5 Cultural Center.

The festival is also an opportunity for accomplished troupes of lion-and-dragon dancers to demonstrate their unmatched skills. Their polished repertoires include dances such as “two dragons fighting for the pearl”, with the titular creatures portrayed via brightly-colored, carefully sewn, and ornately decorated costumes that move gracefully and sinuously around a bobbing and weaving pearl held in the hands of its keeper. The lion and dragon dancers move ingeniously in a ferocious rhythm, with every shift in perfect harmony, making even a single blink look lifelike. Acrobatic tricks atop tall poles cause onlookers’ hearts to stop before filling with awe.

Colorful reliefs on the roof of Lord Pagoda

In addition to the street parade, the Lady and Lord Pagodas on Nguyen Trai Street in District 5 also draw their own share of visitors. While Saigonese people call it “Lady Pagoda” (chua Ba), unlike in an actual pagoda, no Buddhas are worshipped here. Its real name is the Tue Thanh Assembly Hall, for the worship of Lady Thien Hau, who is said to bless and shelter the unfortunate. Hoa people typically visit on the first full moon of the lunar year to wish for peace and happiness for their loved ones. The hall’s courtyard is designed so that coils of incense can be hung here, each bearing a piece of red paper listing the names of family members to wish them peace and prosperity. In the early spring mornings, when the air is crisp and cool and the light is pure, the incense coils hung around the courtyard resemble a work of art. Photographers arrive in droves to capture such moments.

Not far from Lady Pagoda is Lord Pagoda (chua Ong), actually named Nghia An Assembly Hall, built for Hoa people who trace their descent to the Teochew of Yi’an Commandery, Guangdong, China. Lord Pagoda is devoted to Guan Yu as a representative of the Five Constant Virtues of Kindness, Decorum, Uprightness, Wisdom, and Faithfulness. Its Cantonese name is Che Phua Miu, meaning “shrine for borrowing blessings.” During the Lunar New Year and the Tet Nguyen Tieu Festival, visitors come here to “borrow blessings” for their businesses and return them at the end of the year.

Performers in the Nguyen tieu Festival

The pagoda covers an area of about 2,000 m2. Upon entering, there is a vast carp pond and a wide courtyard where blessing ceremonies or lion-and-dragon dances are held. In addition to Guan Yu, the shrine also houses a statue of the famous steed, Red Hare. No pilgrimage to Lord Pagoda is complete without ringing the bells around the horse’s neck and passing thrice under its stomach, as Hoa people believe these actions bring prosperity and luck.