Story:Huu Vi
Photos: Hai Thinh, Minh Hoang, Hoang An, Phi Hung, Thu Ba, Nguyen Anh Tuan

For thousands of years, rowing festivals have brought Vietnamese communities together

Vietnamese civilization revolved around the farming of wet rice. For generations, people’s lives were linked to rivers and waterways. Rowing festivals were a popular folk activity that reflected the importance of the nation’s waterways. Throughout Vietnam, villages that lie near rivers, lagoons, lakes or the sea host rowing contests. These competitions are usually associated with the Water God and sacrificial rituals to pray for good weather and bumper crops, or to honor national heroes who won key naval battles. These contests celebrate physical strength and the community’s martial spirit.

Vietnam’s traditional rowing festivals date back to at least the Dong Son Era, around 2,500 years ago. Many bronze drums and jars from this era are decorated with images of boats. Drums found by the Da River, Mieu Mon, Vac Village and Ro Hill portray rowing and swimming festivals, with the rowers wearing festive clothes, caps and turbans. They are shown rowing dugout canoes with narrow decks, curved prows and swallow-like tails. Each drum features six boats running in the same direction around the drum’s edge, as if in a never-ending race.

Keo Hanh Thien, Thai Binh

Historical records suggest that Emperor Le Dai Hanh was the first to hold a rowing contest as a national event. In the sixth year of Thien Phuc’s reign (985), on occasion of his birthday, the emperor ordered an artificial mount – called Nam Son Mount – to be constructed on a boat. From this boat the emperor launched a rowing contest for commoners. This festival has been held annually ever since.

During the Ly Dynasty (11th – 13th centuries), rowing contests were already well established and enjoyed by both mandarins and commoners in the Thang Long (Hanoi) Citadel. At the Ly emperors’ behest, marvelous palaces such as Ham Quang Palace and Linh Quang Palace were erected on both banks of the Red River to accommodate royals during their leisure trips. Every autumn, during the tidal periods, emperors hosted a rowing contest on the river. The royal family watched this event, then organized an autumn banquet. Some years, the rowing festival took place at Quang Tu Palace, the home of the Empress Dowager. The chosen contestants spent months training. They were proficient seafarers and good swimmers. As time went by, rowing festivals grew increasingly popular, both for nobles and commoners. Crowded rowing competitions are depicted on reliefs in titular temples. Popular chants and idioms refer to these contests:

“We hold a party on the ninth day

And get aboard to row in dedication to the gods.

The oars flap out; flags are unfurled.

The oars flap in; thunderous drum beats arise…”

  Nowadays, most rowing contests take place during the Tet holidays or during village festivals. A signal sounds and the boats take off, accompanied by drums, cymbals and excited cries. If a boat flips over or the scarves tied to its oars get wet, that team is eliminated. Famous rowing festivals include those in Bach Hac (Phu Tho), Dang (Vinh Phuc), Dam (Hanoi), Keo Hanh Thien (Thai Binh), Cat Ba (Hai Phong), Kien Giang (Quang Binh) and Ly Son (Quang Ngai). Ethnic Thai people in the Northwest also hold a swallow-tailed boat rowing contest. Ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands take pride in their dugout canoe rowing festival. Further south, along with rowing festivals, ethnic Khmer people stage a dugout canoe race tied to their Ok Om Bok Festival.

“Ngo” boat race festival

An old saying states: “Rau rows and Hac swims, Hac rows and Me swims, Me rows and Duc Bac swims, Duc Bac rows and Dang swims” to describe the exciting ambience of rowing contests on the Red River from Viet Tri to Hanoi.

The rituals, rules and procedures of each rowing contest vary according to the environment and local crops. A conventional race stretches for several kilometers, but in some locations, like Keo Pagoda in Hanh Thien, the race can cover 40km. Participating boats are long and narrow, either decorated like a dragon or a phoenix. Teams wear different colors. The Dam rowing contest involves three teams, whose boats are decorated to reflect three mascots: the dragon, the crane and the kylan.

Team members include Mr. Order (the Commander), Mr. Crutch (the Sustainer), Mr. Flag (the Signifier), Mr. Wooden Fish (the Rhythm-maker) and Mr. Rider (the Guide). The number of rowers varies. In Hanh Thien’s Keo Pagoda boat race, each boat holds 10 rowers. There are 18 rows in the Dam race, 24 in Bach Hac and 36 in Dang. The Khmer boats can accommodate up to 60 rowers. Regardless of the particulars, each festival promotes teamwork and community spirit.

These rowing and swimming races are a legacy of Vietnam’s agrarian culture. They encourage young people to hone their aquatic skills and prowess and improve their health and courage. These events build gratitude and community spirit, and spread good wishes throughout the community.