Text: Ngo Quang Minh
Photos: Nguyen Phong, Tonkin
There is a saying: “Things may come, or they may not, but Tet is sure to arrive.” I look forward to Tet as the time to enjoy the joyous atmosphere and fresh scenery of the new year. Best of all, I can lose myself in the beauty of the changing seasons and bask in the festive spirit that fills my S-shaped homeland during my leisurely spring travels.
My close friends and I chose Central Vietnam as our destination for our spring excursion. The first stop on our “heritage journey” was Hue, Vietnam’s mysterious and ancient capital. Here, we experienced the charming beauty of spring in the olden days, still preserved through local customs.
I would first like to mention the offering rites at Xa Tac Esplanade, observed each spring since being revived a decade ago to deliver the people’s wishes for favorable weather and bountiful crops. In the 1800s, the Xa Tac offering rites were performed by the Nguyen dynasty. King Gia Long had the esplanade built within the citadel from clean soil offered up by provinces throughout the country. “Xa” referred to the most important Earth deity at the time, and “Tac” means rice, which is the most precious crop of the sacred Five Grains in traditional Asian culture. Thus, the name “Xa Tac” represented the land of Vietnam, as well as the prosperous and abundant life of all its people. For this reason, aside from the ceremonies and rites performed by the imperial family and officials, commoners also offered incense at the altar. Nowadays, the Xa Tac offering rite has its place among Vietnam’s integral ancient festivals linked to our rice-based agricultural culture. Others include the offering rites at Nam Giao Altar and the five shrines within Hue Imperial City.
Besides court rituals, Hue is bustling in the spring with many traditional festivals like the prominent Wrestling Festival in Sinh Village, held on the tenth day of the Lunar New Year. Formed by deposits from three distributaries, in its golden age, the land of Hoa Chau, later known as Hue, was home to a key trading route in the Southern region at the confluence of the Huong and Bo rivers. Thanks to its flat and spacious terrain, and key river transport access, the land was used by the Nguyen lords for military training and recruitment. Inspired by military martial arts, a strong young man founded the traditional wrestling art of the village of Lai An (which means “grateful”), also known as Sinh Village. Today, current generations still honor the traditions practiced by their ancestors. Every year, people of all ages gather from far and wide in Phu Mau commune from first light to celebrate and engage in traditional wrestling matches in the communal house’s courtyard. This custom led to a saying:
“Here and there, wherever you are,
Come back on the tenth for Sinh village’s wrestling festival.”
Leaving behind Hue’s cultural sphere, we roamed southward across Ca Pass, one of the most dangerous mountain passes in Central Vietnam, to arrive in pristine Phu Yen in the cool of spring. Thanks to Da Dia Reef, a gift from Mother Nature, this land of “yellow flowers and green grass” is perfect for spring excursions. Formed 200 million years ago through volcanic activity on the Van Hoa Plateau, Da Dia Reef is made of basalt rocks. After molten lava met cold water and solidified, the rocks cracked in all directions, creating stunning and mysterious layers of rocky plates. The aura of mystery is increased by the endless crashing waves and hazy morning mist that shrouds Da Dia Reef in a glimmering veil. All of these elements have made the site deserve its status as a National Scenic Relic, as recognized in 1998.
Alongside its natural blessings, Phu Yen is also known for a manmade wonder – Nhan Tower, a marvelous relic and symbol of Champa culture in the heart of Tuy Hoa city. According to legends, the creation of Nhan Tower was tied to the deity Thien Y A Na, who once descended from heaven to teach the local population to farm, weave, and spin yarn for a living. When the goddess returned to heaven, Champa people erected Nhan Tower to worship her. The 25-meter tall tower has a squared base and four levels. At its top sits a stone Lingam, a spiritual Champa motif symbolizing fertility and the creation of all things. The tower’s squared base is lined with sandstone and its imposing vertical body stands strong and firm. This unique structure, coupled with the building materials used by ancient Champa people, hold visitors in awe. The tower is built entirely from tightly-stacked bricks. These bricks are lighter but much more durable than ordinary bricks. They are joined by a plant-based glue so adhesive that there is not a single gap between them, keeping the thousand-year-old tower standing to this day.
Thanks to these sites, tourists have long had a saying: “In Phu Yen, there is Cu Mong Peak, Nhan Tower, and the Ba River”. It is highly recommended to visit Phu Yen on an idyllic night during the Vietnamese First Full Moon Festival in the first lunar month, or during the Via Ba, or Ba Chua Xu Festival in the third lunar month.
Finally, another must-visit locale in Phu Yen is O Loan Estuary, considered one of the three most beautiful lagoons on Vietnam’s coast, along with Tam Giang Lagoon (Hue) and Thi Nai Estuary (Binh Dinh). O Loan Estuary is the largest aquaculture zone in Phu Yen. It yields famous delicacies such as O Loan blood clams, tuna eyes, and spanner crabs. From above, the estuary looks like a swan with outspread wings, surrounded by picturesque villages and lush hills, making for a rustic and romantic landscape. The estuary is best known for its poetic and mysterious silence at nightfall. Each year on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year, local residents perform the Whale Worshipping Ritual, praying for a peaceful new year and smooth sailing at sea. They also hold boat racing festivals to revitalize the cultural beauty of the coastal area of Tuy An.