Nguyen Phuoc Bao Dan

In the former citadel of Hue, the arrival of spring is celebrated with exciting wrestling matches

If you travel to the former citadel of Hue during the first lunar month and visit the two waterfront villages of Sinh and Thu Le, you will surely feel the locals’ martial arts spirit at their traditional wrestling festivals.

Two older men wrestle

The Wrestling Festival in Sinh village

Nestled at the Sinh crossroads, where the Bo River and the renowned Huong River converge, Sinh village, also known as Lai An village, lies about 7 kilometers southeast of Hue’s city center.

Countless anecdotes recount how living near the historic Hoa Chau Citadel influenced people in Sinh village and neighboring areas to pursue martial arts and practice “sand wrestling” during the Tran Dynasty. Residents in this region were recruited into the local militia. When the Nguyen Lords were in power, this area was chosen as a base for naval troops thanks to its vast waterfront location and connections to major river routes of the old Southern Kingdom. As though born for it, Sinh villagers committed themselves to a life of wrestling, practicing deadly esoteric moves passed down through generations.

“Here and there, wherever you travel

Come back on the tenth for the Sinh Wrestling Festival!”

The Wrestling Festival in Thu Le villag

The village’s Wrestling Festival takes place annually on the ninth and tenth days of the Lunar New Year. Before the festival, elders and young men prepare ritualistic decorations and build a square arena that is one meter tall and seven to eight meters  wide. Made of bamboo sticks, wood, dirt, sand, and ropes, this arena is erected in the village’s communal yard.

On the evening of the ninth day of the lunar new year, Sinh villagers hold a ceremony, often at the communal house, to honor the founder of wrestling in the village. Most notably, a tray of areca and liquor offerings will later be handed to the wrestling champion as part of the prestigious Can award. At dawn the next day, village elders pray to the tutelary deity and forebearer of farming for favorable winds and rains, national peace and prosperity, and bountiful crops.

Two men compete

Lễ cáo yết kết thúc bằng việc Hội đồng làng, Hội đồng tộ

The tutelary ritual ends with the village council and family heads solemnly handing a drumstick wrapped in a piece of red silk to a facilitator, who will play and control the drum’s rhythm throughout all of the wrestling matches. As the drum first sounds to indicate the tournament’s start, a flare is lit in the center of the arena.

c trưởng trang trọng trao dải lụa điều cùng dùi trống của làng cho vị chấp lệnh – người cầm trịch các trận đấu vật trong suốt thời gian lễ hội. Hồi trống khai cuộc vang lên cũng chính là lúc ngọn đèn thăng thiên đặt giữa sới vật được đốt lên.

“Three sets of drum beats, thundering sounds

Drumstick in hand out walks the facilitator

Matches flow on, there go the grapplers

Come and join our people at the Wrestling Festival”

Aside from youngsters from the village, the festival also draws wrestlers from nearby towns and hamlets, such as Mau Tai, Duong No, Vinh Lai, Quy Lai, Thanh Phuoc, and even the further coastal or mountainous regions of Hue like Thuan An, Hai Duong, A Luoi, and many more.

Once they enter the ring, the two contestants can be told apart by their red or blue waistbands. They bow toward the communal house, then to the audience, and proceed to shake hands before leaping into the fight when the referee gives a signaling drum beat. The accompanying drum beats can sound heavy or light and accelerate or slow down depending on how the fight is proceeding.

Two women compet

While the wrestlers may perform artistic and eye-catching maneuvers, some common moves are forbidden in the Sinh arena. Competitors are constantly reminded to avoid these moves so as to promote good sportsmanship and morality. Forbidden moves that could cause fatal injuries to other competitors include head-butting, headlocks, choke-holds, strikes to the chest, and so on. Competitors must also avoid losing their cool and throwing blind punches.

According to the current rules, a competitor who beats three adversaries in a row will enter the final round. The victor of this final match will be declared champion of the year, receiving the used piece of red silk, the tray of areca and liquor, and some prize money. These prizes have more sentimental than materialistic value, and are a highly esteemed and well-deserved reward for an arduous but triumphant journey.

The Wrestling Festival in Thu Le village

Similar to Sinh village, Thu Le village holds its annual wrestling matches in the Ancient Capital on the fifth and sixth days of the Lunar New Year. This is the most important annual festival for this purely agricultural village, located  on the coast of Tam Giang Lagoon, 15 kilometers from Hue city. As told by the village elders, living close to the palace of the old Nguyen Lords inspired young men to take up wrestling. In this way, they trained their bodies and minds to protect the village. Even as time passed and the state of affairs changed, Thu Le villagers still maintained their wrestling traditions and promoted the spirit of martial arts in their community.

The Wrestling Festival in Sinh village

Unlike the arena in Sinh village, Thu Le’s wrestling ring is round, 0.5 meters high, and seven to eight meters in diameter. After village elders finish the tutelary ritual at the communal house, the drumstick is solemnly brought out and handed to the facilitator who oversees the fights. Two senior wrestlers then compete in the first round as a good-luck ritual for the village.

With a single drum beat from the facilitator and the referee’s signal, each pair of wrestlers clashes, showing off their proudest moves. The tournament’s format is similar to that of Sinh village, with the ultimate victor receiving the tray of offerings and prize money presented by the council of elders.

Aside from expressing wishes for peace, good weather, and rich crops, local festivals, including the traditional wrestling tournaments hosted in the ancient citadel, are bustling social events. Visitors to these wrestling matches will discover a festive atmosphere, as many generations come together to pass on our heritage and cultural traditions.