|Festival of lights: Thousands of local people and tourists flock to the Nguyen Tieu Festival in the ancient town of Hoi An in central Quang Nam Province. The city lights up with lanterns, candlelit paper flowers and cultural performances in the old quarter and the Hoai River. — VNA/VNS Photo Tran Le Lam
Nguyen Tieu (the full moon day of the first lunar month of the year) Festival is celebrated all over Viet Nam, but it takes on particular significance in Hoi An. To mark the full moon, the central city hosts four major events over the course of two days. Cong Thanh reports.
Calligrapher Nguyen Minh Nhan is preparing for the Nguyen Tieu (the first full moon day of the first lunar month of the year) Festival, which falls on February 13-14 this year.
The festival comes every year, but for Nhan who was born and grew up in the ancient town of Hoi An, it is the most important spiritual event of the year.
His offerings are often vegetarian, including rice, salt, wine, aloeswood, votive ancestral tablets and paper.
The festival is not only a full moon event, but a time to worship the ancestors, the founders of the city and the souls of the dead, and to wish for a peaceful and prosperous year.
The event is seen the most favourite cross-cultural event of the local people, expats and tourists in Hoi An, with lanterns decorating all the streets and flower garlands, and now candles, being floated down in the Hoai River.
"The first lunar month starts a year of business with new hope. Spiritually, the Vietnamese people believe that they make offerings and worship their ancestors and the God of the Land for all people," said Nhan.
"All families in Hoi An prepare offerings at home, while community worship is done in communal houses. However, the festival is gradually becoming an annual rendezvous for the local people and tourists on the banks of the river where thousands of candlelit paper flowers light up the river in the Spring festival season," he explained.
|Keeping tradition: The Chinese communities in Hue, Da Nang and Quang Ngai gather at Fujian and Jiao Zchou clubs to make offerings to ancestors and celebrate the lunar New Year. Participants rush into pagodas and temples to pray for a peaceful and prosperous year.
According to Truong Hoang Vinh, from Hoi An Town's Centre for Cultural Heritage Management and Preservation, the first lunar month of the year is the most crowded festive season.
"Four major events – offerings made in the Spring festivals, lanterns, release of candles and prayers for luck at the Fujian club – are held between the 14th and 16th day of the first lunar month," Vinh said.
"Like many festivals in Hoi An, the Long Chu Festival, or Spring offering, is a religious ceremony that helps do away with evil spirits, while bringing luck and peace for the people," he explained.
He added that Long Chu, which means "royal barge", is a bamboo dragon covered with coloured paper. It is a festival that concentrates on warding off ghosts and evil from the villages.
The Long Chu, which is one-metre long, is set on a small boat or a raft along with boiled pig head, chicken, fruits, votive tablets and paper.
"The offerings will float on the river after the worship service is over. People believe that bad luck and evil will go way with offerings and their lives would go on in peace," Vinh added.
The festival is considered to be a religious firewall which keeps epidemics away from the village, as well as a religious precaution against all these ailments.
An important part of the rituals is the casting of magic spells on 'ghosts' that carry these ailments. These ghosts are then cast into the river, to be discarded later in the sea. The local people will also hold parades and processions after these rituals.
The community finally gathers to share a common meal and enjoy the procession, carrying offerings from the communal house to the sea.
The festival is often held on the 14th and 15th day of the lunar month, which this year fall on February 13 and 14.
Nguyen Viet Ly, 68, a resident living in the old quarter, said the local people also make offerings for the Cham people who were the original founders of the land.
"A feast of boiled sweet potato buds, salted fish, maize, rice, salt, and votive paper is set in trays to be displayed outdoors. The Cham people were the founders of Hoi An, while fishing and weaving were their major trades," Ly said.
"The local people often offer food that the Cham had in the earlier centuries. Offerings are made to pay respect and express gratitude to the founders of the land," he explained, adding that the offerings also reflect the local culture in the 17th century.
|Highlight of the year: Nguyen Tieu is the biggest festival of the year after Tet (lunar New Year), when people wish for a good start to the year.
Calligrapher Nhan said rice, salt and maize are then scattered on the ground because the people believe that the soul will receive food, money and clothes in the world beyond.
"We feel the dead also need things like the living do. They are wandering souls and may get hungry or run out of money. It's in the good nature of the Vietnamese people to help and share the difficulties of the other people in the community," he said.
Lanterns and candlelight
As usual, on the 14th and 15th days of a lunar month, the people in Hoi An city light up their houses, restaurants and streets with lanterns.
It has been an attraction for tourists since the city was recognised as world heritage by UNESCO in 2003.
"The full-moon night every month draws tourists to Hoi An. The Hoai River twinkles with the soft light of lanterns, while thousands of candlelit paper flowers float across the water at night. Tourists can share the traditional festival with the locals. There is no difference between them," said the city's vice-mayor Truong Van Bay.
"There's no noise of power-driven vehicles; there are only pedestrians and bicycles in the old streets and river banks. The Nguyen Tieu Festival highlights the monthly cultural performances in the tourism hub and the peaceful city," he said, adding tourists have named the full-moon night of lantern decorations as the magic night or Hoi An Lantern Festival.
The vice mayor said preserving the town's heritage, such as its history of being a former trading port and a meeting place of generations of Japanese and Chinese merchants and cargo ships from Europe, is important."
|Soft light: Lanterns are one of the most attractive features of Hoi An. The light of lanterns brightens up the UNESCO-recognised world heritage city when electric lights in houses, restaurants and streets are switched off during the Full-Moon Day every lunar month. — VNA/VNS Photo Hong Cuong
Calligrapher Nhan said Hoi An residents and visitors often release candlelit paper flowers on the Hoai River on the 14th night of the lunar month.
"Each candlelit paper flower is a message that the people want to express their thanks to the ancestors and founders of the land. It is also a prayer for the dead and peace for the living," he said.
Hoi An has harmony within communities just as it was in the past centuries. "The city is still home to 1,000 ethnic Chinese and the Japanese community along with the local people and residents from different provinces and cities in Viet Nam. A mixed community still a feature of its society as it was 400 years ago," Vinh, who manages festival activities in the city, said.
He said that on the 16th day of the first lunar month, the city's spring festive season continues when the ethnic Chinese in Hue, Da Nang and Quang Ngai gather at Fujian and Jiao Zhou clubs to make offerings to ancestors and celebrate the Lunar New Year.
"The first lunar month is the time for exciting festivities. At night, the local people and tourists walk in dazzling bright streets, rush into pagodas or temples and participate in the festival," Vinh said.
He said the festival is introduced as a cultural tradition to visitors.
Japanese Hirukawa Yuki, who opened a souvenir shop in Hoi An two years ago, said she participates in almost all festival activities.
"I share the exciting atmosphere and festivities in the ancient town. Lanterns light up every corner and I also hang up lanterns to decorate my shop," Yuki said.
"I have joined two Tet (Lunar New Year) festivals in Hoi An. The first lunar month of the year actually turned Hoi An colourful with lanterns and festivities," she said.
"I'm not alone here. I joined a group of at least 20 Japanese expats in the town for a cross-cultural meet between the Japanese community and the locals," she added.
The 31-year-old said her favourite part of the Nguyen Tieu festival is when she is with friends in the light of lanterns and amid the friendly smiles of the local people and tourists.
Nhan said he would float a candlelit paper flower on the Hoai River as he has been doing for decades.
"There's peace always in my mind whenever I float a candlelit flower on the river. It's also a message of our people living in Hoi An. We have been living in peace with the other communities since the town started off as a busy port 400 years ago," he said.
"I wish a year of prosperity for all my family members, friends and all people." — VNS