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Millions flock to Hung Kings Festival

Update: April, 12/2011 - 18:17

Meeting on the mount: Large numbers of visitors take the winding path up the Nghia Linh Mountain to pay tribute to the founding fathers of the nation. — VNA/VNS Photo Ly Kha
Reliving history: Young men and women beat a bronze drum, a signature relic of the Hung King era. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh
Gift to the ancestors: Women offer sticky rice cakes and square cakes resembling heaven and earth. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh
Ancestor worship: Singers perform during rituals in Viet Tri City, Phu Tho Province. — VNA/VNS Photo Phuong Hoa
Traditional race: An annual rowing competition featuring three teams from Viet Tri Town draws thousands of onlookers. The competition mimicks those depicted on bronze drums dating from the Hung King era. — VNA/VNSPhoto Quoc Khanh
A celebration linked to the beginning of Vietnamese civilisation has captured the hearts and minds of the whole population since it was declared a national holiday. It is due to reach its climax on Tuesday. Ha Nguyen reports

Overseas Vietnamese Tran Thi Dy and her friends from the US are among 6 million locals and international pilgrims who descended on the midland province of Phu Tho to take part in the Hung Kings Temple festival that will end on Tuesday, the main day of the festival.

"I had visited the Hung Temple 30 years ago before I left the country and now I have returned to where the Vietnamese civilisation is believed to have begun over 2,300 years ago," says Dy, 70. "We are all excited.

"We were especially moved when we saw the Hung Temple itself, an oasis of serenity and sanctity surrounded by more than 1,000ha of emerald green rice fields and a host of other decorated temples and stone paths leading through an untouched forest."

Dy says that having lived far from home for more than three decades, she was happy to hear again the legend that tells of Queen Au Co, wife of King Lac Long Quan, giving birth to 100 eggs that hatched 100 children. Later, the couple divided their children into two groups: Au Co took 50 children to live on the mountains and Lac Long Quan led 49 children down to the coast.

They left their first born to become the first king of the country now called Viet Nam. His title was Hung Vuong, and his court was located at Van Thanh (now Viet Tri Town). Hung Vuong the First, named the kingdom Van Lang.

Tour guide Bui Thi Lang tells Dy's group the designation of the Hung Temple festival as a national holiday marks the origins of the Vietnamese as a civilisation that dates back 2,300 years.

Lang leads the group to a museum that houses relics dug up from the area and from neighbouring provinces. They depict daily life during the Hung Kings era, showing that people were cultivating rice even as other nations remained hunter-gatherers.

They also show that much of the country has remained relatively untouched over the centuries. The picture of a bamboo house on stilts with a straw roof could have been taken just yesterday, Lang says.

The development of the Hung Temple Heritage site is a relatively new initiative, since the Government officially recognised the Hung Kings festival as a national holiday seven years ago, Phu Tho Provincial People's Committee deputy chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Hai says.

Previously, national holidays were only celebrated on September 2 and April 30, commemorating, respectively, the birth of the country and the liberation of South Viet Nam in 1975, Hai says.

Most of the temples at the site are relatively new constructions in the nation's history.

The oldest is Trung Temple, built in the 13th century on the site where it is said the 18th Hung King abdicated in favour of Tiet Lieu. Second oldest is Ha Temple, the lower temple, which dates back to the 15th century.

The temple dedicated to Queen Au Co was finished in 2005 after four years of construction. There is a temple for Au Co in neighbouring Yen Bai Province that is five or six centuries old, however the central part that she plays in the legend of the birth of the Vietnamese civilisation prompted authorities to give visitors and worshippers a chance to pay tribute to their ancestors at the site of the Hung Temple itself.

Phu Tho Province has just finished upgrading lakes surrounding Lac Long Quan Temple which are dedicated to the father of the Vietnamese nation. The lakes symbolise his move to the coast with half of the 100 children.

Hung Kings Temple site director Nguyen Tien Khoi says the festival this year is focusing on ceremonial activities and restoring special traditional festivals of the area.

"We are preparing two ceremonies to celebrate the founding parents," Khoi says. "They will be held in the Hung Temple with royal rites including special offerings on Tuesday, the 10th day of the third lunar month, the main day of the festival."

A seminar on Hung Kings' beliefs was also planned with the participation of Vietnamese and foreign scientists. It will aime at completing a submission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) proposing the recognition of the festival as a world intangible cultural heritage.

As the nation grows increasingly prosperous, more people are paying attention to ancestral worship as they have more to be thankful for, Khoi says.

"The Hung Temple Site is among the most sacred places in the country and will see an increasing number of visitors."

Since the festival was declared a national holiday, the Government has given more than VND300 billion ($18.7 million) and public donations have totalled VND10 billion ($625,000) to upgrade the temples and for reforestation. Now Khoi is looking for outside investment for a theme village and entertainment area.

The five-day festival was officially opened by a large-scale cultural and artistic performance on Friday night at the Viet Tri Stadium in Viet Tri Town, 12km from the Hung Temple, Hai said.

Events followed, such as a palanquin procession by surrounding villages to the Hung Temple. Villagers played bronze drums and performed the lion dance, and xoan (ancestor worship singing) performers also took part.

Xoan singer Nguyen Thi Lich, of An Thai Hamlet of Phuong Lau Village in Viet Tri Town, says traditionally a group of host village singers at a temple gate would be paired with singers from other villages.

Host singers played the role of brothers and sisters while guest singers were juniors. According to ancient rules when two people were paired as brother and sister they would not be able to marry one another.

Today, xoan is typically only performed on the fifth day of the first lunar month.

Lich says the sacred art appeared during the reign of Hung Kings. It is organised also to pray for suitable weather and good harvests, praise the natural landscapes and depict the work, agriculture and daily activities in rural areas.

Xoan has certain local cultural and spiritual customs. It is performed in the spring as an activity to welcome a new year.

Phu Tho Province has applied to UNESCO to have xoan singing recognised as "intangible cultural heritage of humanity".

Other events will include cooking contests, making banh day (glutinous round cake) and banh chung, a Vietnamese cake made of sticky rice, green bean and pork, usually made during the Lunar New Year.

Banh chung was wrapped in green leaves and tied in red bamboo string to be offered to Hung Kings and to commemorate the efforts of Lang Lieu, the youngest son of the 18th Hung King, who was the original creator of the traditional delicacy.

There is also a rice-cooking race, bronze drumming, human chess, a rice-cake braying contest, a boat race, wrestling matches and water puppetry.

Phu Tho provincial People's Committee Chairman Hoang Dan Mac says local residents are honoured to represent the nation to care for and preserve the ancestors' temples.

"Local people and authorities have invested a great deal of time and effort into the protection and restoration of these historical relics," Mac says.

The 18 Hung Kings ruled the country from 2879 to 258BC. Records show their reign was an impressive and outstanding start in establishing Viet Nam as a sovereign nation, he says.

The generations during the reign of 18 Hung Kings are credited with forging national characteristics such as the sense of community, mutual affection, patriotism and unwillingness to yield to oppression. From this original settlement, the Hong (Red) River civilisation and the pre-Dong Son cultures grew.

This celebrated date, the 10th day of the third lunar month, is dedicated to commemorating their ancestors, the founder of the Vietnamese nation, the First Hung King.

"It is time for all Vietnamese generations to show profound gratitude towards the ancestors who built and defended our nation and to promote the saying, ‘Remember the water source when you drink it'," Mac says.

Dy says her group will stay at the site until Tuesday to attend the main ceremony to celebrate the Vietnamese identity.

The ceremony, solemn and sacred, will be held at the Hung Thuong (Upper) Temple on Nghia Linh Mountain, which was used for worshipping gods during the Hung dynasty.

The ceremony will begin at Viet Tri's Phu Tho Conference Centre, then move to the Hung Kings Temple's festival centre and then to the upper temple. The participants will lay wreaths of flowers in front of the carved stele that marks the place where President Ho Chi Minh said "the Hung Kings founded the nation, we should get together to protect our land" while talking to pioneering Vietnamese military troops. — VNS

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