Illustration by Trịnh Lập
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
The latest figures for Viet Nam's population stand at 96,946,894, 35.92 per cent of whom live in cities.
This means more than one in every three Vietnamese lives in a city, but many of them still have rural roots.
One of the most noted scholars on Vietnamese culture, historian Trần Quôc Vượng (1934-2005), stated that Vietnamese history is based and later flourished on the village culture. For the most part, cities have been built by enlarging scattered villages.
In today's Hà Nội, you will still find small villages with their own temples and pagodas that have been embraced by urbanisation and city planning. If you don't live in an apartment nor alongside the street, chances are that your house belongs to an older village.
In spring, village festivals bloom in the countryside, both in the Red River Delta or in northern mountains.
One of Việt Nam's most noted anthropologists, Nguyễn Văn Huy, former director of Hà Nội's Museum of Ethnology, recently told cultural enthusiasts how important villages are.
"If you want to understand Vietnamese culture, find your way to small village festivals in the countryside," he said.
"Village festivals make the soul of Vietnamese culture."
Tết (Lunar New Year) is the most important festival of the year, followed by village festivals when a community praises a village patron saint, who is usually someone who either saved the people from wars or natural disasters or taught villagers a craft to make ends meet.
During the Lê Dynasty (1428-1789), the Lê Code issued under King Lê Thánh Tông regulated village rules and rituals, making communities more tight-knit and stronger. Also starting from the Lê Dynasty, village festivals in the northern region had some similarities in how they were held.
The village Gods, or founding father of a community, are worshipped in village temples. There are many families in a village and they may compete during the long course of history, but they worship the same village God, and at the beginning of a new year, they are reminded of their common roots.
A village festival usually has two parts: rituals paying tribute to founding fathers, cleaning up the worship articles and statues and fetching new water or trees, while the second part is games and festivities for everyone to enjoy.
Today, according to Huy, village festivals have been shortened due to a lack of time, as people have to return to work in urban centres. Back when Việt Nam was still a kingdom, village festivals usually lasted between half a month to a full month, because people lived off farming and after planting rice, they had a lot of time to kill.
Now, village festivals have been shortened to last only a day or two, to fit the fast pace of modern times.
The Perfume Pagoda festival, the north's biggest festival, which draws thousands of people every year, started recently, with people leaving their homes in the cold of the night.
People go to big festivals because of their sacredness and reputation, as the line of pilgrims to the Perfume Pagoda, to Tràng An in Ninh Bình or Bái Đính Pagoda never ceases during the first lunar month.
Cultural authorities have warned of the escalation festival activities for commercial purposes, which in turn leads to false beliefs, which is even more damaging for the festivals and their meaning.
The media in recent years have fought bad practices in the name of village festivals such as fighting to get an award or spreading small bills at the foot of a tree, or on an altar, or building false temples and altars to get donations from visitors.
If you want to get the true spirit of a village festival, look for smaller villages, where the festival takes place in a low-key, more moderate manner and the rituals remain true to their origins.
Over time, Việt Nam has grown fast toward a modern society, but village life needs to be prolonged by the upcoming generations. Urbanisation is fast, but it needs to be backed by a sound and strong agricultural background.
Spring is the beginning of a year, a festival is to share your belief, hope and quietly promise your predecessors a hard-working year ahead. They need to be held in a heartfelt, solemn and respectful manner, so young people can look up to their ancestors and carry on good traditions. VNS