Red River delta, the land of tugging games

VOV.VN - The tugging rituals and folk games were honored by UNESCO in 2015 as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, a multi-national project of Vietnam, the Republic of Korea, Cambodia, and the Philippines, the first multi-national project ever recognized by UNESCO.

In Vietnam, tugging is practiced in all regions, each differing from the others, mostly during spring festivals. To tug, players use bamboos, ropes, or a kind of extremely long and durable rattan rope called “song” in Vietnam. In some regions, they stand while tugging and in other regions, they sit on the ground. 

Tugging itself bridges cultural diversity and promotes great unity, as it cannot be practiced by two or four people but a big community, according to Do Van Tru, Chairman of the Cultural Heritage Association of Vietnam (CHAV).

“I love tugging. I was born and raised in Vinh Phuc province, just one kilometer from Hoa Loan village, where the tugging ritual and game is held every Lunar New Year," says Tru. "My primary school was in Hoa Loan village so I didn’t miss any of the festivals, even when I grew older and didn’t study in Hoa Loan any more. I’m 80 years old now but I have never forgotten the atmosphere at the place of tugging. It was lots of fun. There is a saying that ‘when the tugging ends, Tet ends’.”

How do you define tugging? A game? A sport? Actually, neither, says CHAV Chairwoman Le Thi Minh Ly. 

“Tugging is neither a game nor sport but a religious practice," Ly further elaborates. "That’s why tugging is of great significance to its communities. Tugging delivers their prayer for peace and prosperity to the heaven god, village tutelary gods, national heroes, and other supernatural powers.”

In Hoa Loan village, for example, the tugging ritual and game which involves a rattan rope, commemorates villager Le Thi Ngoc Trinh. She was one of the 20 courageous and talented female generals of the Trung Sisters, who led Vietnam in its first rebellion against foreign invaders in the first century. A large panel hangs on the communal house in Hoa Loan village today to honor her devotion.

Villager Nguyen Van Thang recalls, “During a fierce battle with the enemy, her weapon broke. As quickly as she could, she wrapped rocks in a Vietnamese-style brassiere and used it as a weapon. The enemy was so strong, her troops hesitated to fight back. Shamed by her inability to turn the situation around, she committed suicide by jumping into a lotus pond, which remains unchanged in our village. A tugging ritual and game is held from the 4th to the 10th day of the first lunar month to remember her. The morning of the first day is spent making an offering and the rest of the time is spent tugging.”

Everyone is invited to tug, regardless of their age or gender and no matter where they come from. The Duong, Dao, and Nguyen clan stand west of the communal house and everyone else stand east of the communal house. They tug for an hour or so with no winner and any rewards. The rattan rope is very special, says villager Thang.

“The rattan rope used in tugging has a honey-brown color. It’s 90 meters in length and 5 centimetres in diameter. In the old days, our ancestors used a single rope to tug but now we use three ropes together to increase the strength but the rope is broken sometimes because players tug too hard. In the middle of the three ropes is a spiky pineapple branch but everyone is so passionate about the game that they no longer care about the fact that they might be hurt by the branch thorns,” explains Thang.

Using a similar “song” rattan rope, the tugging ritual and game also occurs in Huong Canh town, Binh Xuyen district, Vinh Phuc province. The event reenacts the naval battle in 938 in which Emperor Ngo Quyen tricked the invaders into entering a field of spikes in the Bach Dang river and defeated them. The Emperor and his troops rehearsed the battle on a river flowing through Huong Canh town. A worshiping ritual opens the tugging festival on the 3rd day of the first lunar month. Four teams, each consisting of 25 players, compete for a number of rounds.

"At the place of competition, a big ironwood pillar is erected for the 90-meter rattan rope to be placed through," villager Tran Minh demonstrated the competition. "We take the rope from Ha Giang province. Each pair of players stand in a hole and tug. After 20 minutes, the rope is measured from the central point, placed inside the pillar. The team that pulls the longest section of rope towards itself is the winner and is awarded rice, pigs and cows.”

The format of tugging in Hoa Loan village and Huong Canh town is similar to that of Huu Chap ward in Hoa Long district, Bac Ninh province, where players don’t use a rattan rope but a bamboo tree.

Nguyen Van Trinh says, “We tie together two straight bamboo poles taken from neither too young nor too old bamboo trees. The total number of bamboo poles must be an odd number. We only use bamboo poles cut from trees grown in households that haven’t had a funeral in the past lunar year.” 

The tugging festival in Huu Chap ward takes place on the 4th day of the first lunar month. There are two teams, each comprising 35 players.

“Each team takes a turn winning in the first and second round. In the third round, anyone can jump into the game to support the players who stand east of the communal house. Tugging in Huu Chap commune doesn’t necessarily result in the stronger team winning. It’s a symbolic game. Those on the east side are always the winner. That means there will be a bumper winter-spring crop, which is exceptionally important to the farmers. Also, the sun rises in the east, so the east team’s victory signals happiness, good luck, prosperity, and a bright future,” he notes.   

The tugging ritual and game is held at the communal house to commemorate those who have rendered great service to the nation. The event symbolizes gratitude to the ancestors and unity in production and coping with natural disasters.

While all these communities tug while standing, a community in Thach Ban ward, Long Bien district, Hanoi, tugs while sitting. Their seated tug event is held at Tran Vu temple.

Ngo Quang Khai, chief manager of the Tran Vu temple relic, explains the event’s origin. 

“Once upon a time, our village had 12 wells. When the drought season came, all the wells were emptied except for one well in the Man Dia area. People from Man Duong and Man Cho came to Man Dia to get water. Fearing that they would take all the water away, the Man Dia residents came and started tugging to restrain the water carts. They fell on the ground but kept tugging on the carts. That’s what inspired tugging ritual and game.”

In a seated tugging competition, each team has 19 or 21 players. Each player sits in a hole, props their feet against the earth, and pulls the rope. Whatever the posture of the players or the type of rope used, tugging embodies each community’s aspiration for wealth and good weather, according to Khai.

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