Vietnam Heritage, March 2011 — In springtime, the Dao Tuy?n, a branch of the Dao ethnic minority in Lào Cai Province, in the mountainous northwest, usually have a singing festival. Groups of boys and girls, through singing and traditional games, look for their lovers.
At the end of the year, the Dao Tuy?n boys meet and choose villages that have girls they are interested in to invite them for a singing festival. Then they find a person in their village who knows a lot of songs and can sing well (usually called the singing master) to train them and write invitations to the girls. If the girls accept the invitations, the boys then start to practise. They choose those with beautiful voices to be the main singers and those with good responding skills to react to the girls’ singing. The boys walk to the forest and cut bamboo to make stilts. The stilts are always made in sets of two pairs because the boys also make them for the girls, with whom they will take part in a stilt-walking competition. On the girls’ side, an important job is to make còn balls. The còn balls are the size of a fist, made from cloth and stuffed with corn or rice. The players throw the balls through a ring tied high on a pole. The most beautiful còn balls are thrown first and their makers are respected and paid attention to.
The festival is opened with a worshiping ceremony at each of the villages’ shrines. A sorcerer burns incense, lights candles and gives offerings to the gods, asking them to chase away ghosts and protect the villagers. He or she also helps the festival run smoothly and helps the boys and girls with their relationships. The boys go to the girls’ village and sing at the village gate. The singing master of the girls’ village asks who is there to disturb the peace of the village, doing nothing and playing around. Then the boys sing back that it is not because they are lazy, but because the flowers are blossoming and spring is inviting.
After that, the singing master tells the girls to greet the boys and invite them into the village. The words of the singing master are repeated from one house to another and the girls step out of their houses to go to the village gate. However, they do not hurry and stand away from the boys. The boys continue to sing.
After the opening songs, the village patriarch or matriarch, the head of the village’s greatest clan and the singing master go out to greet the boys, and show their approval for the girls to join the festival. The girls and boys sing, throw còn balls, and afterwards go to the main playground, where there is space for games involving bamboo swings and other activities. Couples soon form and separate from the crowd. In the swing games the ones who do well are rewarded with wine. Those who like each other can form couples to play a swing game.
People bring food to the festival, and when meal time comes they sing to invite each other to eat. Afternoon is when games like stilt-walking and ‘find your lover’ take place. To play the find your-lover-game, everyone makes a circle with a couple surrounded inside. One is blindfolded and must find the other.
After dinner, the boys and girls make a fire. The singing during the night becomes slower and deeper. The boys sing melodic lyrics like: ‘I swear not to go anywhere far from the forest, hope mum and dad will accept us …’ and it lasts until dawn.
The patriarch or matriarch invites the boys and girls to go to the forest to pick vegetables, gather wood and go hunting to wish for luck. Then they go back to the house of the patriarch or matriarch and eat breakfast cooked with the vegetables they have found, in hope of prosperity and fullness for the village.
As the festival draws to an end, boys and girls give each other necklaces or bracelets and sing goodbye and words about meeting again the following year.
* The author worked for the Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism of Lao Cai Province from 2002 to 2009, specializing in ethnic-minority culture.n