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HONGNAM: Traditional Festivals

Phu Giay Festival

There is a Vietnamese saying: "We have the Father's festival in August, and the Mother's festival in March." The Mother's festival is held in Phu Giay Temple which is dedicated to a female genius, Lieu Hanh.

The Phu Giay temple is located in Kim Thai commune, Vu Ban district, Ha Nam province. From Nam Dinh town, one can reach Phu Giay by travelling by car for 15 kilometres along Highway 10. One can also reach it by train: Goi station is 14 kilometres from Nam Dinh town, and from there one should walk two kilometres more.

The Phu Giay festival is held every year from March 1 to 10 (lunar year.)

The Phu Giay temple is a large cluster of historical monuments comprising two main temples located in Van Cat and Tien Huong villages, and a network of surrounding temples (Kham Sai, Cong Dong, Thuong, Quan, Duc Vua, Cay Da, Phu To, Lang Mau etc.) The temples built several hundreds years ago were small, and the yearly festivals, lasting for several days, had only a modest number of visitors. But since the beginning of the 20th century, the temples have expanded and the ceremonies have become more elaborate. An increasing number of visitors have flocked to the festivals.

The Van Cat temple, built in 1907, is large and built in accordance with national architectural patterns. Its columns, beams, bars and rafters are decorated with sculptures representing dragons and phoenixes. In front of the temple is a pond whose banks are paved with pentagonal stones that support rows of balustrades made in stone. In the middle of the pond is a small four-roof house, open on four sides, decorated with beautiful stone emblems and surrounded by a row of stone balustrades. This temple was built in 1907 and has become the main venue of the festival.

In 1927, the temple in Tien Huong village was rebuilt and became even more attractive than the Van Cat one. It also has, opposite to its front gate, a semi-circular pond with hexagonal stones paved banks supporting stone balustrades and stone railings decorated with dragon patterns on paths leading to the inferior parts of the pond. Beyond the pond, are three four-roof buildings resting on high foundations, the beams and rafters of which are decorated with elaborate and beautiful dragon and phoenix patterns. Thanks to its landscape and its imposing and attractive structures, the Tien Huong Pagoda rapidly became the main worship centre to which flocked pilgrims and visitors.

Both temples are architecturally attractive, each in its own way, but the main assets which attract pilgrims and visitors are the latter's admiration for, and cult of Princess Lieu Hanh, commonly referred to as Princess Lieu.

According to a legend, she was initially a maid in the Palace of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of the Heavens. As she accidentally broke a beautiful glass of jade, she was exiled to the World of Human Beings. She was thus born as Le Thi Thanh, the daughter of Le Thai Cong in Van Cat village. As she grew up, she became a most beautiful girl, with noted talent in poetry and music. She later married a person named Tran Dao Lang. They had a happy married life and she was well-known for her dutifulness toward the parents-in-law. Yet, three years later, on March 3 (lunar year) she suddenly died, without falling ill, at the age of 21. Thereafter, she often re-appeared in the form of a beautiful woman visiting various temples and scenic spots, now and then in Lang Son, Hanoi or Thanh Hoa province, or making mischief for students and scholars. The people took fright and, as a result, set up a temple dedicated to her. Subsequently, she helped King Le Du Tong (1715-1729) in the war against the Champa Kingdom and the King gave her the rank of Princess Lieu Hanh. Early in the 19th century, the Nguyen Dynasty elevated her to the rank of "Mother of the Nation."

For a hundred years now, hundreds of thousands of people from various provinces have flocked to the yearly festival in Phu Giay. In the old days, the honourary chairman of the festival used to be the district officer or the governor of the province.

Young men constitute an important force serving the festival. Each village contributes 20 to 30 young men, each of them carrying a two-metre profusely decorated bamboo stick for ?stick play.' These young men with their coloured sticks stand in ranks in such a way as to forge four Chinese characters 'Mau Nghi Thien Ha,' ('A woman whose virtue makes her the mother of the nation.')

The same young men also play an important role in processions which escort 'The Mother' to pagodas. On March 5, 'The Mother' is escorted from Van Cat Temple to Dan pagoda and on March 6, from Tien Huong Temple to Goi Pagoda. Each procession involves scores of lacquered and gilded palanquins each carried by eight people. The palanquins proceed now slowly, now very rapidly (they are then called 'flying palanquins.' In the procession a group of old women walk while holding high above their heads a long piece of cloth which is called 'The Bridge' for geniuses and spirits to travel. They are followed by young men and women clad in colourful traditional clothes, and hats who, along with thousands of other participants, walk while dancing and chanting loudly, their hands holding burning incense sticks. Because of the large number of participants, each procession spreads over one or two kilometres.

March 3 is the anniversary of the death of Princess Lieu Hanh, 'The Mother.' In the old days, the anniversary was marked by a ceremony performed by the local notables and chaired by the district officer. It was a most solemn ceremony, and the participants were all clad in old traditional dresses worn by court officials. The atmosphere, the attire of the participants and their gestures and so on made many onlookers feel that a sitting of the Imperial Court was being re-enacted. The altar was full of offerings - roasted meat of buffaloes and cows, rice pies etc. Later, a second anniversary ceremony was added, performed solely by girls in their twenties.

The festival also involves many traditional games well liked by the visitors. In particular, the 'human chess' game is one of the favourite items with real girls playing the role of chess-pieces: one team comprise girls wearing green turbans, and the other team girls wearing red turbans.

The Phu Giay festival is attractive to people in many parts of the country because of the legend of Princess Lieu Hanh, the rebuilt temples with their beautiful architectural designs and also because most Vietnamese traditional games are found there.