Not long after people began to turn up at a festival in Hanoi last week to commemorate Saint Giong, a symbol of bravery in Vietnamese history, full-blown mayhem broke out.
Legend has it that Giong was a 3-year-old boy who transformed into a giant and helped defeat Chinese invaders in the third century.
Since he was believed to use bamboo trees in his fight, the annual Saint Giong Festival carries out a special ritual in which dozens of bamboo sticks are paraded around before being taken into a temple as offerings to the saint.
Traditionally, at the end of the ceremony, festival goers will try to bring the sticks home, believing that the sacred objects have been blessed by Saint Giong.
But this year many refused to wait.
As soon as they laid their eyes on the sticks, some jumped in and tried to snatch them. The paraders tried to stop them, using the canes they were carrying.
The daring quest for luck then turned into a messy fight. People picked up bamboo sticks and started hitting one another, causing a chaos that had never been seen before at the beloved festival.
Hanoi officials first denied there was a fight, but photos and videos from local media depicted the violence up close.
The Lunar New Yew festival, which peaked February 19 this year, has just opened a month of various spiritual celebrations across Vietnam.
The violence at last week's Saint Giong Festival has prompted officials to speak out, warning that festival organizers will be punished if they let similar fights happen.
“If chaos continues at any festival later, it can even be banned,” said Phan Dinh Tan, the spokesperson of the culture ministry.
Tan blamed local officials for poor organization that enabled the recent fighting.
He said the organizers should have taken stronger security measures to prevent visitors from engaging in extreme actions and avoid choosing paraders with questionable background.
“They have just turned a joyful cultural activity into a nightmare,” he said.
He said the incident is another dark page in Vietnam’s festival celebration.
He once joined a pilgrimage to Huong Pagoda, another famous festival site in the first lunar month, and it was very disordered.
“There was a fight and a man fell into a river and drowned. There was a stampede for holy water. And some people were pushed out of a boat when they refused to pay high prices for a boat ride.”
Tan said festivals mean crowds, and crowds often create a few scenes, but goers should be there for joy and should behave.
“Even gods would not bless people who try to win their blessings with aggression.”
Those who gained festival offerings from fighting should look back to see if their life has become any better, or they only taught their children to be violent, he said.
Tan said the ministry will be inspecting festivals and will decide punishments for any violations at the end of the season.