Goddess on parade

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The central province of Quang Nam will hold a ceremony this week to worship Thu Bon, a goddess believed to bless fishermen and others who earn a living on the river that bears her name.

The province's largest folk festival has been held in Duy Xuyen District's Thu Bon Village for centuries, with solemn rituals and festive celebrations marking the unity of the Kinh (Viet), Cham and Co Tu ethnic people in the upper parts of the Vu Gia and Thu Bon rivers, the lifeblood of Vietnam's mid-central and central-coastal provinces.


According to the legend, Bo Bo was the daughter of a rich man in Thu Bon Village who lived hundreds of years ago. At the age of five, she exhibited an extraordinary talent for using the leaves and roots of different types of trees and plants in the region to treat diseases. She never accepted payment for her services and neither did she ever accept any of the many proposals for marriage given to her, even from wealthy men and royal families.


"¢ From Da Nang City, travel south on National Highway 1A past Hoi An. At the town of Nam Phuoc in Quang Nam's Duy Xuyen District, some 40 kilometers south of Da Nang, turn onto DT616 Road, which leads to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of My Son, the ruins of Cham towers dating as far back as the 4th century.

"¢ After about 20 kilometers on DT616, you reach the three-way Kiem Lam crossroad. Here, if you turn left, you go to My Son. You should turn right and go straight for another four kilometers until you reach Thu Bon Village.

When she passed away on the 12th day of the second month of the lunar year, she was still a young virgin. The villagers covered her body with leaves and flowers. That night, the lid of her coffin mysteriously opened and an aroma of flowers spread throughout the village. Villagers from Thu Bon have since built the Thu Bon Tomb and the Thu Bon Temple for Bo Bo, whom they now remember and worship as Goddess Thu Bon.

Elderly villagers still tell stories about Thu Bon's supernatural powers.

One popular tale says a man once visited Thu Bon Temple asking the saint to cure his wife's infertility. Elders say the goddess then entered the man's body and rushed to his house with a candle. Through the man's body, Thu Bon touched the pregnant woman's belly and she gave birth immediately.

Another tale says Thu Bon Village suffered from a bad harvest in the Year of the Dragon of 1928, and residents had resigned to hold a modest harvest festival. But as they discussed plans to cut costs on the festival, a bull appeared and laid down in front of the temple. From its horns, a string holding 3,000 coins hung and dangled in the air. The villagers knew Thu Bon had given them money to hold the festival. They took the coins and released the bull into the forest. A villager followed the bull and saw it enter My Son, a complex of religious towers built by the Cham people between the 4th and 14th century. There, the bull then turned to stone.

In another story, a mandarin in the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) questioned Thu Bon's divinity. A medium then channeled her spirit and Thu Bon told the mandarin she would prove herself by burning down Dong Ba, Hue's largest market. A few minutes later someone arrived to announce that a fire had broken out at the market. The shocked mandarin beseeched Thu Bon to put out the fire, and immediately it began to rain heavily.

Processions, parties

The Thu Bon Festival is organized on the 12th day of the second lunar month, which falls on March 27 this year.

Every year, a group of young virgin women are selected to carry the Thu Bon palanquin. In the evenings before the festival, the young women in the village make traditional cakes like banh it (sticky rice stuffed with either meat or sweet green bean paste), banh u (cone-shaped sticky rice cake) and banh chung (square-shaped sticky rice cake), and prepare betel quids as offerings to the goddess. Called trau tem canh phuong, the betel quid consist of a piece of a betel leaf, a piece of areca nut and a slaked lime. For the festival, the betel leaves are made in the shape of a phoenix.

On the 12th day, a dozen boats decorated with flowers depart from Thu Bon village at 4 a.m. The boats row against the current of the Thu Bon River to Que Son District, where the Thu Bon Temple is located. The boats stop in the middle of the river, and people fill jars with river water and bring it back to Thu Bon Village.

The boats are welcomed back at the village around 8 a.m. by hundreds of people, including a troupe of people carrying five palanquins called ngu hanh tien nuong, or "the five fairies," which represent the five basic elements metal, wood, water, fire and earth. A group of five beautiful young women are also selected to carry five trays of ngu qua (five different types of fruit) as offerings to the goddess.

The people in traditional costumes march along the bank of the river towards Thu Bon's Tomb in Thu Bon Village to perform a ceremony there. The jars of water are put on the palanquins and water will be used to wash the statute of the goddess and as an offering to the deity.

The festival also has a lighter side, including boat races on the Thu Bon River, parades, folk games, cock fighting and traditional music performances.

Among the highlights is bai choi, a game that is part card-playing, part human-chess, part song and part theater.

Hungry participants can also try specialties like mi quang (Quang Nam-style rice noodle soup), be thui (broiled veal) and different types of cakes made from rice and glutinous rice.

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