Praying for a good crop

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Despite the cold, thousands of locals and visitors joined the festival inauguration in Thai Nguyen.

The remote northern mountains, usually quiet and sleepy, come alive just after Tet, the Lunar New Year Festival, every year.

The Long Tong Festival is usually celebrated between the 4th and 10th of the first lunar month, or between January 26 and February 1 this year.

Tuyen Quang, Bac Kan, Cao Bang, Lang Son, and other provinces all celebrate the festival but the nearest place to check it out from Hanoi is in Dinh Hoa District in Thai Nguyen Province, just a three-hour drive away.

The festival, called "Lá»… há»™i xuống đồng" (Going to the Field festival) in many places, is the biggest and most important for ethnic minority groups like the Tay, Nung, Dao, and San Chi.

They all celebrate it with the same purpose in mind praying for favorable weather, good crops, and people's health and usually on the best rice fields.

At different places it falls on different days, but everywhere it is celebrated between the fourth and 10th of the first month.

The Tay and the Nung communities in Dinh Hoa District will celebrate it on the 10th, or February 1, this year.

It normally begins with a ritual prayer for good crops as villagers set up an altar and offer fruits, boiled chickens, and cakes to the God of Agriculture.

A shaman conducts rituals to direct prayers to heaven and earth, the gods of mountains and streams, and patron deities to ask for good health, peace, and prosperity.

It is followed by the most important ritual, Going to the Field. Each family brings a large tray with offerings of mon hua cakes (similar to chung cakes), boiled chicken, pork, and chicken eggs, and steamed glutinous rice dyed in five colors, which take days to make.

HOW TO GET THERE

If you want to take part in the Long Tong Festival, follow National Highway No. 3 that connects Hanoi with the provinces of Thai Nguyen and Cao Bang. Turn left at the 31st kilometer, follow the winding road through the hills covered with palm and tea trees until you reach Dinh Hoa Commune. It is 50 km northwest of Thai Nguyen Town.

Mua A Nhi of Deo De Village in Phu Binh Commune says everyone in his family will be busy preparing for the festival. "We have to clean our houses, prepare food for our guests, and also prepare a big tray of food to bring to the ritual of praying for a good crop."

A young girl named A May, agreeing with A Nhi, says that a few days before the festival the village elders will hold a meeting to discuss the organization and preparations. Young men get costumes ready while young women prepare the food.

The ritual is always performed with the chanting of the melodious Sli folk songs and drums. Immediately after that the best farmer in the region is chosen to begin ritually plowing for a new crop as everyone cheers him excitedly.

After the ceremonies it is time for folk games and other activities starting with còn throwing.

For this game, a bamboo pole some 20 meters tall is erected in the middle of a large rice field. Near its top, they attach a hoop that is 50-60-cm across and covered with color paper on both sides, one red (symbolizing the sun) and one yellow (moon).

The còn are small round balls made from pieces of cloths of various colors sewn together and stuffed with rice and cotton seeds pressed tightly. They are also decorated with cloth fringes in five bright colors that help players spot them easily when they are thrown in the sky.

Playing còn demands both fitness and skill, and is thus a game for youngsters.

The purpose of the game is to throw the còn through the hoop. Whoever succeeds gets prizes, but if nobody manages to do it, people are upset because it portends a poor harvest that year.

The festival attracts many visitors and lasts two days with various games, including wrestling, stilt-walking, cockfighting, and others.

A shaman conducts a ritual to start the Long Tong Festival in the northern province of Thai Nguyen last year

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