Huu Chap Village in Bac Ninh Province has played the traditional game bamboo keo co (tug of war) for hundreds of years, but now it is being lost amid rapid socio-economic development, said an elderly resident, Nguyen Van Hai.
The village’s tug of war differs from others’ because the two teams struggling to pull each other off their feet don’t pull on a rope, but rather two bamboo trees.
Hai, 79, said in the past the game was held on the fourth day of the first lunar month, or the fourth day of Tet (Lunar New Year).
The afternoon tug-of-war game followed morning spiritual rituals.
The village slowly lost its keo co game festival tradition, as several wars interrupted it and other religious practices fell by the wayside.
“There are few people who remember how to organise these rituals now,” Hai said.
Finding standard bamboo trees to use has also become difficult, because less and less households plant them, he said.
Sometimes villagers must travel to the northern Cao Bang and Ha Giang provinces to buy bamboo trees.
As a result, the villagers now try to play the game every two years. But now they don’t include the religious ceremonies of the old days.
Despite the difficulties, the Huu Chap keo co lures in large crowds of tourists from nearby regions and provinces, Hai said.
The Bac Ninh People’s Committee has submitted a petition to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to add the game and its ceremonies to the country’s 2014 list of national, intangible culture heritage.
Before, when the religious ceremonies were included, villagers had to start organising the festival more than a month in advance.
On the third day of Tet, the elderly held a ritual to open the village communal house’s doors, preparing it for the festival the next morning.
That next morning, a delegation of villagers marched with ancient tablets, flags and others items from the communal house to a river in the north of the village, where they worshipped and asked permission from heaven and earth deities to get clean water from the middle of the Cau River.
They would use this water for worshipping the rest of the year.
The delegation then brought water back to the communal house. They sprayed villagers with the ceremonial water to protect them, and give them comfort and good health.
Then, in the afternoon, villagers turned their attention toward the tug-of-war game.
The village head, Nguyen Van Huynh, said healthy men around 40 must buy the bamboo.
Their family should not be in mourning, and they should have both male and female children. The pullers should also be healthy, but between 30 and 37 years old.
Tran Van The, who bought the bamboo many times, said the trees should be more than 20m long, without damage from ants or worms. Most importantly, they should be planted by a family that is not mourning.
In the old days, The would be able to find a suitable tree in the village. But most bamboo trees have been lost in the wave of urbanisation, so it takes a lot more time and travel now to find them.
After choosing, The cut the tree to mark it, to remember it until the last day of the lunar year when healthy male villagers came and cut the trees down to bring them home, The said.
The men then shaved the trees’ skin, bore holes in them and linked them together with two shoulder poles, before hanging them in front of the communal house’s doors for worship until the festival opens.
The organiser divided 70 healthy men into two teams. They held on firmly to the bamboo until the organiser gave them the signal to start pulling. The team that won two out of three matches won.