There is a saying in Vietnam: “Tháng giêng là tháng ăn chơi”, which basically means, “The first lunar month is the month to play and enjoy the festive time”. Along with Perfume Pagoda Festival and Yen Tu Pagoda Festival, Lim Festival is one of the most famous spring festivals in Vietnam.
Quan Ho is a type of antiphonal singing between men and women which originated in Bac Ninh thousands of years ago, dating back to the 18th century. It was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009 and is what makes up the crux of Lim Festival. The traditional art form comprises 200 different melodies sung in 49 Quan Ho villages, capturing the listeners’ hearts with sweet melodies and heartfelt lyrics. Quan Ho symbolizes love, faith, and a desire to live a life full of love. Some of the most popular melodies include betel offering and ferry hailing.
Visitors from across the country flock to Bac Ninh to celebrate Lim Festival
From the 12th to the 14th of the first lunar month, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Lim Hill, where Lim Pagoda (Hong Van Tu or Red Cloud Pagoda) is situated to celebrate Lim Festival. When visiting Lim Hill, not only do festivalgoers get the chance to pray for health and peace for the new year, but they also enjoy the enchanting Quan Ho melodies sung by Lien Anh (brothers) and Lien Chi (sisters). Men wear long dresses and hold umbrellas while women wear four-panel dresses with colorful belts and flat palm hats (Non Quai Thao).
A Singing Contest
When speaking of Quan Ho, people hold all aspects in high regards, including the rules, artistes, philosophy, the spirit to meet and make friends, and the fact that it is a traditional art form of a cultural region. From everyday manners to festival etiquette, “Quan Ho” people always manage to remain elegant and composed. No matter how close their relationships are, they maintain platonic friendships for the rest of their lives.
Embark on a Vietnam culture tour to visit Lim Festival and you’ll be welcomed by sweet and soulful duet singing performances between duos (male duet singers and female duet singers) or “bon” (males and females). One of the well-loved activities is the weaving competition of Noi Due girls, where they weave and sing at the same time. All the fine traditions and customs are preserved and resurrected in the festival by Quan Ho people: danh du (swinging), choi ga (cock fighting), choi chim (bird fighting), wrestling, playing human chess, etc.
Sing at the host’s house
The host needs to take extra care when welcoming guests to the house, from entertaining them to taking care of their whereabouts and preparing the venue for singing performances. Guests and visitors flock to Lim Pagoda since the Quan Ho Singing Festival is generally associated with the Lim Pagoda Festival. Both the host singers (Quan Ho Chu) and guest singers (Quan Ho Khach) dress up nicely in traditional costumes.
Lien Anh Lien Chi in traditional costumes
Upon arrival, the host offers betel leaves, areca nuts, and tea while singing the “Betel Offering” melody to the guests. The guests graciously accept the offer, thank the host for the warm hospitality and the singing contest begins right after. Each team consists of two singers and responds to each other by changing the melodies or the lyrics.
Quan Ho is sung in a-cappella style, which means there is no accompanying musical instrument. The singing contest runs until noon when the lunch is ready. It’s well known that the Quan Ho feast is hearty and the atmosphere is moderate, elegant, and intimate. When night falls, the “real” contest begins where certain rules and styles of singing are to be followed. The singing contest only ends when the sun comes up.
Sing on the Lim Hill
The gently sloped Lim Hill is spacious and covered with lush green grass. Since it’s springtime, the climate is moderate, the sun is mild, and the fresh mountain air is warm and inviting. Thus, Quan Ho singing contests are generally held outdoors. Even if it’s not sunny, men always hold umbrellas and women always wear flat palm hats when singing. Wearing umbrellas and hats is not only a matter of etiquette, but also makes the voices sound warmer and fuller.
The rules are…there are no rules. Participants freestyle the whole time without plans, limits, or appointed singing partners. Everything is entirely spontaneous. The atmosphere is always changing and uplifting. Young men and women start singing whenever and wherever they see one another.
Compared to singing at their houses which is more technical, singing on the hill is more laid back and ebullient. It is the festive and dynamic spirit that makes Lim Festival attract tens of thousands of people from across the country.
Sing on a boat
Singing Quan Ho Love Duets on a Boat
Right next to the hill lie several long ponds and lakes of clear water, making it ideal for performing love duet singing on boats. There is a quartet of singers, 2 males and 2 females on each boat. As soon as the singer steps on the boat, there is no giving up. Singing on a boat under spring skies is a stimulating and delicate way to indulge in the beautiful weather.
No specific rule is applied for this type of singing as well. Many Quan Ho songs were composed to appreciate this type of singing, such as: Thuyen Thung La Thuyen Thung Oi, Ngoi Tua Man Thuyen, etc.
Vegetarian food contest held at the pagoda
Although the singing contest takes place on Lim Hill, around the pagoda, on boats, and inside the hosts’ houses, multiple rituals are held in the communal house. Particularly, a vegetarian food contest is held in dedication to “fasting”. According to Mythology, the ritual is to worship Ba Mu, the one who bought half of Lim Hill and built Lim Pagoda.
Each tray of vegetarian food consists of sticky rice, sesame candies, soft green-lentil cake, truncated-cone-shaped cake, jams, and grated salads with all flavors from sour to sweet and nutty and greasy. The tray is then completed with a bunch of sugarcane, an orange, and sweet limewater dumplings. Each team prepares 6 trays for the contest. When the ritual is over, men ages 15 and up, including adult men enjoy the offerings together.