As spring approaches, mountain ebony, a plant that is native to the Northwest of Vietnam, is in bloom and the whole region turns white. This is when the Thai ethnic tribes hold the Hoa Ban (mountain ebony flower) festival. This cultural event has its roots in preparing for the upcoming harvest season and is an opportunity for unmarried young men and women to meet and find their significant other. It has attained the quality of a community holiday and is celebrated in three days.
Hoa Ban (Source: Internet)
The festival itinerary
On the first day of this huge social occasion, a parade takes place and is followed with a sacrifice ceremony. The march is led by authority figures in the village. The grand marshals usually dress in silk clothing and are accompanied by an orchestra with drums, gongs, flutes, trumpets and dan nhi (a bowed string instrument). They are followed by the village’s elderly dressed in red scarfs, yellow silk shirts, dark pants, and green belts. Some of them might hold bows or crossbows. A buffalo is also part of the parade as it will be the offering at the community temple. The animal is bathed before the ceremony and its horns are wrapped in colorful paper. It also has mountain ebony paper flowers on its forehead and tail. Young men are at the end of the line. They dress up in red shirts, yellow pants, and carry swords or spears.
Bamboo pole dance (Source: Internet)
The march moves through the village and head towards the community temple. When it reaches the final destination, an appointed shaman will perform a traditional ritual at the sacred altar. He usually wears a green robe and a pair of Chinese priest shoes. As the ritual comes to an end, the shaman rings a bell to notify the attendants that it’s time for the sacrifice. The buffalo is led to a yard by the temple to be butchered while young men and women do a bamboo pole dance to the upbeat music of drums and gongs.
The shaman pray for a rich harvest at the sacred alter (Source: Internet)
The second day of the festival features a shooting competition. The target can either be fixed or moving. In the former category, the competitor stands 50m away from the target. The real challenge lies in the latter category. The target is usually a grapefruit rolling down a slope. The winner is the one who gets three hits on the fruit. Winning the shooting moving target competition is a huge honor, as the man will be praised and appointed as the next commander of the village guards. The rifle used by the winner is then given to the mayor, along with a knife which handle is made out of ivory. The man crosses the two weapons on the sacred altar as a ritual to present the year’s winner to the gods.
The last day is the game day. Hundreds of people come from all over the area to participate in several competitions. Young men and women divide into groups by the activity of their choice. Nem con is a traditional game that is native to the Thai ethnic tribes. The accessories include fabric balls with a long tail to hold and a bamboo pole with a hoop on top. To play the game, each person must maintain a certain distance to the pole and throw the ball through the hoop to the other side. At night, a music contest is held. Unmarried men and women sing and play flutes into the middle of the night. They also exchange gifts such as skillfully embroidered cloth, silver bracelets, and bottles of rice wine.
Nem con - a traditional game in this festival (Source: Internet)
The festival preparation
In the morning on the first day of the event, Thai ethnic villagers rise early to prepare for the feast. Jars of can wine are taken to the living room to treat the family’s guests. Young men and women dress up and head to the hoa ban forest. They pick out the finest blossoms for their lovers and parents.
Hoa Ban festival is also the time for a singing contest that takes place on Nam Na River. Contestants sit on boats and each containing 3 to 4 men and a woman. The female holds up an umbrella and decorates her seat with ban flowers; she is also the singer. The male contestants sit at the back of the boat to row and play the flute to accompany the female. All the songs performed at the contest express people’s emotional state of longing, the sadness of separation, and the joy of meeting loved ones.
Hoa Ban Festival (Source: Internet)
It is a strong belief among Thai ethnic tribes that the New Year thunder plays a crucial role in determining the upcoming harvest season. The thunder from the outlet of Da River is believed to indicate an abundant season, while the one from the outlet of Ma River means severe drought and poor harvest. In the former situation, the festival is canceled along with all the games, competitions, and celebration. The villagers store water in advance and dig wells and trenches. Some pigs and chickens are offered to the gods to pray for rain, and the village is out of bounds for visitors.
The Hoa Ban festival is an annual event to pray for a rich season and for single adolescents to meet and find a partner. It has taken the name of mountain ebony blossom, the symbol of love among Thai ethnic tribes of Northwest Vietnam.
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