What we like about our country’s folktalesis that they are usually so simple that even a child can learn them and recite them to his friends like a professional storyteller. Yet, as the saying goes: The simpler it gets, the harder it is to comprehend. And despite whether the folktales, rumors, or legends are true or not, we have all been protecting them as great treasures in our memories that our predecessors have left us. With this belief, many festivals based on these stories have been born and Giong Festival is one of them. If you are curious, then let us take you on one of our Vietnam heritage tours to discover the story behind it.
When we were small, we used to be fascinated by how our country could be such a mysterious land with dozens of folktales, legends, and old stories told by our mothers, fathers, grandparents and even our great-grandparents. Although, each story was a long and incomprehensable one since we were still kids who only paid attention to how heroes fought the bad guys, or how the prince would rescue the princess, rather than the morals behind all of the details. But the story of Gióng is one of our very favourites that we can never forget. It was told to us so many times when we were still in kindergarten, primary school and even inb high school! So we can tell you from experience, your journey finding the root of Gióng is going to be one of the most thrilling heritage tours in Vietnam that you will ever have.
A vivid illustration of Giong’s fight (Source: Internet)
The first time that we got to “meet” this legendary hero was at primary school in our textbooks. The story is set duringthe period of the sixth Hùng Vương (King) when Old China from the North wanted to invade our country, also known as the Southern Country at the time. Emperor Hùng Vương passed down an order throughout the country to find “the one”; a person to support the military forces and be a companion by the emperor’s side to fight against the furious enemy.
There in the faraway North, at a village called Phù Đổng of Bắc Ninh Province, was a 60-year-old woman. The story doesn’t mention if she had a husband or not but she had a child who she called Gióng. However, the birth of Gióng was not at all like that of a normal child. One day when the woman went out to tend to her fields, she saw an abnormally huge footprint. After putting her foot on the strange imprint, she got pregnant! After a long time bearing her child, she gave birth to a healthy boy who she named Gióng. Strangely, even when the boy grew to the age of three, he had still never spoken a word.
The statue of Giong on Da Chong Mountain (Source: Internet)
Only when a messenger of the King went by, did Gióng speak his first words to tell his mother to invite the messenger home. The three-year-old boy told the messenger to return to the palace and tell the King to find him an iron horse and an iron sword so he can go to fight the enemy. All of a sudden , Gióng raised his arms and suddenly became a strong grown-up man who could eat thousands of rice bowls but never feel full. He changed from one suit to another but nothing ever fit him because he just kept growing!
The messenger returned to the palace and told the King everything he had witnessed. The King then brought the horse and the sword to Gióng. Afterreceiving what he needed, Gióng got on the horse and went to the field like a furious storm. Wherever he went, dead bodies of the enemy were found. The number of enemies killed by him was like blades of grass on an infinite field. He killed to an extent that his sword broke so he then used bamboo stalks to throw at the enemies like a downpour of daggers.
After killing every single enemy on the way, Gióng flew straight to Sóc Mountain, took off his armor then continued flying into the sky. These days, people who believe in Gióng say that the rivers and lakes are the footprints of his iron horse, and the forest where he burned while killing his enemies is called the Burnt Forest. After the legendary victory, people built a shrine to worship hewho saved the country all on his own. They formally call him Gióng the God as they believe he is actually a God who was sent to save the country.
Through the story, we learn the unalterable role of this great legend in the life of Vietnamese people. As a result, discovering the history of Gióng, one of the great “Four Immortals” of the country, has been one of the most essential Vietnam tours that we have ever had to memorize.
The Four Immortals (Source: Internet)
Unlike most Vietnam culture tours, Gióng Festival is of special importance to the spiritual life of Vietnamese people, especially to the people who live in Sóc Sơn. As for its significance, the scale of the festival is also on a whole different level compared to other local festivals held in the country. Gióng Festival, also known as Hội Gióng, is a special festival held annually in different regions of Hanoi to remember the achievement of the savior Gióng God, one of the Four Immortals of Vietnam. The others include Tản Viên – the mountain God, also known under the name Sơn Tinh in old folktales, Chử Đồng Tử, and Liễu Hạnh Princess.
In particular, Gióng Festival, which takes place every April 9th of the Lunar Calendar, makes a fundamental imprint in the mental well-being of Vietnamese people and has been protected and passed on from generation to generation. It is not just a regular festival like the others, where you will see different entertaining music shows and participate in some dances, but it is rather a historical illustration ona monumental scale amongst our traditional festivals. The festival will bringvivid images of Gióng’s legendary fight to life with amazingly talented actors of all ages and regions. Gióng’s fight is not just a fight - it is the victory taken by the strength of our people, and this makes the discovery of Gióng one of the most exciting Vietnam heritage tours that you could ever experience.
The establishment of the festival, however, is not completely recorded in documentaries. There are a few scholars who claim that Gióng Festival only started in the 11th century under the ruling of emperor Lý Thái Tổ. As one of the most prominent and special Vietnam heritage tours in the form of spiritual heritage, the festival is a great effortconsisting of many stages to illustrate the historical fight of Gióng.
Giong’s horse is being carried by the locals (Source: Internet)
These stages, or so-called rituals, will include rước nước (fetching water), rước kiệu thờ (carrying worshipped carriage), the red-shirt village, the black-shirt village, three successful matches, three adverse matches, and lastly, the surrender of the enemies, bringing victory to the country! Participating in the festival can be thousands of people in the area and the neighboring regions. However, only the important ones, who are given the main roles must prepare dedicatedly and thoroughly for months before the festival officially takes place.
In the festival, the actors will be divided into two teams. The team on our side includes six armed men known as “ông hiệu” who represent five generals under the command of Gióng. The last armed man called “Hiệu Cờ” is Gióng the God, who is the key factor of the fight. Besides the main army, there are also 12 supporting armies of guardians and about 120 substitutional supporting soldiers divided into 8 different armies with 15 people in each. However, to ensure the fight occurs efficiently and safely, there are also two other supporting armies of investigators and commuters including 30 people sharing only one commander.
The enemies’ side contains 28 female generals played by 12 to 13-year-old girls who are young actresses. Although they are only kids, they are all extremely talented actresses that are picked from the four villages Phù Đổng, Đổng Viên, Phù Dực, and Đổng Xuyên. Before the festival officially takes place, these young ladies have to attend every hour of practice for months. Besides the main fight, which is meticulously prepared and illustrated, there is also the typical Ải Lao Dance of Hội Xá Village as a sub-show to entertain people participating in the festival.
Hieu Co is doing The Three Matches (Source: Internet)
According to the legend, the fight of Gióng and the Ân enemies only takes place once, which means Gióng has fought with the enemies from the beginning until the whole force is defeated without stopping in the middle of the fight. However, as we have mentioned above, the festival includes three successful matches and three adverse matches, which means the fight is now divided into two different waves with an interval inbetween. After the first three successful matches, the armies withdraw to the main headquarters located at Thượng Temple - of which the name can be translated as the Upper Temple or the temple at the top. After the armies have “refueled” their energy at the base, they will keep goingto the second location where the last three adverse matches take place in Soi Bia, Whereas the first three take place at Đống Đàm.
For the first round of three successful matches at Đống Đàm, about 2 kilometers away from Thượng Temple, there is an unoccupied land where they have already placed 3 sedge mats with a sheet of white paper laid with a bowl on each. Hiệu Cờ, who represents Gióng, must go up tothe mats one by one and use his right foot to kick the bowl off the mat the paper. After that, he must kneel down on his right knee and wave the flag from right to left three times, then stab it straight into the mat. This action is then repeated at the second and third mats. After the “ritual” is done on the third mat, the first three successful matches are considered done. Another way of understanding it is each mat represents a match in the first three, so after finishing the “fights” at all three mats, it means that we have won the first wave.
The armies are going to Thuong Temple (Source: Internet)
After the first three matches are done in Đống Đàm, as we have mentioned, the “armies” will go to Thượng Temple and rest there, then continue their journey to Soi Bia to start the last three matches. At Soi Bia, the ritual is still the same but performed in the opposite way. This means that instead of the flag being waved from right to left, it will be from left to right. And so these are called the adverse matches. The ritual will be undone and our armies cannot completely win the fight if one of the two waves is not finished.
The armies have gathered at the temple (Source: Internet)
The mats used during the ritual, after the six matches are done, will be brought to the crowd where they are officially “finished” by being torn to millions of pieces by the people because all of them want a piece of the mats as they regard it as a symbol of luck and protection. However, in most Gióng Festivals held in different regions, this has been replaced by “stealing the lucky bamboo flowers”. Instead of tearing the mats, people will try their best to take “bamboo flowers” on the “tree”, which is carried along during the festival. This action of “stealing” is called “xin lộc” or “hái lộc”, which means asking for luck according to Vietnamese tradition. However, this sometimes has been turned into a bad image because people keep fighting one another in order to steal a flower. As a result, the festival becomes a mess and loses its meaning. In recent years, lots of people have also recommended removing this ritual from the festival but it seems that everything is still in consideration.
The crowd is preparing to steal the flowers (Source: Internet)
The ritual may seem simple but it somehow shows us the infinitecreativity of our people and the amazingness of how they can turn an invisible belief to something visible that we can all feel and enjoy. And through this brief explanation of the procession, we can see more clearly why the journey to discover the history of Gióng is one of the most intriguing Vietnam heritage tours that you should experience once when coming to visit the country!