Which boat comes first in Vietnam’s 'cultural race'?

Boat racing is about more than just the race in Vietnam. Each race, and even the boats themselves, usually come with its own rich story. Vietnam-based journalist Nguyễn Lệ Diễm takes us through some of the most interesting ones.

With a coastline over 3,200km long and a rich system of rivers and lakes in the country, many Vietnamese have been attached to the water life and boats. Boats are not only a means of transportation but also a “close friend” to them, part of their daily life. Boat races have been held for hundreds of years, not only honouring this relationship and the spirit of sport but also showing our traditional culture and spiritual life.   

Lý Sơn four-sacred-animal boat racing. Photo: VH&TT Lý Sơn

Most boat races take place as an annual festival or a part of cultural festivals. Each of them comes with a tale, a history or a belief, reflecting gratitude to our ancestors, the desire to conquer nature and the pursuit of wealth and happiness.

Đà Nẵng traditional boat racing festival - Praying for good weather and fishing

Every year when the first month of the lunar calendar arrives, Hàn River in Central Đà Nẵng City put on a traditional colourful “coat” from dragon boats ready for the year’s most lively boat racing festival.

It is at the beginning of spring when everyone celebrates the new year with best wishes that the boat racing is organized, which aims to pray for good weather, safe trips, and full cast for fishermen, according to Ngô Văn Bình, a resident from Cẩm Lệ village, Cẩm Lệ District.

“The winning team will bring not only pride but also good luck and prosperity the whole year to the village that it represents,” he said.

Accordingly, strong young men aged 18 to 35 are encouraged to participate in the race to bring glory to their village. Every year, the festival attracts approximately 20 teams, not only from Đà Nẵng but also other neighbouring provinces such as Huế, Quảng Nam, and Quảng Ngãi.

Đà Nẵng traditional boat racing festival. Photo: Danang Sense Travel

Everyone is excited to take part and always anticipate its arrival. When the racing day comes, elders get up early for traditional preparations and people fill two sides of the river’s banks, finding the spot with the best view.

As soon as boats start to run forward, the river banks are full of cheering, with flags and drums, to support their team. The noise rises every time one boat pulls ahead. Finally, when the first boat arrives at the finishing line, the whole village of the champion will dance and sing to celebrate while other teams promise a win next year. Whoever wins, everyone has fun and gathers to cheer for a beautiful spring festival, showing the great solidarity spirit of the local people.

Lệ Thủy boat racing - A rain celebration

The National Day of Vietnam (September 2) is more special with people in Lệ Thủy District, Central Quảng Bình province with its largest boat racing festival, another of the country’s most well-known ones.

It takes place over Kiến Giang River where legend has it that, it once dried up in a summer drought. But when August came with a lot of rain, the river was full of water again, providing an abundant source for agriculture production. Therefore, a boat racing festival was organized to celebrate and pray for a good harvest.

The race has two categories, 24 kilometres for men and 15 for women, attracting tens of thousands of people to come and watch, creating a lively atmosphere along the banks.

Lệ Thủy boat racing festival. Photo: Nguyễn Chiến

It is also an opportunity for those who live far away from their hometown to return and enjoy their traditional festival together as well as paying tribute to former General Võ Nguyên Giáp, one of the great minds of military engineering of the 20th century. Giáp was born in the district and played a key part in Vietnam’s victories against French and American forces. On this occasion, families in the district offer flowers, fruits, cakes and food to worship their ancestors as well.

Standing spiritual boat racing of Hành Thiện Festival

This second-to-none boat race is part of a famous spiritual festival at Hành Thiện village, Xuân Hồng Commune, Xuân Trường District, Northern Nam Định City. It takes place on September 12 to 15 in the lunar calendar at Keo Pagoda where Buddha and Không Lộ Zen, a monk born in the city famous for his contribution to poetry, medicine, and bronze casting, are worshipped.

The most exciting and anticipated part of the festival is the boat race on Red River, an activity commemorating Không Lộ Zen master’s fishing work. Racers are villagers, both men and women of all ages. Each boat has 10 people and instead of sitting, as usual, all of them have to stand up during the four-hour race. No substitutions are allowed to step in, making this the most challenging race in Vietnam.

Standing boat racing at Hành Thiện Festival, Northern Nam Định City. Photo: VnExpress

The first boat to reach a bamboo tree plugged into the river with its bow is the winner. Then everyone will try to get a part of the tree, whether it’s a piece of the trunk or a small leaf, as it is believed it will bring them good luck throughout the year.

Lý Sơn four-sacred-animal boat racing

While most races use dragon boats, that of Lý Sơn island, taking place on the first month of the lunar calendar, features four sacred animals in the mythology of many Asian countries.

Boats are designed with the shapes of dragons, phoenixes, qilins (a legendary hooved creature), and tortoises. These boats are worshipped in temples and ritual ceremonies are carried out before the race.

The race takes place over four days in the sea. Eight teams participate, representing two communes of An Hải and An Vĩnh, the first communes on the island. Each team has 20-25 racers, aged from 18 to 55, who are the best fishermen of the villages.

The winning boat will bring a specific blessing to the island, including economic growth from the dragon, important social changes from the qilin, good fishing and crops from the tortoise, and great fishing and crops from the phoenix, according to Phạm Thoại Tuyền, a descendant of Phạm Hữu Nhật, a general of the Hoang Sa Flotilla

Dugout canoe racing over Pô Cô River

Another special boat used for racing is found in Dăng village, Ia O Commune, Ia Grai District, Gia Lai Central Highland province: a dugout canoe. It is a new race which has been organized twice since 2019.

Over the Pô Cô River, racers control dugout canoes which are handmade from big tree trunks by the local people living deep in the mountain and forest area, their primitive means of transportation. Particularly, during the war against the American, these boats were very useful to carry food and weapons as well as secretly send troops into the battlefield in the South. The race aims to preserve the cultural and historical value of the boat.

Dugout canoe racing over Pô Cô River. Photo: Bao Gia Lai

Due to the small size of the boat, there are only two racers in each of 12 teams, becoming the smallest scale of the kind. However, it still attracts thousands of visitors.

“Villagers are very excited when the race is organized. Participating teams enthusiastically practiced and looked forward to it,” Siu Nghiệp, Chairman of Ia O Commune People's Committee told the local media, “In the modern time, dugout canoes have been absent on Pô Cô river. The racing festival has an important meaning, contributing to the preservation of the cultural value of this special boat of the Jrai ethnic people in the area in particular and the traditional cultural identity of the nation in general.”

Banner image: Lệ Thủy boat racing festival. Photo: Nguyễn Chiến

- Asia Media Centre