Live music, dancing, a bucket load of moonshine… This is the basic formula for a good festival the world over, even when that festival happens to be that of an ancient hilltribe village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Quang Nam’s Co Tu tribe are no strangers to a good festival; apparently there are 92 of them covering every event from birth through to crop management. The Co Tu are a spiritual bunch and however small the event, approval is sought from one of a select list of nature, family, animal or hunting spirits.
The biggest of them all however is July’s harvest festival, where all the Co Tu tribal villages scattered throughout the remote and mountainous Ho Chi Minh Trail converge on one village to perform divinations and ritual blood offerings to the spirit gods in return for a good harvest. It involves a prolonged period of continuous drinking and feasting in the run up with villagers going from house to house for days on end to attend each other’s celebrations. It’s a massive build up and it results in one of the best festival atmospheres we’ve been lucky enough to experience.
Villages take it in turns to host the annual celebrations as a way to create and maintain relationships within the clan groups, along with financial reasons as the host foots the bill for the event. The turn out is huge. Swathes of villagers dressed in traditional woven costume intermingle with casually attired guests sporting jeans and T-shirts accessorised with a casually thrown on crash helmet. A totem pole towers before the Guol house (a grand-scale tomb house of animal spirits that represent the wider community of Co Tu) altar.
It’s not a festival for the fainthearted. Along with spiritual dancing, chanting and gong beating, there are spears, tribal huntsmen and either a pig or if the year has bought wealth to the village, a buffalo, tied to the totem that’s not going to be around to join in the celebratory feast, if you get our drift.
The first and last to go (read on) was a chicken, which was quickly boiled up. Its foot was read to divine the success of the next rice crop and then placed on the altar with various animal bits, rice wine, cigarettes and so on as an offering to the spirit gods. The next to go was a pig, serenaded by trance-like tribal dancing, chanting and gongs before it was quickly speared, butchered and sacred parts added to the altar. The village (Bho Hoong) that held the festival we attended had had a bumper year, which meant they’d gone all-out with the ultimate sacrifice: a water buffalo. Such a sacrifice is classed as the supreme religious act and is aimed at creating and maintaining relationships between human beings and the spirits to ultimately sustain life and fertility among humans and nature.
The chanting/gong/dancing ritual preparing the buffalo for his selfless sacrifice was prolonged and built to a crescendo as four tribal headsmen skillfully bought him down so swiftly we (thankfully) missed it; just as we thought it was over out came chicken two and three. Three metres up on the top of the totem pole was a basket; what ensued was a frenzied chicken tossing competition among tribesmen until finally both chicken two and three were successfully netted and the crowds began to dissipate.
A few hours and much rice wine later, the buffalo made his final appearance in a delicious stew shared among the villagers, his head put aside for after the women had retired for the manly task of cleaning up the skull to join the other animal spirits in the Guol house.
You might be pleased to hear that these blood sacrifices are rare. Dates for the harvest festival change dependent on the moon cycle during July, and villagers are unlikely to invite a stranger to the celebration unless you happen to be there at the time.
Thanks to a government tourism project, Bho Hoong, just a few hours drive from Hoi An, will now hold a harvest festival each year; the village will now also perform a dance/gong show in costume before dinner when they have guests. The performance is a smaller scale version of the festival, without the sacrifice of livestock. You can spend the night in the village homestay (it should be $7.50 for a room — they just kicked off a few weeks ago) — make the most of the trip by going on a jungle trek to the nearby hot springs the following morning.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 12th December, 2014.