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Cablegate: Resurgence of Traditional Belief Celebrations

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 HANOI 000327

SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/BCLTV AND DRL/IRF

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM SOCI PGOV VM RELFREE
SUBJECT: RESURGENCE OF TRADITIONAL BELIEF CELEBRATIONS

1. (U) Summary. The expansion of religious freedoms and
resurgent interest in local culture over the past two
decades has also sparked new pride in local folk belief and
led to the resurgence of large, well-organized festivals
dedicated to local gods and heroes. Poloffs attended one
major festival on the first full moon of the lunar new year
and found a very happy crowd of worshippers and well-wishers
who boasted of the revival of this event over the past five
years. While not emblematic of worship service of a major
world religion, such folk beliefs remain important to many
Vietnamese both culturally and in a devotional sense. They
clearly value these opportunities overtly to pay their
religious (some might say superstitious) tributes and make
their personal wishes at shrines of an astonishing variety
throughout the country. End Summary.

Wide variety of belief systems
------------------------------

2. (U) Article 70 of the SRV Constitution of 1992 specifies
the right to "freedom of belief and of religion" (as well as
the right to follow any religion "or none.") For many
Vietnamese, personal belief structure is a complicated
tapestry, often weaving together strains of ancestor
worship, superstitions about local deities from Vietnamese
mythology, tributes to particularly outstanding kings,
military leaders, and other "national heroes," and/or
adherence (to varying degrees of formality) to a major world
religion (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam) or one of Vietnam's
esoteric religions (Cao Dai or Hoa Hao). Virtually all
homes, and many shops, have small shrines to ancestors, to
which small tributes of fruits and incense are regularly
made. Rural villages often have not only temples or
churches but also local "shrines" dedicated to one of these
indigenous figures or myths.

3. (U) Recent years have witnessed a notable revival in
public displays of devotion and ritual. Some are well-known
internationally and attract hundreds of thousands of
participants, such as the Catholic La Vang pilgrimage and
the Hoa Hao Founders' Day. However, many of the indigenous
Vietnamese folk religious festivals are equally or even more
popular among Vietnamese believers. Their variety is
impressive, as are the organizational skills of local
residents who stage increasingly elaborate ceremonies. A
few, non-representative examples include:
-- the Keo Pagoda Festival in Thai Binh province, which
twice a year pays honor to Khong Lo, a Buddhist monk who
once cured King Ly Thanh Tong of a disease;
-- the Phu Ung Festival in Hung Yen province, in tribute to
General Pham Ngu Lao of the Tran Dynasty, who led battles
against Chinese invaders;
-- the Phu Giay Festival in Nam Ha province, dedicated to
Princess Lieu Hanh, also known as the "Mother of the
Nation";
-- the Hung Temple festival in Phu Tho, in honor of the
Hung kings;
-- the Dau Pagoda Festival in Bac Ninh, worshipping Mrs.
Man Muong, who helped fight a local drought;
-- the Giong Festival in Hanoi's outskirts, commemorating
the "Giong Genius," a legendary hero who defeated invaders;
-- the Chem Temple Festival in Hanoi, commemorating a
Vietnamese war hero from the first millennium;
-- the Tu Lien Village Festival in Hanoi, dedicated to
local patron saints of Bao Trung, Minh Khiet, Uy Hanh, and
Mai Hoa;
-- the Ok Om Bok Festival, a moon-worshipping ceremony of
the Khmer people in the Mekong Delta;
-- the Phuong Do Temple festival in Thai Nguyen, in honor
of a local patron saint, Duong Tri Minh;
-- the Ha Thach Village Festival in Phu Tho, worshipping
local patron saints including Hung King, mountain god Tan
Vien, and female generals Trung Trac and Mai Hoa;
-- the Vong La Village festival in Hanoi, venerating patron
saints Cung Muc, Linh Khon, and Minh Chieu, devotees to Hung
King the 18th;
-- the Co Le Pagoda Festival in Nam Dinh, honoring Buddhism
and local monk Khong Minh Khong; and,
-- the Trang Temple festival, celebrating Trang Trinh Nguyen
Binh Khiem, who won a royal literature and philosophy
competition in 1535.

4. (U) Common to these festivals are parades featuring
figurines mounted on traditional palanquins, presentation of
tributes (food, liquor, incense) at the shrine, ritual
kowtowing by local venerables (usually older residents of
the near-by village), and processions of village
representatives, often dressed in traditional garb -- ao dai
for the ladies, and ao the and round hats for the gentlemen.
The events themselves are almost always organized based on
the lunar calendar, not the international calendar. After
the rituals, there are often traditional sporting events
(usually a type of wrestling and/or tugs-of-war) and
cultural performances, such as water puppets or boat races.

February 5, a big day
---------------------

5. (U) The first full moon of the lunar new year (Year of
the Monkey) took place on February 4/5 and was the occasion
of religious festivals and celebrations throughout the
country. According to media, more than one million
participants attended a festival at the Buddhist Ba Temple
in Binh Duong, reportedly the largest number ever attended.
Buddhist temples in and around Hanoi were packed with
worshippers offering fruit and incense and making wishes. A
small traditional shrine devoted to mothers in Ha Tay's Son
Tay district attracted a parade of 70-something female
villagers giving thanks to their past fertility.

6. (U) Poloffs also attended a major festival in Ha Tay at
the Va Shrine (Den Va) in Ba Vi District. This shrine is
devoted to the "Tan Vien Genius," a mythological mountain
spirit who once defeated the "Flood" or "Water" Genius in
this flood-prone plain in the Red River Delta. Processions,
each representing a different near-by village, of ao dai-
and ao the-clad elders escorted offerings aboard elaborate
palanquins upon the shoulders of young men (sporting ancient-
style military tunics) en route to the 500-year old shrine.
At the shrine, villagers made individual and joint
presentations and kowtows. According to local security
officials, the crowd on February 5 was about 10,000 people;
over the previous night when the moon was at its fullest, as
many as 30,000 villagers came to make their individual
offerings, police estimated. The black-toothed (from
decades of betel nut chewing or actual dyes in the interest
of "fashion") grandmothers dressed in their finest ao dais
and jewelry positively giggled with delight as they
approached the shrine or sat waiting their turn to make
offerings in the shrine itself.

7. (U) Virtually everyone in the crowds and in the
processions proudly claimed that this year's celebration was
the largest ever, with plans for a still more elaborate
festival in 2005 (a more auspicious year in a three year
cycle). One member of the organizing committee noted that
the festival really only resumed in 1999 after a forty-year
gap, although the festival itself dated back "hundreds of
years." Other villagers indicated that the festival had
never entirely died out, but had been modest and without the
inter-village processions now a major hallmark of the event.

8. (U) In addition to the worship rituals, there were
speeches by local officials, obligatory thanks to the
leadership of the Communist Party as well as the local and
provincial People's Committees, and special appreciation for
the support (moral rather than financial, apparently) of the
provincial Departure of Culture. The Provincial Vice
Chairman sat in the front row of dignitaries but -- somewhat
unusually for Vietnam -- did not speak.

9. (U) Surrounding the shrine itself was a makeshift
county fair atmosphere, with stalls selling incense,
lacquered flowers, and other worship items as well as local
delicacies, toys, and handicrafts. There were even games
(darts, shotguns, ring-tossing) and one lone but popular
merry-go-round. Crowds of school-aged youth roamed these
areas, while the elder generation mostly stayed on the
grounds of the shrine itself, with different mat-covered
sites designated for various villages (each featuring
different kinds of local liquor for the consumption of the
males).

10. (U) Comment: The importance of folk beliefs and
rituals in Vietnam is the often under-rated side of
religious life and practice important to many Vietnamese.
The resurgence of these traditional practices is clearly
welcomed by the Vietnamese for both religious and cultural
reasons. The GVN and Communist Party -- to their credit --
have been sensitive enough to permit, and perhaps even to
encourage such manifestations of local belief, without
trying to usurp the indigenous organizational underpinnings
that make each of these events so unique.
BURGHARDT

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