LookAtVietnam – Steeped in superstition, an ancient form of singing performed just once every 36 years, is now being brought into the mainstream.
Women in Hanoi’s Liep Tuyet Commune practice singing ancient Hat Do songs.
For decades, the people of Hanoi’s Liep Tuyet Commune have not dared sing their traditional Hat Do songs in public for fear of being punished by a deity.
The unique form of singing was strictly reserved for a special festival that came just once every 36 years and as such, the art was on the brink of extinction.
But one local woman, however, saw more value in preserving a time honored piece of culture than in clinging to antiquated beliefs, and has fought to save Hat Do.
The ancient form of ritual singing is thought to have come from the land of Phong Chau (today known as Hanoi’s Quoc Oai District) where Vietnam’s first monarchs, the legendary Hung Kings, built their capital.
Legend has it that in the Hung Kings’ time, the deity Tan Vien, one of the Four Immortals in Vietnamese pagan belief, came to the land of Liep Ha – today’s Liep Tuyet Commune.
He taught the local people how to grow rice and corn in the alluvial fields, and to build dikes and irrigation systems.
When it came time to leave, Tan Vien promised he would return one day soon. That year, the villagers harvested a bumper crop, but there was no sign of the god’s return.
It was 36 years before Tan Vien came back. Upon his arrival, he saw that the area had become prosperous and bountiful. The residents organized a festival to welcome him back and during this time he taught the people how to sing and dance.
The villagers then built the Khanh Xuan Temple, also known as Xuan Ca Cung (Temple for Spring Songs) to honor the god.
Since that time, the local people have been holding the Hat Do festival once every 36 years from the 10th to the 15th day of the lunar calendar’s first month (around late January to February). The festivals are a celebration of springtime and a desire for future bumper crops.
Hat Do consists of two types: linh ca (sacred songs) and tinh ca (love songs). Linh ca are performed in temples and pagodas during the festival’s ceremonies to pray for happiness and prosperity.
Tinh ca, on the other hand, are more lighthearted songs expressing humor, love, and people’s connection with nature.
Among the most popular songs are Hai Hoa (Picking flowers), Cheo thuyen (Rowing boat), Truc Mai (A loving couple), Len chua (Going to pagoda), and Muoi dot tu tung (Mosquitoes are biting everywhere).
To prepare for a festival’s singing session, villages often organize teams of young people aged 13-20 to practice. Each team has a male leader called ong cai and 24 young girls called ban nang. The performers must be attractive, possess good singing voices and cannot be associated with anything “unlucky.”
Renewed and revitalized
Because the ancient songs were believed to be created by the god Tan Vien, traditional laws stated that they could only be performed during a Hat Do festival.
Due to the 36-year intervals and several wars, the last Hat Do festival was organized in 1926, said Do Huu Tuong, head of Liep Tuyet’s Culture and Information Board.
Tuong said the time restrictions had made the beautiful tunes difficult to popularize and it was considered a dying art form. During an entire lifetime, a person may only attend such a festival twice.
Local artist Nguyen Thi Lan, however, saw great potential in the songs and resolved to rescue the art.
Lan, a former chairwoman of the communal Woman’s Union, decided to defy the ancient laws and in 1989 began collecting and teaching Hat Do tunes with the support of local authorities. “Initially, it was very difficult,” said Lan. “We had to change the way people thought.”
To achieve her aims, Lan and local culture officials visited each elder who still remembered Hat Do. Many refused to cooperate in the beginning, afraid of being punished by Tan Vien.
Lan, however, patiently and firmly persuaded the elders until they finally gave in and agreed to teach her their songs.
Kieu Thi Hanh, 89, said she was among the singers in the last Hat Do festival. “I can never forget the images that are still clear in my mind,” she said.
She now sometimes walks to the temple to watch the youth practice singing. “I feel very happy to see the young generation restore the ancient art,” she said.
Another milestone came in 1990 when the commune established a Hat Do club. Initially, there were just 25 members but today the group boasts 50 official participants. The club has even won several prizes and medals in provincial and national folk music festivals.
“I feel happy that many children are now able to sing the [ancient] songs smoothly. This has proved the vitality of the art,” Lan said.