​Mekong Delta bull racers' secrets revealed

By Ngoc Tai   July 18, 2022 | 04:00 am PT
​Mekong Delta bull racers' secrets revealed
A month before the competition Nguyen Van Liet supplements his bulls' diet with beer, eggs, congee, honey, and vitamins to improve their physical condition.

Early one morning in July, Liet, the owner of a pair of bulls that have won the competition three times, went to a meadow and selected some old grass to cut to feed them.

The old farmer in An Phu Commune in An Giang Province's Tinh Bien District used a specialized mower and took only 15 minutes to fill his cart with grass.

Holding a bunch of grass for the two large bulls, he says their diet has to be well balanced. He explains he chose old grass because young grass causes the bulls to put on weight and slows them down.

As part of the training, they are made to pull carts with moderate intensity.

Liet with one of the bulls that helped him win three trophies. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Tai

Liet with one of the bulls that helped him win three trophies. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Tai

In addition to the grass, about a month before the competition the bulls are also given eggs, congee, honey, beer, and vitamin pills to improve their endurance. The bulls are usually fed in the afternoon to prepare them for training the next day.

Racing bull owners in An Phu Commune often train their animals together and learn from each other.

The training is done at 1:00 pm since that is the competition time and bulls need to get used to the midday heat.

A special diet is maintained for one week after the competition to enable the animals to regain their strength.

Before starting to raise bulls himself nine years ago, Liet was a keen follower of races, and used to keep track of everything from small ones held in pagodas to provincial-level competitions.

He became angry over time since his hometown never won anything. A friend even mockingly told him once, "If An Phu Commune wins the trophy, I will carry you home from the racetrack."

Liet discussed buying bulls with his wife, and paid a neighbor VND16 million to buy a calf from him. When taking the animal home, he said loudly, "See you three years from now when I win the trophy."

In the beginning, learning from some experienced people, he raised the animal himself. But his age made it difficult and he hired Sau Sang, 52, an experienced breeder and racer.

Sang says there are few people who teach bull racing, and to be successful one needs to be observant, tenacious and determined to win. The racers need do exercises regularly and play sports to keep fit, he says.

"It is fun, but it is very tough because we get sunburned and muddy all day."

According to experienced racers, controlling the bulls is not easy, not to mention having to stand on a harrow 30 cm wide when racing at high speed.

Sang shares his secret: "The bulls know who is tough and who is not. If we are gentle with them, they will not obey us."

Sau Sang in the 2019 Chua Ro bull racing competition. Photo by Henry Ta

Sau Sang in the 2019 Chua Ro bull racing competition. Photo by Henry Ta

Besides training hard, it is also necessary to have a strategy when racing. Before the race starts the contestants check out their opponents, and choose their strategy based on this. Usually 64 teams start, which means a team must win five rounds to enter the finals.

Sang says: "When an opponent is weak, I let the bulls run at less than top speed to conserve strength for the next round. And when I meet a strong opponent, we ride hard."

On the track, he also takes advantage of sharp turns to flummox his opponents.

"Some tricks are needed to win," the three-time champion says.

During the 2019 competition one of Liet’s bulls seemed to have a pain in one of its legs and was favoring the injured leg, virtually standing on three. He gave it some pain reliever and, fortunately, the drug worked. By the time they strode out into the field, it began to run normally, and he went on to win the trophy.

Bull racing could be highly dangerous. If the racers are not in complete control or collide with other contestants, they face the risk of falling off the harrow.

Then too they need some skill to avoid injuring themselves or their opponents.

Liet and Sang have participated in the competition four times, winning thrice and finishing runner-up the other time.

Sang kept the prize money while Liet got a TV set and two motorbikes.

Mat, Liet's wife, says: "He uses both the motorbikes and does not want to sell them. After winning three trophies, he has not quit as promised." She is referring to a promise he made in 2013 before buying his first calf to quit after winning once.

After a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19, Sang, Liet and nearly 100 racers are looking forward to the 2022 competition.

The Seven Mountains (Bay Nui) Bull Racing competition is held on the occasion of the Khmer's Sene Dolta (worship of grandparents) Festival between the eighth and ninth lunar months.

It is also the time when people in the area prepare for a new rice crop.

The Bay Nui race has become an annual festival in An Giang Province, attracting tens of thousands of visitors.

In 2016 it was recognized by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism as a national intangible cultural heritage.

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