Vietnam’s crisis of faith is destroying its festivals

By Vu Viet Tuan   January 24, 2019 | 11:08 pm PT
There was a time when festivals were innocent, earnest celebrations, but the destruction of pagodas and temples after independence has drained public spirituality.
Vu Viet Tuan, journalist

Journalist Vu Viet Tuan

Prof Ngo Duc Thinh, the former head of the Vietnamese Institute of Culture and a personal acquaintance, once told me about how Vietnam is facing a "crisis of faith." But it wasn’t being brought about by a lack of faith. It was because of too much of it.

This crisis is evident from how northern provinces celebrate countless festivals of all shapes and sizes at the beginning of each year. For all their extravagance and grandeur, these festivals are also lightning rods for criticism and controversies, mostly about how modern society has corrupted them and subverted their original purpose.

One good example is the New Year Blessing Festival at the Tuc Mac Temple in Nam Dinh Province. Once a solemn event to welcome the New Year and wish people luck, it is now marked by chaos and cacophony, with people jostling and shoving others to fight for, apparently, "good luck."

The festival goes all the way back to the ancient dynasties of Vietnam. Legend has it that in the 13th century, when the Tran Dynasty ruled the country, the king would have wooden objects called ‘an’, which represents a token of luck for the new year, offered to the people on the night of the 14th of the first lunar month.

This was an invocation to heaven, earth and ancestors, but also sought to remind people that the Lunar New Year celebrations were over and it was time for them to get back to work.

But nowadays things are a bit manic. And I remember every bit of it from every year.

As night falls on the 14th, thousands gather outside the Tuc Mac Temple. Their goal is to snatch pieces of paper or tree branches from within the temple, or merely be inside when the "sacred hour" arrives, to get themselves "good luck."

But the scene is surreal: the temple’s worship areas are barricaded with metal fences and squadrons of police are stationed everywhere to maintain security. It makes sense given how hordes of people, like predators hiding in the dark, lie in wait outside.

A multi-colored card system is used to make sure the right people get to go inside the temple at the right time.

How I wish these measures are enough to prevent chaos.

When the gates open, the sea of humanity surges in. When the sacred hour strikes, all one can see are arms waving frantically in the air and hear screams of discord. Cases of people passing out in the commotion are worryingly frequent.

Large crowds gather inside a temple in the northern city of Nam Dinh for an annual festival. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Large crowds gather inside a temple in Nam Dinh Province at a Lunar New Year festival. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

The festival’s notoriety often garners national headlines and the attention of historians and researchers. Many historians have said the festival is now far too detached from its original place in Vietnamese history and does not help people with things like career advancement, contrary to what many believe. But the rush has never stopped.

The Nam Dinh festival is just one of many that have turned ugly in modern times. Like in most other things that have been corrupted, money is involved.

Besides the luck part, the Nam Dinh festival is also serious business. There are years when tens of thousands of luck tokens are sold at the festival, enabling the organizers to rake in tens of billions of dong.

Seeing the money-making prowess of the Nam Dinh festival, many other regions have followed suit in recent years. Even in Hanoi, the Thang Long Imperial Citadel once considered organizing a similar festival. Luckily the plan was shot down because of a backlash from researchers.

Thinh blames this phenomenon partly on our history. After the country gained independence (from the first Indochina War in 1945), the government decided to destroy many pagodas and temples, deeming them distractions. Having lost their places of worship, many Vietnamese became "spiritually lost" during this period, he contends.

The destruction of the pagodas and temples have certainly had one lasting effect on Vietnamese society: many people now lack proper awareness of the true significance of our festivals and merely think of them as a chance to make money.

Even more dangerously, the authorities too suffer from this ignorance. Their participation in these festivals only serves to spotlight people's misguided beliefs, which could potentially spread into public consciousness.

Thinh has repeatedly urged the Ministry of Culture to devise a long-term plan to reeducate people about faith and beliefs to make up for the "time lost" spiritually in the past.

But the government cannot see the forest for the trees: Instead of trying to address the root of the problem, it only worries about whether the festivals go smoothly and without controversy.

For it, a festival is successful if no newspaper carries a negative story the next morning. And to ensure this, authorities have started to meddle with local festivals, which were traditionally run by the people themselves.

These efforts are in fact an administrative failure since they are erasing Vietnam's cultural identity, according to Nguyen Phuong Cham, the current head of the culture institute.

Though in recent times festivals have gone smoothly and peacefully, the truth remains that people are not really aware of why they are celebrated in the first place. It means chaotic scenes like at the Nam Dinh festival might eventually resurface at some point in the future.

There is only one way to fix this issue: let people celebrate festivals in whatever manner they wish without interference from authorities.

And, while it might be difficult and take long, it needs to be impressed upon people that festivals are not about money.

*Vu Viet Tuan is a journalist based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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