As London gets itself ready for the 2012 Olympics this summer, in the northern province of Lao Cai, Vietnam, the locals have their own version of the Games. In the small village of Ta Phin, about 30 minutes from the market town of Sapa, villagers take part in a variety of sports, challenges and events. Day to day it is a small hillside village, humming with the bustle of trade between the local tribes and traders from the bigger towns. But in late January, people from the surrounding hills and tribes all come together to celebrate the end of the Tet festival. Over 150 people came to watch and compete in the various games undertaken in the rice fields surrounding the village. In this region, the two main ethnic tribes are the Black Hmong, and the Red Dao. Each with their distinctive, traditional clothes, they add a flare of colour to the games as the hills and valley are shrouded in fog.
The Tet, or Lunar New Year, is the most important festival of the Vietnamese year, and usually starts in late January, depending on the Lunar calendar. During this time, many people who have moved away to the big cities travel long distances to come back to the hillside villages, and the communities swell again as everyone returns home for the festive period to eat, drink and be merry. As families sit together and share meals and stories from the past year, even the deceased ancestors are welcomed back to join the family in the festive fun.
The atmosphere is playful, everyone watching the games and the whole community seems to be in attendance. From snotty nosed and sticky fingered babies, to village elders, all have turned out to see the fun. I met a group of Red Dao women who were five generations of one family, all cheering on their men who took part in the sports. Goat chasing proved very popular, and a cheer went up from the whole crowd as a young boy shimmed up a bamboo pole to reach a bag of sweets at the top. Bamboo arrow archery, tug of war and ‘push of war’, bamboo balance, target throwing and many more games are organised on small patches of muddy ground. Children in bare feet or sandals run amongst the adults watching the games, and even some Vietnamese ‘tourists’ from Hanoi try not to get their high heels stuck in the mud.
Some games are for selected athletes, and some a free-for-all as the crowds participate in the fun. Throwing beanbags at a flag, dancing and singing, and even the stilt race all take place in the rice fields surrounding the village, and the crowds are maintained by one local policeman with his truncheon.
There is a simplicity to these games which is a lovely thing to see. It’s about being together, having fun and joining in the celebrations. As a Red Dao lady sings in the main arena, boys try their hand at the bamboo balancing pole with slippery, muddy feet, and the goat chasing pen is alive with laughter and excitement. People are enjoying good, clean (but muddy) fun, from simple games and activities - many of which help practice important hunting and survival techniques. There is a calm order to the proceedings, no one seems to be in charge, but everyone knows what’s going on when and where and crowds move from one area to another to watch a new game. Spectators cheer on the challengers, little food stalls sell hot potatoes and drinks, and it all seems to flow smoothly.
After a few hours, the final of the bamboo stilt race, marks the end of the festivities. People slowly disperse back to their homes and surrounding villages.
“This year was a lot of fun” says one passer by, “Maybe next year you will play too?” I laugh at the prospect of a westerner trying to catch a goat in the muddy pen. Well I guess it’d be entertaining for the locals at least.
All words and photography by Filip Gierlinski © Filskifoto