Tug-of-War in Asia
Cooperative projects for safeguarding common living heritage

Living Heritage Series

Tugging Rituals and Games

A Common Element, Diverse Approaches

Chapter 10

Traditional Tug-of-War Festival in Vietnam:
Case of the Huong Canh Tug-of-War Festival

Thi Thu Ha Nguyen, PhD
Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Arts Studies (VICAS)

Nowadays, tug-of-war has become a popular traditional game and loved by many communities in Vietnam. Both children and adults love playing this game since it doesn’t require many particular skills or training and doesn’t limit the number of participants. Tug-of-war today is played in different cultural and social events in youth camps, student gatherings, and traditional festivals as well as during Tet Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam. In a traditional tug-of-war game, players are divided into two teams and stand opposite along a string (normally a bamboo cord or a jute rope). A red piece of cloth marks the middle of the cord, which is positioned parallel to a line drawn on the ground that separates the two teams. After a signal (either a whistle or a hand signal) from the referee, players tug the cord as hard as possible to pull the red cloth towards their side. For every match, both teams receive great cheer from surrounding spectators.
Tug-of-war variants are named slightly different in Vietnamese such as keo co (tug-of-war with the cord is made of jute or other materials), keo song (tug-of-war with the cord is made of rattan), day gay (long stick pushing). These games have been all practiced differently in format and rules according to different characteristics of each community, their beliefs, cultural values, or events in which tug- of-war game is a part. However, these tug-of-war variants do share some following common features:

  • Practice space: Tug-of-war games take place mostly in communities with rice-farming traditions with, such as rural communities in the southern part of Vietnam. Tug-of-war is widely practiced in different ethnic communities including Thai, Tay, Nung, Giay, and Kinh people in the provinces of Lao Cai, Bac Ninh, Ha Tay, Vinh Phuc, Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An. Tug-of-war plays a role as a traditional game in traditional festivals and is more popular in northern villages. According to a survey conducted in 2004 by the Vietnam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies, there are 630 traditional festivals among which sixteen have a tug-of-war game included. In Ho Chi Minh City (2008-2010 statistics), there are 815 existing traditional festivals, yet only six have a tug- of-war.
  • Practice period: mostly during the lunar new year, at the start of a crop season or after a harvest. Many tug-of-war practices take place during a traditional spring festival marking the beginning of a new crop season and a new lunar year.
  • Meaning: Tracing the tug-of-war’s origin or its historical background and its close attachment with traditional festivals of many rural communities in Vietnam today leads to different interpretations and explanations about this traditional collective cultural practice. Tug-of-war is presented in diversified formats as well as in its socio-cultural function according to different communities who practice it, yet the similarity in practice space and period and long existence in farming communities in Vietnam show a common meaning in traditional tug-of-war practices in Vietnam. Almost all tug-of-war practices are attached to rice-farming communities, playing an important role in their intangible cultural value system and reflecting those communities’ perspectives of the relationship between humans and nature; their belief that nature has a strong power that can determine human existence and earn mother nature’s protection—humans have to live in harmony with mother nature.