Don-ta Festival of Khmer people
Festivals and Celebrations

Oxen Racing Festival & Don-ta Ritual of the Khmer in Southern Vietnam

Every year, there are a large number of people all over the country flocking to Bay Nui (An Giang) to take part in many joyful activities to welcome Tet of Khmer people known as “Don-ta” – the most important spiritual ritual of this region – as well as eagerly wait for the start of Oxen Racing Festival in order to experience the unique traditional culture of the Khmer ethnic minority.

“Don-ta” – the most important celebration of the Khmer in Southern Vietnam

Don-ta Festival of Khmer people

Don-ta Festival of Khmer people (Source: Google)

It is highly recommended to include “Don-ta” Festival on your Vietnam cultural tour if you are searching for an in-depth understanding of Vietnam ethnic minority. “Don-ta” (ancestor worship) is one of the two biggest and most important rituals of the Khmer in Bay Nui, An Giang, along with Chol Chnam Thmay. Equal to Vu Lan Festival (dedicated to ancestor worship and filial piety) of the Kinh in spirit, this ritual plays a significant spiritual part in the Khmer community to express gratitude to the parents, grandparents, relatives, and ancestors. “Don-ta” is held from the 16th to the 30th of Lunar August with four main ceremonies taking place in pagodas and each of Khmer family’s house.

Don-ta plays an indispensable part in the spiritual life of the Khmer:

  • “Offering Vat rice” ceremony (Lễ đặt cơm vắt) is arranged by Khmer pagodas. The Khmer people gather at their pagodas in 15 days in a row to cook many types of dishes and offer them to the pagoda’s altars. “Vat Rice” (Cơm vắt) refers to individual round-shaped rice balls (rice compacted by hand into dense balls or logs), which is known as “the dish offering to the deceased”
  • “Worshipping Grandparents” ceremony (Lễ cúng ông bà) is held at the last day of the ceremony “Offering Vat Rice” and in the afternoon of the same day, after finishing the ritual in their pagodas, Khmer people clean and decorate their houses beautifully. Afterwards, they prepare a generous offering tray and invite their family and relatives over for a grand reunion. The ceremony aims to ask for the presence of the dead souls in the family to receive the offerings. After the head of the family prays three times, they bring a part of their food and drink out to a clean place, burn incense to invite the spirits leading their grandparents home to enjoy the offerings together.
  • “Festival” ceremony (Lễ hội) – the biggest feast of all three ceremonies – takes place at Khmer pagodas. On this day, each family prepares a tray of food to bring to the pagodas and invite all the villagers to come and enjoy the big feast together in a vibrant atmosphere.
  • “Farewell to the grandparents” ceremony (Lễ tiễn đưa ông bà) is organized three days later in the Khmer’s families. Khmer people plait rafts with banana trunks displayed with loads of offerings of all kinds and let them float along some canals or rivers close by in order to bid farewell to their grandparents and spirits returning to the underworld.

Oxen Racing Festival (Khmer Cow racing) of Bay Nui

Oxen-racing-festival-in-Bay-Nui

Oxen Racing Festival of Bay Nui, An Giang (Source: Google)

  • Time

This is a special activity of Khmer ethnic group during “Don-ta” in the Southern region. The images of bulls racing and dragging along a harrow have become a cultural code and a unique sport of Bay Nui. Therefore, it would be a big mistake not to participate in this fascinating activity on your Vietnam culture tour

Bull Racing Festival is held on the day of “Don-ta” (worshipping grandparents ritual) from 9th to 10th October of the Lunar Calendar.

In ancient times, during agricultural crops, Khmer ethnic minority people in Tinh Bien – Tri Ton often organize the bull-racing festival. In the harvesting season (dry season), there usually involves an ox cart racing (a pair of cattle pulls a small wheeled vehicle) on the lower fields. In the growing season (rainy season), local people often hold oxen-racing with a harrow on the top fields.

Every year in the rainy season, many Khmer farmers from their villagers came and plowed fields for the pagodas. During that occasion, they often challenged one another for a bull racing competition and nowadays this interesting activity has become a daily routine and held by the Abbot of each pagoda with rewarding gifts for the winner team. Since then, Oxen-racing of Bay Nui has gained its reputation as the most indispensable traditional festival of the Khmer every single year.

  • Arrangements

In order to prepare for the oxen-racing festival, organizers must choose a flat piece of land, which is 200 meters in length and 100 meters in width, covered with a low water level. After that, the soil is plowed and turned over several times to ensure the slipperiness of mud and encompass the zone with hedges. Moreover, at the end of the race spares a clear path to make a safety stop for the bulls. The starting and ending line are marked by two green and red flags which are separated 5 meters away from each other. Before, after and during the race, each pair of ox is supposed to start and finish at the flag with the same color

  • Rules

Before starting the race, racers choose their pair of bulls by themselves or do a lottery with others and agree on some necessary regulations. During the race, if any pair unluckily runs off the track, it is going to be eliminated from the race. In case a pair of ox behind luckily steps on the plough of the ox in front, it will be happily declared the winner. Moreover, the controllers must stand firmly during the race and keep themselves from falling out of the trough, which is considered disqualified.

  • The happiness of the festival

The-festival-attracts-thousands-of-people

The festival attracts thousands of people (Source: Google)

From early in the morning, there is always a big crowd at the bull-racing place including those coming from many kilometers away. The watching place doesn’t need to be as grand as football’s, horse-racing’s or other types of sports. All you need to do is stand higher than the ground level or climb above the fences in order to fully enjoy the race.

From start to finish, the atmosphere is nothing short of excitement and joy with sounds of yelling and hands clapping to cheer up for the excellent controllers and their strong and powerful bulls filling the air. Your Vietnam culture tour in An Giang can hardly be complete without immersing yourself entirely in this cultural activity.

According to the conception of Bay Nui ethnic communities, Bull Racing Festival presents a very crucial meaning. Not only does winning the high prize with their bulls bring pride to the owners, but it also shares the delight and pleasure with the whole winner’s village, as well as creates a motivation for gaining more achievements in other fields. It is widely believed that the winner’s bulls will be a good omen for a fruitful and prosperous year.

If you have a chance to come across the land of Khmer people in Bay Nui (An Giang) on your Vietnam culture tour, don’t hesitate to engage yourself in the joyful atmosphere of Oxen Racing Festival and the spiritual air of “Don-ta” Ritual.

Tường Vi

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