Thuy Do
Deputy-Head, Policy Studies and Cultural Development Division, Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Arts Studies

Diversity in Heritage Expressions

Vietnam has various forms of tug-of-war (kéo co). The characteristics of each form are defined by the ethnic group practicing as well as the location in which the games are performed. While practiced throughout the country, tugging rituals and games are concentrated mostly in the northern midlands, the Red River Delta, and the north central region, the ancient land of the Viet and the cradle of the native wet rice culture and Red River civilization. In addition, the games are played widely by ethnic minorities, such as the Tay, Thai, Giay, La Ha, and H’Mong, in the northern mountains.

The various forms of the tug-of-war as well as the materials used to make the tugging rope or tugging implements reflect the ecological, historical, and cultural context of each community. For example, tug-of-war among the Viet community is influenced by the patriarchal society of the feudal period, so according to custom, the teams are officially made up of only men. On the other hand, the tug-of-war games of the Tay and Giay communities (nhanh vai and so vai, respectively) allow the teams to be a mix of genders.

Symbolic and Ritual Meanings of the Game

While the tug-of-war is now popularly known as a folk game or sport activity, it originates from agricultural rituals. In practicing the game, people pray for favorable weather, bumper crops, prosperity, and happiness. The game is held at the beginning of the Lunar New Year within villages, which are the main cells of a traditional agricultural society. The components of the ritual and the game are intertwined. Essentially, tug-of-war is often considered part of a sacred rite, symbolizing the strength of natural forces, such as the sun and rains. For example, in the tugging festival of Huu Chap Village, in Hoa Long Commune of Bac Ninh City, the team from the east customarily wins the game. It is believed that a win from the team from the east (the direction of the sunrise) will bring favorable weather and, therefore, a good harvest.

Similarly, the Cu Linh Festival, which is held on the third day of the third lunar month at Tran Vu Shrine (Thach Ban Ward, Long Bien District, Hanoi), has a distinct agricultural link. The festival’s unique kéo co ngoi (tug-of-war while sitting) symbolizes a snake creeping from a higher to a lower place and practiced as a ritual of praying for floodwater recession and bumper crops. According to local beliefs, if the team from the lowland, which borders the Nghia Tru River, beats the team from the highland, the local residents will have good fortune in the year.

For the Tay in Trung Do Village (Bao Nhai Commune, Bac Ha District, Lao Cai Province), the tugging rope symbolizes a dragon that brings good luck and supports villagers to have good health, favorable weather, and bumper crops. The women’s team is always allowed to win the game on even-numbered years, with the belief that cultivation will match the reproductive ability of women and produce a strong crop.

The symbolic meanings and values of tug-of-war as a collective cultural activity and a ritual are closely related to and reflect the historical contexts of the land and people of Vietnam.

Game in Contemporary Life

Kéo co is one of a few widely popularized folk games that can ‘live’ in contemporary life. It is appealing to people of all ages and strata because it is easy to play, creates a boisterous atmosphere, shows collective strength, and honors unity and community spirit. Kéo co is known as a community and healthy folk game, and although it has a competing factor, winning or losing is not as important as unity, joy, and community harmony.

The tug-of-war has cultural similarities to games of other East and South-East Asian countries. However, the contexts in which it developed in Vietnam have contributed its own distinct flavor to the cultural landscape of the region. With its popularity in practice and profound significance, kéo co reflects the long-standing agricultural cultural identity of Vietnam. It is a precious cultural practice being studied and preserved by the Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Arts Studies.