Phao Dat, clay firecracker hurling, is popular in northern Vietnam. It involves throwing clay firecrackers on the ground to create noise. A clay firecracker festival is held in many northern localities every year between the Lunar New Year and April when the locals are not busy with the farm work. The event in Hai Duong province is the most famous. 

It’s hard to say when clay firecracker hurling first appeared in Vietnam, but legend has it that the game began during the construction of the Red River dikes.

The game invites good harvests and to wards off natural disasters. It is believed that the louder the noise of firecrackers, the more bountiful the crops will be in the coming year.

Pham Van Phuc of Quyet Thang commune in Ninh Giang district said, “Every year, a clay firecracker festival is held between January and the end of March involving all communes and districts.

“There is a competition almost every day. If it is on a small scale, the competition is among hamlets, communes, or districts. The competition brings us joy, happiness, good luck, and the hope of a new favorable crop,” Thang added.

During the summer or when they had free time after school, rural children used to knead clay into firecrackers for playful fights. Before throwing the firecrackers, the children would sing a folk song that goes “the big bang of firecrackers stirs the entire village.”  

The children’s folk game eventually became a game for adults popular at village festivals. According to people in Minh Duc commune, clay firecrackers began in the time of the Trung sisters from 12 to 43 AD when female general Le Chan asked her soldiers to make clay firecrackers to create loud explosions to threaten foreign invaders. It became a game to play during festivals.

Nguyen Van Chin of Ninh Hoa commune recalls, “I began to play with clay firecrackers when I was 15 years old. The men selected to join a team should be strong enough to lift the mud bangers. The competition is fun, but as a contestant, naturally I want to win the first prize.”

Choosing clay which is unmixed with impurities is the key to making firecrackers. After being taken from the river bottom, the clay is sliced and kneaded in accordance with the secret method of each team.

After completing the firecrackers, players practice their throwing skill. A good firecracker is one with a good shape that makes a loud bang when it is thrown against the ground.

40-year-old Nguyen Xuan Truong, a member of the clay firecracker team of Quang Khai commune, emphasised that “The most difficult thing is throwing the firecrackers. To create a loud bang, a player must throw skillfully. The clay used to make firecrackers can be reused again and again for years. After each competition, you should pack the clay in a plastic bag and keep it somewhere cool.”

Clay firecracker competitions are fun and players don’t insist on winning. At commune or village competitions, the reward for the winning team is very simple – a souvenir flag and a few dollars. But the festival nonetheless attracts many participants.

Do Manh Thang of Ninh Hoa commune, said, “Every year, we organize a commune-level clay firecracker competition that attracts many people, including elderly people, women, and girls.”

In addition to district and regional competitions, Hai Duong holds a provincial clay firecracker competition as part of the Con Son Kiep Bac spring festival as a way to promote folk culture.

UNESCO has added the sitting tug-of-war games and rituals at Tran Vu temple on the outskirts of Hanoi to its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritages. The folk game takes place every year to show people’s respect for the deities and express their wish for a peaceful future.

Sitting tug-of-war is played on a clay court. Two teams sit on either end of a rope and try to tug it from the other team. The rope is often passed through a wood pillar planted on the ground between the two teams.

According to legend, a long time ago Ngoc Tri village suffered a severe drought. 11 out of 12 wells in the village ran dry. Only one well in Dia hamlet had water. Men from neighboring Duong and Cho hamlet went to the Dia well to fetch water, but were blocked by the men of Dia hamlet. Both sides pulled on their water buckets and the ropes used to carry the buckets. To avoid spilling the water, they sat on the ground as they tugged.

After the drought, the villagers commemorated that episode by having sitting tug-of-war competitions at the village festival. Players must belong to a family that has lived in Ngoc Tri village for 5 generations. After a ritual at Tran Vu temple, teams from Duong, Dia, and Cho hamlet join the competition.

Ngo Quang Khai, Head of the Management Board of Tran Vu Temple, said, “Each year, the organizers decide the number of players on each team, maybe 15, 17, 19 or 24 people. This year we had 19 players. All are men between 18 and 35 years old who are strong and have good standing in the community.”

The players sit alternately with one leg outstretched and one leg bent and hold the rope firmly under their armpits.

Pham Duy Dong, a member of the Duong hamlet team, elaborated that, “We use the strength of our back and arms to tug the rope. We stand firmly on the ground to increase the leverage.”

Referee Nguyen Ngoc Mai explained that “In a standing tug-of-war game, the stronger team will immediately defeat the weaker team. But in a sitting tug-of-war, the weaker team has a chance if they know how to grip the rope and use the pillar. This is a team game which depends on combined strength. In the boisterous atmosphere, the players must pay attention to a flag affixed to the rope, which marks the rope’s center point.”

The crowd often cheers for the Duong team because Duong hamlet is the main growing area of Ngoc Tri village. They believe that if the Duong team wins, the whole village will enjoy good health and a bumper crop.