A horse race featuring ethnic Mong jockeys from the northern mountainous province of Lao Cai drew thousands of spectators to the Culture Tourism Village of Vietnamese Ethnic Groups on February 15.

The event was part of the three-day Sac Xuan Tren Moi Mien To Quoc (Spring in Every Region Nationwide) festival, which stages the festive spring rituals of various ethnic groups. The village is in Dong Mo, Son Tay Town, about 40km west of Hanoi.

Tran Huu Son, Director of the Lao Cai Culture, Sports and Tourism Department, explained that horses play an important role in Mong culture.

"In the past, to be considered a true man, a Mong guy must not only be able to play khen (traditional Mong bamboo pipe flute), but also ride a horse.

"Horse races in every village offer young men the chance to prove themselves," said Son, who is also Deputy Chairman of the Association of Vietnamese Folklorists.

The most famous large-scale race took place in Bac Ha commune and attracted not only Mong, but also Tay and Nung ethnic people living in neighbouring regions. However, it was interrupted for a long time. Since its restoration in 2007, it has drawn thousands of people every year, even though the horses are not professional racehorses.

"The Mong people regard our horses as family members. The horses help us with farming and accompany us to the market, carrying many heavy packs on their backs," said 19-year-old jockey Vang Seo Vu.

First-time spectator Le Thuy Dung said the race brought her "a lot of laughs", especially when horses couldn't run forward but turned back to the starting point or threw the jockeys down to the ground.

Middle-aged visitor Tran Quang Hung said he was impressed by the brave ethnic jockeys who rode without harnesses.

"I enjoyed the event very much and I will definitely visit Bac Ha to experience the real race," he said.

The festival kicked off in the morning of February 15 with the staging of a ritual ceremony of the Lo Lo group in Meo Vac commune in the northern mountainous province of Ha Giang.

Held from the 15th to 17th day of the third lunar month, the ritual involves praying for good weather and a bumper crop. The necessary offerings include chicken, pork, steamed sticky rice, maize wine, joss sticks, candles and joss paper, as well as a piece of red cloth and a sword, which the Lo Lo believe gets rid of evil spirits and bad luck.

To conduct the ceremony, the shaman gathers villagers and chants a prayer to the gods of the rain and wind and other genii from the four corners of the earth: "Please bring us a better life than last year. Please bless whatever we plant: rice, maize and beans. Once we plant a seed, let it become 10 seeds. Our rice plants will grow higher than the grass. Please offer us good weather and bumper crops and bring every family prosperity and happiness."

After the shaman finishes his chant, he burns the joss paper and offers the wine to the villagers. To conclude the ritual, the villagers then dance together.

Their dancing movements mimic the work of farming, such as rice terrace clearing and maize planting.

The February 15 event also presented to visitors the rice-planting rituals of the B'rau group in the Central Highland province of Kon Tum.

On February 16, there was a traditional wrestling contest and a bumper-crop praying ceremony of the San Chay group in the northern midland province of Phu Tho.

On February 17, the New Year Festival of the Cham people living in Binh Thuan Province will be staged, as will the cha chieng festival of the Thai group and the New Year gong festival of the Muong in Hoa Binh province.

The husband-catching festival of the Chu Ru group in Lam Dong and the rain-praying ceremony of the Cor people in Quang Nam will also be on display.

Coorganised by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and the Culture Tourism Village of Vietnamese Ethnic Groups, the annual Sac Xuan Tren Moi Mien To Quoc festival aims to present the rich culture of Vietnam's 54 ethnic groups to visitors and strengthen the solidarity between the groups.-VNA