Gau Tao Festival – Discover the Cultural Beauty of Sapa, Vietnam

Rachel Tran
Rachel Tran | Published: January 8, 2020

H’Mong is the largest group of ethnic minorities in the northwest of Vietnam which has a rich spiritual life. The Mong people’s traditional culture has been well preserved with many valuable characteristics. Mentioning their typical festivals, it would be a miss if not mentioning Gau Tao festival which represents their tradition clearly. It reflects not only the practices of farming but also the spirituality, beliefs, and customs. So, if you have a chance to visit Bac Ha district of Sapa, Lao Cai province in the new year, don’t forget to attend this festival. It is a nice way to get to know hidden parts of a local ethnic minority group.

I. History of Gau Tao Festival

History of Gau Tao festival of Hmong in Sapa
Photo: @jgibblez

Gau Tao means “playing ground”. According to H’Mong people’s folklore, if a married couple hadn’t had any children for many years, the husband would spend time going to some sacred hills. There, he would pray to the gods of the mountain to help them get a son and they promised to hold a small festival from 3 to 5 years, invite their relatives and acquaintances to share their happiness and thank God. Then, when his wife gets pregnant and has their desired child, his family will hold the festival as the husband promised. And this festival is called “Gau Tao” festival.

The root of this festival started from there. It was formerly associated with the custom of child-praying which was held by specific families in the H’Mong village. But, only the rich families can organize this festival because it takes a lot of money. After local authorities paid more attention to traditional and spiritual values, this festival has been expanded and held regularly, becoming a popular ritual of a large community. Along with this, its meaning has changed. Besides praying for having children, local people also pray for better crops, luck, good health, and prosperity.

II. When is Gau Tao Festival Held?

Children in Gau Tao festival
Photo: @dasie_et_dailleurs

Gau Tao festival is held from the 2nd to the 4th of January in the lunar calendar, depending on the age of the head of the family. 

III. The Role of Gau Tao Festival

As one of the oldest traditional festivals that have remained for centuries by H’Mong group, Gau Tao Festival plays an important role in the cultural life of this community group and surrounding villages. 

The H’Mong people believe if they wish to have good health and more children, they can go to a low hill called Gau Tao to pray God and their ancestors to get what they want. They also believe that the festival will represent the life of the breadwinner in the family. The lower area of Gau Tao hill is considered to have bad luck in the past while higher areas represent prosperity and good luck in the future. Besides, on this occasion, H’Mong boys and girls have a chance to show off their talents and find their partners as well.

IV. Highlights of Gau Tao Festival

1. Preparation for Gau Tao Festival

Although the Gau  Tao festival takes place in the first month of the lunar calendar, local people have to prepare everything carefully from last November to the last days of December, especially for 2 rituals: planting “nêu” tree and cutting down. “Neu” tree is also known as the New Year tree, related to bamboo often used in new year as a tool to chase all evil spirits and get good luck. It is the symbol of Gau Tao festival because it is associated with holiness. Thus, the local people always choose it very carefully. The selected “neu” tree must be well-cut, straight, and not a fallen tree and there is no pests inside.

Before cutting the tree down, they have to pray to the gods first. When cutting the tree, it mustn’t be fallen on the ground and it should face towards the east. After that, the tree is not allowed to be put on the ground. Other people are not allowed to cross it as well.

The worshiper has to dissect a chicken before praying to the gods of the mountains to ask for permission to hold the Festival before they set up the “neu” tree. The tree represents the ladder that gives their offerings to the gods in the sky. On its trunk, they hang an indigo strip, and a string of money, a bundle of corn or paddy. 

During Gau Tao festival

4.2. During Gau Tao Festival

The ceremony starts the festival with ritual offerings performed by the owner and the helpers. The host would invite the owner to drink two glasses of wine before the owner begins to sing “siet” and talk about the reason for the ceremony. After that, he will sing “say din se” (go find the tree) and cut the selected bamboo with the delegations. It takes around 1 and a half hours for this ceremony.

After the ceremony ends, the festival becomes lively with many interesting cultural activities like singing, dancing, wrestling, crossbow shooting, stick dancing, top playing… Those who participate in the games must follow all of the regulations from the organizing committee. “Con” throwing is the most expected activity in Sapa with a lot of participants. In this traditional game, players attempt to throw “con”, a ball made from colorful fabric pieces covering a handful of cotton seeds and rice, through a ring which is placed on the top of a 15-20 meter bamboo pole. The person on the other side will try their best to catch it. If you attend the Gau Tao festival, don’t forget to participate in this game. 

In the festival, the young people are free to show off their talents in dancing, singing, and martial arts performances. Those who don’t join in these activities can stand outside applaud and cheer for making the festival atmosphere more excited and bustling. Whereas, the guests and visitors are entertained by the owner with delicious foods and drinks. When the night falls, it is an ideal time for boys to tell the girls their feelings through singing and the sound of flute, or “khen”.

Coming to the festival, H’Mong boys and girls have a chance to meet, talk and find a partner. They are free from standard life rules and live freely in the bustling atmosphere of the Gau Tao festival. Couples who have the best singing and dancing performances will receive thanks from the owners and get some small presents at the end of the festival. 

4.3. After the Festival

When the festival is over, the host, on behalf of the house owner, will express gratitude to the Earth, the Heaven, and the Gods before he gets off the “neu” tree, burns worship papers and sprays wine around. Also, the piece of the indigo strip is also taken off and tied on the house door. It has the meaning of being protected by God. About the “neu tree”, it will be used to make a bamboo mat. However, only a pair of selected boy and girl or a newly-wed couple can be asked to do this to wish for good children and prevent the evils.

Time goes by, Gau Tao has become the festival of not only the H’Mong villages but also ethnic minority communities. This age-old custom has attracted more and more local and foreign visitors to the region. So what are you waiting for? Don’t miss your chance to discover the beauty of this festival.

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