Lieu Doi – a Village with a Great Wrestling Tradition


Lieu Doi is a village in Liem Tuc Commune, Thanh Liem District, Ha Nam Province. Every year the village holds its traditional wrestling tournament on the fifth day of the first lunar month. According to a popular legend, the wrestling tournament began with a young man of extraordinary strength, whose family name was Doan. One day, a flood swept through the Nuong Cui area in the village, causing great panic among the villagers. When the young man arrived at the scene to help, he saw before him a glowing sword lying on a red piece of cloth. Realizing that this was a sacred sword, he prostrated himself and thanked the gods. Taking the sword and red cloth, which he stuck in his belt, he used the sword for martial arts that saved the villagers.

Lieu Doi is a village in Liem Tuc Commune
Lieu Doi is a village in Liem Tuc Commune

Then an army of foreigners invaded. The young man volunteered to fight the enemy. His unit also had a female soldier, whose family name was Bui. Doan and Bui fell in love and vowed to marry after the victory. Unfortunately, Doan was killed on the battlefield; his body was taken back and buried in his native village. After the enemy’s defeat, Bui came to the village to visit Doan’s grave. Grief overwhelmed her when she neared the tomb, and she died there.

The villagers were so moved by this event that they set up a temple dedicated to Doan, whom they called Thanh Ong (God), and another temple to Bui, whom they called Tien Ba (Goddess). They also held a wrestling contest every year to commemorate the couple’s death. At first, this contest was called the Thanh Tien Festival (Festival of the Two Gods), but later villagers changed the name to the Lieu Doi Wrestling Festival.

The festival begins with a procession of villagers carrying the palanquin of Thanh Ong from his temple to the wrestling area. An old man with a sword leads the procession, walking backward from the temple to the wrestling area. Once the palanquin arrives, villagers hold a ceremony in which they offer bananas. Cone shaped sticky rice cakes and tea to Thanh Ong. After the procession, villagers build a fire on the wrestling ground. Fire symbolizes the bright glow of the sacred sword found in Nuong Cui. Villagers believe a bright fire with high flames will bring good fortune in the coming year.

Next comes a ceremony enacting the legendary moment in which Doan, the young man, discovers the glowing sword and the piece of red cloth. A respected village elder plays a large drum in front of the palanquin, and then presents the sword and cloth to a wrestler from the village. The wrestler holds the sword in his hand while tucking the piece of cloth in his belt. A flag dance follows the presentation of the sword. Two to four people, each holding a square red flag, approach the palanquin and carry it to the wrestling ring amidst beating drums. They perform the flag dance.

At the end of the flag dance, a drummer beats the main ceremonial drum. Then villagers sound the drums and gongs in all the temples and pagodas in the village, and the crowd joins in with shouts and cries. This symbolizes the village atmosphere as the troops depart to the front. After these traditional ceremonies, the wrestling tournament governed by rules and forms specific to Lieu Doi Village begins with the first five rounds of wrestling.

Wrestling of Lieu Doi village
Wrestling of Lieu Doi village

According to the traditional rules, two male babies born on the last day of the previous lunar year are required to perform five rounds of wrestling in honor of Thanh Ong. Since the little wrestlers still lie in their cradles and are obviously still unable to wrestle, their fathers must wrestle on their behalf. This wrestling is theatrical; no one may knock the other down. Any infringement of this rule will result in punishment since the two babies are thought of as future wrestlers; therefore, it’s considered bad luck for the babies to lose their first match. If the fathers cannot participate, then the grandfathers wrestle; if they are unable to do so, then other older male relatives replace them. After the first five rounds are over, the real wrestling begins. Lieu Doi Village, as host, starts off with its wrestlers in order to encourage participants from other villages.

As a rule, wrestlers wear only a small loincloth. The use of unwarranted tactics to knock down opponents is forbidden. There are three kinds of prizes. A grand prize goes to the top wrestler, followed by three outstanding prizes: first, second, and third. Then comes the festival prize bestowed on all participants, whether winners or losers. This last prize is the most important since the festival’s purpose is to encourage everyone to wrestle.