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The Mud-Tastic Fun of An Giang's Cattle Race Festival

Every year when the 8th lunar month comes around, people from different walks of life gather in the land of Seven Mountains (Bay Nui) to immerse themselves in the jubilant atmosphere of the bare, muddy racetracks and cheer for their favorite racing bovines.

Editor's note: This article was written before the current outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic in Vietnam. Due to social distancing measures, this year's race was canceled.

Since its origins, the Mekong Delta's An Giang Province has been the home to many different ethnic groups thanks to its alluvium-rich soil that is perfect for rice paddies. Accounting for 4% of the province’s population, the Khmer are the region’s largest ethnic minority and mostly populate Tri Ton and Tinh Bien, two districts adjacent to the Bay Nui region.

Here, Khmer residents still maintain many of their time-honored traditions, most notably customs during the Sene Dolta Festival, which takes place annually between the 8th and 9th months of the lunar calendar. The occasion can be considered the Khmer equivalent of Tết, as it's a time for people to express their gratitude and homage to their grandparents, ancestors and the deceased.

On this holiday, Khmer people, following Buddhist traditions, often bring ceremonial offerings to monks to pray for the spiritual liberation of the departing souls. Legend has it that during ancient Dolta seasons, farmers also often brought their bulls to plow the fields of Buddhist temples as a way to perform good deeds.

After finishing their work, farmers would pair up their bovines to compete with one another and see whose cattle was stronger, more agile and more resilient. Having witnessed the scene, the monks would reward the creatures with beautiful nose ropes or vibrant-colored rattles. Over the years, the cattle races have slowly become a beloved tradition in An Giang during this special occasion.

In modern times, the races are held annually in Tri Ton, attracting thousands of eager spectators to watch and cheer. The racecourse is also now built on a much larger scale, with the contestants training vigorously and following strict diets to build up their stamina for the best performance.

In the modern competition format, pairs of bulls race against each other in "playoffs." The first pair to reach the finish line wins and advances to the next round towards the championship. The bull racers stand on makeshift harrows to ride the competing cattle.

In order to win, riders not only need to have good physical strength but also skillful control of their "steering harrows." Should any bovine make a mishap and step on an opponent's harrow, or launch out of the racing course, the team will be immediately disqualified.

According to Khmer beliefs, a pair of winning cattle is seen as a good omen; thus victorious animals will not be slaughtered or sold off. Rather, these "champions" will be kept by villagers as prideful assets of the hamlet and carefully taken care of to compete in the next race, a gesture that represents the Khmer people's hope for a prosperous and bountiful year. 

Darkroom is a Saigoneer series documenting the beauty and stories of Vietnam and beyond via photographs. If you have a compelling story you wish to share, send us an email via [email protected].

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