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At a Thousand-Year-Old Flute Kite Festival in Northern Vietnam, Melodies and Prayers Cross the Sky

Passed down by village forefathers since the Dinh Dynasty, Ba Duong Noi Village’s kite festival has become a source of pride for the local community. With three bamboo flutes attached to each kite, it’s not just a show of color, but rather a symphony that fills the sky.

That is, so long as the weather works out. Before this year’s festival, many worried it would rain, but come event day the sky was screaming blue. It was beautiful and clear, so much so that another question began to form on everyone’s lips: is there enough wind?

The ceremony at the Red River Delta Temple.

Still, that was something to worry about when we moved to the fields. Proceedings began with a ceremony in the Red River Delta Temple. The skill of artisanal kite-making has been practiced here for more than a millennium, so it made sense to honor such history through traditional ritual.

The temple courtyard was packed with enthusiasts surrounding and admiring rows of crescent moon-shaped kites; some paper-brown, others luridly colorful. On either side, a row of sage old men in áo dài formed judging panels, their eyes focused on the quality on display. Even behind the crowd, locals peeked over the building’s red-brick walls just to get a look.

Sau, a member of the Dong Mai Flute Kite Club.

Sau, a soldier and member of the Dong Mai Flute Kite Club, has been making kites for over ten years. “I love the sound of the flutes. It gets to your soul,” he says. “My friends and I fly kites at night because we’re busy at work during the day. If I can’t sleep at night I’ll just fly the kite and listen to the flute.”

He has no less than five apps on his phone for predicting the wind, but stresses what you really need is a quality kite. “The most important thing that makes a good kite is the frame,” he says, pointing at a particularly ornate kite in the courtyard. “It normally takes a day to make a simple kite, which costs about VND100,000.”

For the frame itself, old bamboo is selected as it’s already more resistant, having survived through monsoon rain and intense heat. It’s dried in the sun before being soaked in lime juice for several days to protect against insects. Traditionally, the kite would be covered by handmade  paper. Nowadays, that proves too complicated, and more readily available paper and fabric are used.

A large collection of bamboo flutes.

After blasting the national anthem from loudspeakers, event organizer Nguyen Huu Khiem spoke at length about the history of the festival. He says the villagers believe the kite is a symbol of yin and yang, connecting heaven and earth. They are also a means for local people to send their prayers for prosperity and bountiful crops into the sky; the higher the flight, the better the harvest.

For 55-year-old Nguyen Manh Vuong, head of the Hong Ha Flute Kite Club since 1989 and a judge at the ceremony, strong memories are associated with kite-flying in his younger years. “I flew kites with my parents when I was little,” he says. “But when I was around 20, North Vietnam was bombed, so we weren’t allowed to fly kites.”

Nguyen Manh Vuong, one of the judges at the festival.

“Before there was no rice field, the whole space was used to grow potatoes,” he continues. “I really enjoyed running across the field and flying kites. I was quite sad when we weren't allowed to fly kites during the war.”

Now he’s part of the festival and judges the entrants. “The kites must be over 1.2 meters wide and have at least three flutes,” he says. “The kite must fly high and stable. The one flying the highest wins.”

Eventually, the wise-looking men in áo dài beat the temple drums and, following their signal, everyone moved hurriedly out of the courtyard, their kites twisting like sails as they were carried. We marched through alleyways to farmers’ fields and were met by the sweet smell of rice paddies and quiet expectation.

It was so hot some used their kites to create shade.

Long lines of kite-flyers formed beside the paddies, while a crowd hunched in the shade to watch. Photographers strolled out into the fields to gain the best possible vantage point, their lenses trained on the crowd. And yet, much like earlier that day, the air was ominously still.

They said the wind would pick up later on and, for a few hours, the crowd remained. Young kids rushed up and down the fields carrying string but, with barely a breeze, flights were few and far between.

A handful of kites did find their way high into the sky, though, and when they did, the opening above the fields resonated with their gong-like song. I couldn’t help but imagine how hypnotizing it must be on a day when the sky is thick with kites, their unique melodies forming a surreal harmony.

A lonely kite reaching into the sky.

Around 4pm it was clear the wind would never blow, and kite flyers began to trickle back to food stalls near the temple. Still, all was not lost. The organizers gave biscuits to everyone involved and electrical fans as prizes for those who flew their kites the highest. Perhaps when they got home they turned the fans on and finally got some serious flying in.

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