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Praying for Good Weather, Bac Giang-Style

My friends said that they were going to a festival which happens every four years, and that it would be great for photographs. I knew nothing more.

Our destination turned out to be Van Village in Bac Giang Province, only about two hours from Hanoi. As soon as I got there, I was astonished by the number of people and the general excitement. The festival was held at Chua Van Temple in order to pray for good weather and a bountiful harvest. Soon enough, I found out that the excitement was justified by the spectacle.

The ceremony began with some young men entering the mud field with ceremonial gowns, which were then removed by the priests. Here was my first stroke of luck. I had been hanging around a flagpole to get the best view, and as the de-gowning happened, I managed rather unskillfully to shimmy up the pole and get a shot of the whole scene with one hand while my other hand held on for dear life.

Then the main event started, which could be described as a game of rugby, if rugby was played on mud with a 20-kilogram ball made of ironwood. The game is called vật cầu nước in Vietnamese. There were two teams, eight to a side, and each tried to wrestle the ball into the other’s goal. Every score was a symbol of heaven and earth in harmony, granting abundance to the rice fields.

Earlier, the priests reminded the players that they should try to give the crowd a good show, instead of focusing on winning. But of course, young men being young men, you could still see how seriously they took it.

As the game went on, I moved around to get shots of the players' faces. I was struggling because I couldn’t see very much at all. Then, someone tapped me on the shoulder and presented me with a chair. I couldn’t believe it! The kindness couldn’t come at a better time, because minutes later, a young player did a backflip. I was able to snap that picture — my favorite of the series — because I was standing on the chair looking above everyone’s heads.

Everybody, from players to spectators, was having so much fun, and I really love the looks on the spectators faces. It was an incredible thing to experience.

Editor's note: The ceremony took place before Vietnam's ongoing COVID-19 outbreak began this April.

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