Vietnamese traditional Wrestling - Đấu Vật

Across cultures from every corner of the globe wrestling has developed independently as a cultural & social activity. From the African tribes to Outer Mongolian Cavalry It has been an integral part of society and worked as a tool for self defense, social bonding and fitness.
In the indochinese peninsula - modern day Vietnam, this tradition has developed too.
Known as Đấu Vật this ancient martial art is famous for its speed and aggressive nature.

During mid-February Vietnamese Lunar New Year or ‘Tet’ is a time of celebration. One of the most prosperous traditions of the year is that of Wrestling contests - they take place in a number of villages and religious sites across the country.

The Rules of Đấu Vật Vietnamese Wrestling

The rules of Đấu Vật are relatively simple. Two fighters compete. It begins with a short ceremony. The opponents come up and perform their venerations to the ancestral shrine and judges in the form of a dance – similar to other South-East Asian styles like Muay Thai & Cambodian boxing.

After the ceremony, the fighters shake hands, and then, when given instruction, the bout begins.

The style of fighting is very rapid, short bouts with a few minutes for each round, this helps to emphasise contests with maximum speed and force.

  • The idea is to uproot your opponent through throws, sweeps and takedowns.
  • To win you must throw the other fighter down belly up or take both feet from the ground.
  • To lose balance like this traditionally would leave you open to further dangerous attacks in a battle situation.
  • No striking is allowed much like western wrestling, however in the non-competitive form there are many extremely dangerous throws, breaks and deadly strikes.
  • Many moves maintain their historical relevance, certain positions remain avoided due to opponents bearing swords, and there are a lot of  leg grabs– adapted from situations like taking charging attackers off horseback.
  • The festivals generally run for 3 days. And each competitor has at least 6 matches.
  • To remain in the running fighters must maintain a minimum of 50% wins.
  • Winners are awarded small prizes of Lucky Money - an Asian new year tradition. However the real is prize is thought to be the honor & prosperity you earn for your family in the coming year.

The History of Vietnamese Wrestling

As the story goes, the founder known as Mr Đoàn is a regular young farm worker, one day a flash flood ravages the village and causes panic among the locals, so he immediately runs from his field to give aid. Upon arriving in the village he sees a glowing sword resting on a red cloth, he realises that he has had a sacred gift bestowed upon him and ties the sword around his waist with the cloth.

As war comes to the nation, the strongest warriors are called to defend the country from the invading marauders. Mr Đoàn is enlisted and becomes a fierce warrior in battle - his divine gifts bringing him supernatural skills and near invulnerability.

Through the years he teaches the local citizens methods and skills he used to defend himself in combat and how to defeat the attackers when unarmed and facing an opponent wielding a sword or spear. This ensured the prosperity of the region and earned them a fierce reputation as warriors.

After many long years serving in the military and personally protecting his village Mr Đoàn was killed in battle. He leaves behind his wife Bùi  - who as the legend goes died of overwhelming grief after visiting Đoàn’s final resting place and the pair are immortalized in two shrines a few hundred metres apart.

For his honour, dedication and skills he is heralded a hero, the couple are seen as a god-like figures protecting the people of this sacred region. Mr Đoàn and Bùi are affectionately renamed Thánh Ông & Tiên Bà - literally god & goddess.

They have been celebrated annually in this martial contest ever since - exact dates are
unclear but it is widely recognized that this tradition has been in place since the first king united Vietnam more than 1000 years ago.

The Festivals

One of the oldest and most authentic wrestling contests takes place in a village called Liễu Đôi, Thanh Liêm Commune , Hà Nam province, - about 2 hours south west of  the capital city Hanoi. This village a particularly relevant place as it is known as the location where this traditional martial art was born.

Every two years they hold the festival on the 5th day of the New Year. The locals view this tradition as in integral part of their heritage  and anyone able is encouraged to wrestle as it will be prosperous for the coming year and bring honour to their families and ancestors.

The festivals begin with a parade trailing out from the centuries old Sới Vật Wrestling arena and towards the long single dirt road leading into the village.

As the parade winds through the narrow streets the villagers fall in until it is nearly 1000 strong. At the Shrine of the Legendary founder of the martial art, village elders perform a short ritual they burn incense and deliver gifts, then pray for the blessings of the local deities to hold the festival and provide luck for the coming year.

The festival officially begins with one of the oldest and highly respected members of the village playing the part of Mr Đoàn. The old man re-enacts the finding of the sacred sword & cloth, followed by a flag dance to the beat of a ritual drum. 

The villagers take their places around the wrestling ring - which is nothing more than a ripped and worn canvas tarpaulin, covered in gaffa-taped holes, on beds of straw and rice husks. The first few bouts are symbolic and one of the most unique aspects of this contest - known as Trai Rốt.

The sons of the villagers born on the most auspicious dates in the previous year are required to wrestle - this is really impractical due to them being at most 1 year old , therefore the fathers or even grandfathers fight on their behalves, they are often known to wrestle well into their 80’s & 90’s.

The competitors are knocked out one by one until the final round which consists of 5 fights back to back, a serious feat which requires spending years being hardened by continuous training. The Champion rounds or Giai Coc involve the winner sitting in the centre of the ring wearing “Mr. Đoàn’s” red scarf and any competitors old or new are free to walk in and challenge him. After 5 fights back to back with no break and no losses the Grand Champion brings prosperity to the village and he is presented with the Red Cloth, ceremonial sword & a sprig of bamboo.

The traditions of Đấu Vật  follow on from generation to generation, like a story passed from fathers to sons. The culture of Vietnam is developing & modernising so rapidly it is hard to keep this tradition alive. However a small group of dedicated martial artists strive to do this.
Đấu Vật  isn't just a style of fighting, or a show of athleticism. It is integral part of life that's carved deeply into the local culture.

About the Author:

Gus Roe is a disciple of traditional Vietnamese martial art ‘Bửu Sơn Phật Môn Quyền’, based in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Since a young age he has formally trained and competed in Tae Kwon Do, Wing Chun, Judo & various other styles.
He is currently working on film and written projects documenting some of the lesser known martial traditions of Vietnam.

For more information about this story or to speak directly to the author please contact through:

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