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Buffalo Festival of Do Son

A hush fell over the stadium as the two bulls quietly sized each other up. I was standing right on the edge of the field, just behind the protective barrier peering over the top of a sea of Vietnamese people, yet again thankful that my 6’2 frame afforded me uninterrupted views of the two mighty buffaloes. The crowd of perhaps 25,000 people was hushed and tense, waiting for something, anything, to happen. The preceding fights had been fast-paced affairs, with the bulls charging each other the instant they were led in to the stadium. These two, however, had other plans. The crowd was nervous, sweating under the intense heat of the mid-morning sun, fanning themselves with newspapers, or even wearing them as hats, if they hadn’t thought to bring their own.

Vietnam Do Son Buffalo Festival
The Buffalo Festival of Do Son
Photo by Joshua Owen

Seconds stretched into minutes. It was time for action. Busting with anticipation I took it upon myself to speed up proceedings. Hoping to spur the animals into action, I called on my very best Vietnamese and boomed a mighty, “cố lên!” (‘rise up’ or ‘give it your best shot.’) In an instant all heads turned. My face burned with the eyes of countless, hot and frustrated Vietnamese. The tension was palpable.

Vietnam Do Son Buffalo Festival
Look at the crowd!
Photo by Joshua Owen

I frantically racked my brains to work out what social faux pas I had committed, or was it the mispronunciation of my basic Vietnamese? Then as if so often the case with these friendly and playful people a sea of smiles signaled a call to arms and in unison the 100 or so people around me echoed my sentiments with a far mightier shout of “cố lên!”. The suspense suddenly broken the bulls charged toward each other and locked horns in their now, all too familiar, embrace.

I had known of this festival but had never had the opportunity so when a Vietnamese friend asked if I was interested I lept at the opportunity. I’m not sure what I expected, certainly not a bloodbath, perhaps something similar to a Spanish bullfight but with a Vietnamese flavor to it. In the end nothing I could have imagined would have prepared me for the day ahead.

We left Hanoi around 3am on the Sunday morning hoping to arrive well before the first bout and secure some decent seats. How wrong we were! Arriving well before 8am the stadium was already overflowing with spectators and many more were jostling and pushing impatiently outside hoping to sneak in. Gates were closed, but the more adventurous and nimble outsiders scaled walls, trees, buildings and even TV trucks to get inside. We waited outside one of the gates sweating in the sun and mud and able to hear the cheers but not see a thing until just after the second bout of the day when we were able to squeeze our way in.

Vietnam Do Son Buffalo Festival The Stadium
The Stadium
Photo by Joshua Owen

The atmosphere was electric. Thousands of people ringed the soccer stadium not dissuaded by the searing sun and warm temperatures. We couldn’t find any spare room in the stands but were able to stand a few rows back right on the fence at one end of the pitch to catch glimpses of the action. It was a fantastic experience.

The buffalo fighting festival is held in Do Son, a small beach town about 20kms south east of Haiphong city. Do Son is a very popular seaside retreat for Hanoians as it is only a 2½ hour drive from the city. It has one of the only casinos in the country and is famous for its fresh and local seafood, relaxed atmosphere, gambling, numerous ‘karaoke’ and ‘massage’ establishments and of course the annual buffalo fighting festival.

Haiphong is also a popular destination and is the third largest city in Vietnam, after Saigon and the capital, Hanoi. Haiphong has always been an important port city in Northern Vietnam linking trade and commerce to the capital. It is also a gateway to Cat Ba Island and the southern section of Ha Long Bay National Park.

The annual buffalo festival (called “lễ hội chọi trâu” in Vietnamese) is held on the 10th day of the 8th lunar month, which usually falls in September or October of each year. One of the more famous traditional festivals in Vietnam, the buffalo festival of Do Son is held to honor the local Water God and also to represent the fighting spirit of the local people. The bulls that are selected to fight are usually aged between 3-5 years and have had to prove their mettle in smaller regional competitions in order to qualify for the main event.

The 32 qualifiers then face off over 5 knock-out or elimination bouts to determine the overall champion. The festival starts very early in the morning at about 7.30am with each bull being led out by a procession of 12 handlers or trainers who wear bright red and yellow silk costumes and wave colored flags. Each of the bulls have a number painted on their side to allow pundits to put on wagers and the numbers also help the crowd distinguish between the two. Even though gambling is technically illegal in Vietnam, plenty of side bets can be found in and around the stadium which garner the interests of many of the locals. The competition is televised nationally with millions tuning in to watch the festival.

Vietnam Do Son Buffalo Festival Fight
Locked in Battle
Photo by Joshua Owen

On the day, some of the bouts will last only a few minutes, with one bull quickly gaining the upper hand and forcing the other bull to turn and flee. If one of the bulls no longer chooses to fight and runs from it’s opponent then it is out of the tournament and sent straight to a tent just outside the stadium to be slaughtered. In fact eventually all 32 buffaloes are turned into table treats! Some of the fights though are long and drawn out and can take up to an hour to determine a winner with bulls often standing just a few feet apart and sizing up their opponent, heightening the suspense and making the win all the more gratifying!

The bulls fight by charging head first into each other and locking horns. They then try and gain the upper hand by forcefully and sometimes violently pushing their opponent backwards. If this is not enough to send their competitor running then the buffaloes often begin torquing their necks, using their interlocked horns as leverage, in an attempt to twist the other buffalo off balance. When a bull backs down and pulls out of the contest it then quickly retreats from the more dominant male. This is the end of the battle but sometimes just the start of the action for the spectators.

Vietnam Do Son Buffalo Festival Rodeo clowns trying to stop the fight
Rodeo clowns trying to stop the fight
Photo by Joshua Owen

Sometimes the dominant bull will chase the loser around the stadium in hope of further asserting its supremacy. At this, one (or many) of the very colorful “rodeo clowns” run into the ring to intervene and stop the fight, grinning and taunting as they do, they wave flags, and run in between the surprisingly fast animals. At times, the rodeo clowns will, in sheer desperation, resort to holding on to tails and horns and using absolutely any and all means necessary to separate the two bulls. The winner is led away and prepared for the next bout while the loser is whisked away to be prepared for sale.

Vietnam Do Son Buffalo Festival Meat for Sale
Buffalo meat for sale
Photo by Joshua Owen

The overall winner is crowned with a handsome reward of around 40 million VND (over $2000 USD.) Purchasing just a few hundred grams of your favorite bull is an easy task. Tables are lined up outside the stadium with numbers indicating exactly which bull you can buy. Many spectators grab some meat on the way out to take home and share with the family. Others trundle off to nearby seafood restaurants where a plate of buffalo is the specialty of the day and they charge an arm and a leg for it too!

Filed Under: Do Son, Featured, Festivals

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Joshua Owen – landed a ‘dream job’ as a tour guide in 2005 throughout Vietnam, China, Laos and Cambodia. However his love of Vietnam never let him stray too far from the country he now calls home.

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One Response to “Buffalo Festival of Do Son”

  1. Ricardo says:

    Really pity the buffaloes! Even with victory, they have to be slaughtered! A very good read on this festival, thanks …

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