The sacred Salt Genie worshiping festival starts on the 14th day of April on the lunar calendar. The 3-day festival features various activities like incense offerings, a procession to the temple, and folk games.
| Poet Nguyễn Quang Minh (Photo:nhandantv)
Poet Nguyễn Quang Minh, said that though he has been living far from home for ages, he returns home every year to attend the festival, a long-time ritual of Quang Lang villagers. Not many people know that Minh is the one who wrote the tale about the Salt Genie after spending years studying about her through steles and royal decrees. Minh said: "I have got information about the Salt Genie using references provided by the locals of this commune. I finished the story of the Salt Genie in 2000 and it was approved by the local authority. The Department of Culture and Information then gave me a permit to publish the tale which serves as an official document for the worshiping festival."
According to the tale, the Salt Genie’s real name is Nguyễn Thị Nguyệt Ánh, who was born in 1280 in Quang Lang village, Thái Thụy district in Thai Binh province. She was born to a family with a longtime tradition of salt making. She was lauded for her extraordinary intelligence and stunning beauty as she came of age. One day, when she was helping her parents harvest salt in the field, dark clouds suddenly covered the sky, signaling a threat. Village chiefs decided to build a ship for Anh to sell salt to other villages. One day, King Tran Anh Tong, during a trip on the river, saw Anh and was so impressed by her beauty that he sent her to the palace and appointed her his third wife. Anh was soon pregnant but failed to give birth to her first child because she was harmed by malevolent people.
| The temple where locals come to worship the Salt Genie (Photo:nhandantv)
The King sent her back to her hometown in Quang Lang village with the hope that the sea would help ease her pain. Anh sat by the salt field every afternoon thinking about the ordeal she had gone through. Kids in the village often gave her flowers and dolls, or danced around her to make her happy. After Anh passed away on the 14th day of the lunar April, the King named her the genie and built a temple to worship her. Nguyễn Hồi Xuân is the 23rd generation of the Salt Genie’s offsprings: "I’m the key person who is charged with taking care of the temple which worships the Salt Genie and her parents. Villagers offer the Genie a feast and incense on her death anniversary. They also visited and offered incense on the graves of the Genie’s parents."
Xuan’s family keeps the historical documents about the Salt Genie under the name of the King’s third wife in the Tran dynasty.
A highlight of the festival is the traditional “Mr. Dung Ms. Da” dance which was inspired by kids’ dancing around the Salt Genie to make her happy on her last days on Earth. Villagers often make huge bamboo figures which they call Mr. Dung and Ms. Da for the procession to the temple.
Making the figures takes many steps. They draw the face of Mr. Dung and Ms. Da on large bamboo sieves and paint it red and white. The body of the dummy is up to 1m5 tall and is made by knitting bamboo threads. Smaller figures resemble the offsprings of Mr. Dung and Ms. Da. Villagers stick red flowers behind the ears of Ms. Da and her daughters in the belief that it will expel evils. Bùi Đình Tháp, a local of Quang Lang village, said: "It takes village chiefs 10 days ahead of the festival to make the dummies. The faces of Mr. Dung and Ms. Da are drawn in a humorous way so it makes festival goers feel happy."
In the early morning of the festival, villagers bring the dummies to the temple to perform a series of rituals including the incense offering. Hundreds of people join a procession which is led by dragon dancers, followed by those carrying flags, female dancers and villagers in the traditional long dress ao dai.
|The procession of King Tran Anh Tong and the Salt Genie palanquins
The highlight is the procession of King Tran Anh Tong and the Salt Genie palanquins, together with a model of the boat which the Genie used to travel to the villages to sell salt.Bui Thi Tuyet is a local of Quang Lang village: "I’m one of the four people chosen to carry the palanquin of the Salt Genie. Women chosen for this job must have good health, a high moral standing, a happy family and strong belief in the Salt Genie."
The procession traverses the alleys of village where each family displays their feast offered to the Genie outside of their house. Whenever the Genie’s palanquin and boat arrive at the door of a family, they will receive part of a feast and give back some blessings. Bui Dinh Thap again: "The feasts express the villagers’ gratitude for the Salt Genie’ blessings and desire for favorable weather, a full catch, and a robust crop."
| The face of Mr. Dung is painted on bamboo sieves (Photo:nhandantv)
The figures portraying Mr. Dung and Ms. Da dancing make the festival’s atmosphere more lively and exciting. The procession stops by a temple that worships the village tutelary Nguyễn Quảng Lại – a General under the Dinh dynasty in the 10th century. Locals re-enact a ritual where he reports to the village tutelary about the Salt Genie worshiping ritual festival. The procession then returns to the Salt Genie’s temple and performs a final ritual which shows gratitude to the Salt Genie. The ritual witnesses the offering of incense, wine, and food as well as traditional sailing dances which have been passed down through the generations.
The festival concludes with the most anticipated activity: the dances of the dummies of Mr. Dung and Ms. Da. The dances make the dummies look like they are talking to each other, laughing with each other, and even flirting with each other while villagers chant to honor the Salt Genie. The dances take place around the village and end at the gate of the temple where villagers compete to bring home a part of the figures, even as small as a bamboo thread or a larger piece, such as the face of the dummies. Quang Lang villagers believe that just a bamboo thread from the dummy will bring them a prosperous life, bumper crops, a full catch, and lots of luck. Nguyễn Thị Thu Thủy is a festival goer: "Today, I’m lucky to bring home these two bamboo threads with which I hope to receive luck in my own business in fish sauce making and aquaculture."