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  Culture

Villagers revive ancient bai choi folk songs and card game

People of all ages and classes flock together dur-ing the Spring Festival in the rural central region to play Bai choi (card game in huts). One of the locals’ favourite amusements, spectators not only watch players draw their cards, but also listen to the melodious bai choi folk songs that accompany the game, distinguishing it from all other folk entertainment.

The special bai choi song originated when players, who got together in the spring, shouted out their cards. Gradually their words transformed into a musical chant. After years of improvement, making bai choi more creative and elaborate, it became an independent folk song. A pair of sanh, a drum, and a Vietnamese two-chord fiddle, known as dan nhi, accompany the song.

No one knows exactly the time bai choi appeared. Around 400 years ago this game was played during every Spring Festival in Thua Thien-Hue Province. Then bai choi lost its popularity and was almost forgotten. The festival was revived once the former feudal capital of Hue and the historic town of Hoi An in Quang Nam Province were recognised as world cultural heritage sites.

In bai choi, players sit inside makeshift thatched huts, called choi in Vietnamese. These are located around a tower, on which a hieu (speaker) stands. The speaker reads or sings the lyrics to guide the play.

Most of the lyrics, expressing the openhearted and reconciliatory Vietnamese character, convey human emotions and are highly educating, differentiating bai choi from other games. They usually praise patriotism, parental and conjugal affection and good human nature and criticize social evils and outdated customs and habits.

Each bai choi game has 30 chess pieces with different names, which are assigned to 10 types of cards with each card getting three pieces. Players will select the type of card they want to buy. After the nha cai (banker) gives out the cards, a bamboo stick, on which one chess piece’s name is written, is drawn to start the game.

Then the speaker, usually wearing an ao dai (traditional dress) and a turban, leads the game with lyrics about the piece’s name. If players hear the name of any of their pieces, they must shout “yes” and exchange the piece for a yellow flag. Whoever gains three consecutive yellow flags gets a red flag and wins.

Prizes for the winner and yellow flag holders are usually either den long, bamboo-framed lanterns coated with silk, a specialty of Hoi An, or souvenir gifts of other regions.

Initially, the rules of bai choi were very strict. The speaker was not allowed to mention the chess piece’s name directly so that players had to guess it. For instance, if the name of the piece is ngheo (poor), the speaker described the condition in his songs, but could never say “poor” directly. However, the rule was changed so that more people could catch up with the game and receive prizes.

Bai choi is played during the Tet (Lunar New Year) Festival in most of the rural villages around Hue. The authorities of Hoi An decided to preserve and introduce this typical cultural game to local and foreign visitors. So Bai choi is also played during the Full Moon Night Festival, which is held on the 14th day every lunar month, and sometimes on Saturday evenings near the Hoai River.

Mailinhtourism in Hue arranges tours to Hoi An, which visits the town and the bai choi festival. For further information, contact: Mai Linh Hue Travel Services Center, 12 Hung Vuong Street, Hue. Tel: (054) 825252, 830558.

In bai choi, players sit inside makeshift thatched huts, called around a tower, on which a hieu (speaker) stands, The speaker reads or sings the lyrics to guide the play

VNS - (02/11/2004)


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