Vietnamese Culture - A 1970's Perspective
                     copyright 1996, Vn-families

Issue #2. The Unicorn dance at Tet, by Minh Tam, Vietnam Bulletin, 
January 18, 1971

This is a set of reprints from the Vietnam Bulletin, a weekly 
publication by the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, DC, during the 
period from 1967 to 1975. The original articles were not copyrighted. 

We will run this column weekly until we run out of interesting cultural 
articles.
Please direct all questions to trant@teleport.com
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Here is the proposed schedule of this column.

Issue #1:  Tet 1971 in Vietnam! by Phu Si, VB710118 - Jan 17, 1996
Issue #2:  The Unicorn dance at Tet, by Minh Tam, VB710118 -
           Jan 24, 1996.
Issue #3:  The origin of Tao Quan, the three kitchen gods, VB710118 - 
           Jan 31, 1996.
Issue #4:  1971 - The year of the Pig, by Van Ngan, VB710118 -
           Feb 7, 1996.

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                     THE UNICORN DANCE AT TET
                           By Minh Tam

Saigon (MF)  According to ancient Vietnamese history, the unicorn made 
its first appearance during the Duong Dynasty, about 600 AD (TT: this is 
the Chinese Imperial dynasty).  Emperor Duong Cao To, after a military 
victory which resulted in his conquest of the Central Highlands, 
popularized the dance of the unicorn to celebrate peace. The unicorn, 
like the dragon, is a mythological animal and tradition has it that 
wherever a unicorn appears, people will have peace, happiness and 
prosperity. Originally the dance came from China where it is called the 
dragon dance, but in Vietnam it only became accepted after Emperor To's 
victory.

Today, there are two varieties of the Vietnamese version. In North 
Vietnam, it is called the Lion's dance and it is celebrated on the I5th 
day of the 8th month of the Lunar Year, sometime around autumn. In South 
Vietnam, the Unicorn dance is held only during the Tet holidays. The 
techniques are similar, although the traditional procession varies a 
little between the two zones. The North Vietnamese lion comes out at 
dusk and is accompanied by a group of youngsters with different shaped 
paper lanterns suspended on long poles. The lanterns take the shape of 
various animals like rabbits, dragons and fish or they may appear like 
multi-winged stars.

In South Vietnam, where the dances take place during the day and 
evening, many brightly coloured square flags take the place of lanterns 
in the procession of the Southern unicorn. Leading this procession are 
the flag carriers. The flags are usually donated by merchants whose 
shops are visited to obtain annual donations which is the purpose of the 
undertaking. The Vietnamese believe that the unicorn is a symbol of 
wealth and prosperity and therefore they are generous in their donations 
to the unicorn dance teams. After the flags comes the unicorn. Big 
processions may have more than one. Then there is a mythical creature 
called "Dia" known by a moonlike facemask and a man carrying a pole 
which is topped with a round ball representing a piece of jade. At the 
tail end come the drums and cymbals, usually mounted on a cart which 
provide the loud and rhytmical accompaniment to the dance.

Several men take turns handling the unicorn. They wear tight uniforms of 
various colours which are often identified with a particular locality 
where the dance takes place. Each unicorn group covers a well-defined 
area and they do not trespass  on each other's territory.

In Saigon, the unicorn procession begins early in the morning on the 
first day of Tet. It systematically visits every home and shop in its 
area. As soon as it appears in front of a house, the place swarms with 
children and onlookers. First, the drums and cymbals sound a salute to 
the occupants of the house. The unicorn stoops down, bends its head 
several times before the entrance door, then steps back to repeat the 
same gesture five or six times before  beginning the dance.

The home owner or shopkeeper then presents his donations, but to make 
the event more difficult and exciting, he suspends his gift from the 
first story balcony or window from the end of a pole very similar to the 
bait on a fishing rod. To cope with this challenge, unicorn dancers are 
strong and agile people and must be good climbers. To get at the target, 
the unicorn must be elevated through a human pyramid to the height of 
the suspended gift or sometimes they get at it through the use of a one 
column ladder. All the while, the unicorm dances to the rhythm of the 
throbbing drums while the excited crowd below noisily shouts 
encouragement. The climax comes when the prize is "swallowed" in the 
unicorn's mouth and then slowly the group moves on the next house for 
another donation.