Vietmate: Vietnam’s Human Chess
Vietnam is home to a variety of sports and games ranging from the traditional to the more unusual. One game that is a bit uncommon but holds a unique degree of interest among locals as well as foreign visitors is Cờ người or “human chess.” Originating in some rural villages in North Vietnam, this popular spectator event uses life-size players for pieces. The contest, complete with team costumes, is customarily reserved for traditional village festivals such as the Tet Vietnamese New Year celebrations.
Although the game can be played anywhere, it is usually played in a communal field or open space near a pagoda. The game follows the rules of Chinese chess in which the sixteen pieces per side and chessboard are slightly different than in International chess. For example, Chinese chess pieces include elephants, guards and cannons. Each chess player’s costume is marked with a Chinese character indicating their piece’s name or they hold a special staff corresponding to their piece. The players are both men and women.
There are two contestants who control all the strategy and moves, issuing commands to their team of chess players. There is also a master of ceremonies who will help if the chess players are not sure where on the board they should move. At the beginning of the game and during each move, a troupe of instruments beats drums and clashes cymbals building excitement for the spectators as in royal pageantry of ancient times.
The game is also played in South Vietnam with a few minor changes. One of the differences is the players make a choreographed display of martial arts techniques to represent a piece being captured. The spectators erupt in cheers and applause encouraging the chess players to display their best martial arts skills.
Your travelers can observe this unique form of chess, Vietnamese-style. There will be a Human Chess Festival in Hanoi during the Tet Festival, 13-16 February 2016. For more information about travel to Vietnam and the celebrations of the annual Tet New Year celebrations, please leave your contact information in the form below.
Photo by Truong Viet Dung