Wed, Oct 07, 2009 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE : Trained, loved, eaten: Vietnam’s buffalo fights

AFP , DO SON, VIETNAM

Two buffaloes fight during the annual buffalo fighting festival held in Do Son, Vietnam, on Sept. 27.

PHOTO: AFP

With his big dark eyes, cuddly girth and gentle manner, he does not look like a fighter. Except for his horns. Curved like a scythe, they could inflict serious damage. He is known only as buffalo No. 18, one of 16 specially trained beasts that made it through to the finals of an annual northern Vietnam buffalo fighting contest that took place recently.

Do Son’s buffalo-fighting tradition dates back centuries, organizers say, but its modern form has become a big-money event with high-priced sponsorship, high-stakes gambling and thousands of dollars in prize money.

For the participants, though, it is most importantly about community pride in this coastal district of fishermen and farmers near the northeastern port city of Haiphong.

“I trained this buffalo like a sports athlete,” Luong Duy Hong, 59, says the day before the fight.

Hong, a nephew of the buffalo’s owner, likens the animal to a professional soccer team with a big following of fans.

“It’s the pride of the whole club. This is Manchester,” he says, walking the buffalo in the late afternoon sun.

Buffalo can still be seen laboring in Vietnam’s fields but No. 18 and other fighters are different. Like professional athletes, they are scouted and bought with one thing in mind: to compete.

“I sent my nephews to try to find a proper buffalo,” says its owner, Luong Trac Ty, 75.

After months of searching they settled on this one, which has no name and is known only by the number printed in white on its dark rump.

The farming family bought it in February for 60 million dong (US$3,400) and spent another 40 million of their own money on training and upkeep, they said.

That is a large sum in a country whose per capita income is about US$1,000.

Tradition says Ty’s buffalo is brave because its thin hair is twirled into small spiral formations above each shoulder and on each side of its rump.

“That’s one of the reasons we chose this one,” he says.

Bravery is one thing, but a fighting buffalo also needs training.

Gesticulating and talking excitedly, Hong says he has spent two hours every day swimming in a river and running with the buffalo, which has made it through two preliminary rounds to reach the finals.

After spending so much time with each other, man and buffalo have become close — “like brothers,” Hong says.

But this is their last day together because, win or lose, every buffalo is slaughtered and its meat sold outside the stadium to people who believe it will bring them luck.

“When he is killed, I will not be there,” Hong says.

Owners can recoup some of their expenses from the meat, which sells at a premium, while winning the fight would earn them a 40 million dong prize.

But Hong says buffalo fighting is not a business: “We participate for our honor and for the tradition of our area.”

The next morning, haze turns the newly risen sun into an orange disc before seven teams, each from a district in the Do Son area, parade to the stadium. In traditional dress they hold altars aloft, carry Buddhist flags and bang drums with their buffalo following behind.

Several thousand people have filled the stadium to overflowing. Ty smiles and says his buffalo is ready.

The fights are between two buffalo at a time. Sometimes there is a dramatic charge, a cracking sound as horns smash together, and pushing to and fro like wrestlers in a sumo match.

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