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The Unicorn dance at Tet (Vietnamese New Year)

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 15th 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 colored 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 face mask 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 rhythmical accompaniment to the dance.

Several men take turns handling the unicorn. They wear tight uniforms of various colors 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 unicorn 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.

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