Running with the Mekong Bull racing festival amazing Vietnam
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Vietnam's Bull Racing Festival

Ever hear of this amazing ox racing festival in the Mekong Delta? Check out our photographer Juan’s visual story about the event.

“An Giang province has two seasons: dry and wet. During the latter, from August to November, the rivers swell, flooding the land, and offering plenty of great photography opportunities in places like Tra Su forest and Long Xuyen floating market. The province also hosts a variety of events at this time, one of which is the Bay Nui (Seven Mountains) Ox Racing Festival (bull racing) – and that’s what brought me here.

On the morning of the race, I rubbed my eyes at five am to see the sun already peeking over the hills. Jumping on my rented scooter, I drove through quiet, empty streets to Ro Temple; and as soon as I got close, the scene changed. There were brightly-colored flags and pennants everywhere, music, posters for the ox race, and kids playing pretend as if they were jockey and ox. I realized this would be a once in a lifetime experience.
A muddy, happy ox jockey (top left) Local kids training for next year (top right) The opening trial round of the race (bottom) Photos by Juan Carlos Solorzano – Vietnam in Focus

The race is part of the Khmer people’s Sone Dolta, a festival of ancestor-worship, along with Chol Chnam Thmay (New Year) and Ooc Oom Bok, during which locals pray for a good harvest. The contest itself is believed to have begun with young Khmer farmers many decades ago.

After plowing the fields, the oxen had time to rest, and the people decided to hold a celebration. Each commune put forward a team of their best oxen and riders, and the race was born. To this day, locals hold that the winning team will bring their commune health, happiness and a bigger crop yield.

I arrived at the racetrack, and found it to be a large muddy oval flooded by about 10 cm of water. Surrounded by excited local fans and journalists, I watched the jockeys lead their oxen proudly past the crowd, just like in a horse race in Europe.

Each jockey had two oxen and a longboard between them, which would allow him to ‘surf’ on the water. Meanwhile, their supporters furiously banged drums and gongs, getting behind the team.

Gettin’ wet and wild (above) Smoke break (below) Photos by Juan Carlos Solorzano – Vietnam in Focus

Now it was time for the race! Two jockeys with their oxen entered the track. After a trial lap, they started to align with each other. Keeping the oxen focused on the track, the jockeys reached the last straight, then hit full throttle. The oxen started galloping, splashing water and mud all over the place, before reaching the finish line.

Meanwhile, the jockeys had to keep their balance in pretty challenging circumstances. A couple of unlucky guys fell into the mud, leading to immediate disqualification and plenty of jeers.

The crowd went nuts every time the teams hurtled down the final straight, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. For me, it was all about capturing the thrill of the jockeys and oxen flying past, Mekong mud splattering through the air. Race after race crashed past, culminating with one victorious, filth-spattered jockey and his brave oxen!

The final straight! Photos by Juan Carlos Solorzano – Vietnam in Focus

For photography, this is one of the most exciting events in Vietnam, offering all sorts of visual opportunities. But you also feel the wonderful energy of the competition, and the friendliness and peace of everybody attending. I had a great time taking portraits of the jockeys and spectators throughout, as well as shooting the action at the track. Vietnam’s bull racing at its finest. I highly recommend to all photo and adventure enthusiasts!”

Words and pictures by Juan Carlos Solorzano – Vietnam in Focus

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