Buffalo-fighting, Do Son, Vietnam
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 Number 18, one of 16 specially-trained beasts that made it through to the finals of an annual northern Vietnam buffalo fighting contest which took place here recently.
Do Son's buffalo-fighting tradition dates back centuries, organisers 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 football 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 labouring in Vietnam's fields but Number 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 (3,413 dollars) 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 1,000 dollars.
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 honour 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.
"It's like a martial art," says Nguyen Van Hung, 29, a spectator from Haiphong.
"I feel sorry when I see the blood on their faces," says Nguyen Quynh Huong, 28, who nonetheless cheers throughout.
The crowd shouts at the violent butting of heads but is far more restrained than the area's notorious football fans.
At times there is little for them to get excited about; the animals simply stand there ignoring each other.
As soon as one of the beasts turns tail and begins heading toward the exit, he loses.
After the months of preparation, Ty's buffalo gets its chance. It briefly touches horns with its opponent which then gives a short chase. Number 18 trots off, a loser.
The final bout finishes just as quickly.
A buffalo owned by Hoang Gia Bon, which beat three challengers earlier in the morning, rushes towards its last opponent, hooking into its horns and lifting its head high. In about 60 seconds it is over.
"This buffalo was born with the nature to win," Bon says.
The wet-nosed animal's young handlers -- among them Bon's son Vu Duc Minh -- crowd around it shouting in victory.
As a handler, Minh, 17, was on the edge of the field during the fight.
"I was very scared, not for myself but for the buffalo because he is the pride of the whole extended family and we invested so much energy in him," he says.
His sadness that the animal will be killed is somewhat tempered by knowledge that its meat will be offered to their ancestors and to the community's patron saint.
Local legend attributes the festival's origin to the 18th century when two buffalo about to be sacrificed for the patron saint suddenly began fighting.
The Do Son festival is not the only buffalo fight in Vietnam, but it is one of the most renowned contests.
"There will be a winner and a loser," Ty says, accepting his animal's defeat. "It's a lot of fun."
* * * * *