In the language of the Hmong, Gau Tao means “playing ground”. As traditional, the Gau Tao festival is co-organized by 3 families with blood relations or suffering from the above situations. This festival takes place in the Spring of 3 continuous years. They plant one New Year’s tree per year so 3 families will respectively come to get the tree and the things hang on the tree to get luckiness and fortune. The place where Gau Tao Festival takes place called Hau Tao is a low hill with plain top creating a flat, large ground surrounded by the higher hills. In front of it is a low and narrow space. Gau Tao Hill must face the East, so the New Year’s tree can catch the sunlight when it grows up. In the Hmong’s opinion, Gau Tao Hill represents the destiny of the homeowner. The low and narrow space is the symbol of the break, unfortunate, while the behind higher hills represent the development. The meaning is that better son than parents is good news which can bring more and more fortune.
In order to organize the Gau Tao Festival, the homeowner must invite a person called Tru Tao to chair the festival and a woman to assist, called Ne Tao, who all have a happy and affluent family. The two other young persons, a boy and a girl helping Tru Tao to conduct the festival call Tu Tao and Say Tao.
The festival takes place every January, but the preparations are made from the end of December of the previous year with two main ceremonies of bamboo cutting and New Year’s tree preparing. On the day of bamboo cutting, the homeowner prepares a tray of offerings and all the assistants conduct praying. The homeowner invites the chair to drink wine. After 2 cups of wine, the chair sings a song about the reason to celebrate the Gau Tao festival. After that, he opens an umbrella and sings the song of finding the New Year’s tree. He then leads the group to the location of the appointed bamboo to cut it down. The bamboo tree to make New Year’s tree must be straight, same in each piece of trunk and from 9 to 12 m high. The bamboo cutting ritual takes place right at the stool of that bamboo. The chair holds the umbrella and sings the song of cutting trees while walking around the bamboo stool. He has a cut on the tree after 1 round around it. When the song ends, they keep cutting until the tree falls to the East. Someone will get the tree on his shoulder to prevent it from falling to the ground.
After that, the tree is smoothened and its top is maintained with leaves to present the hair of a dragon or the sacredness. The chair covers the tree with his umbrella and sings the song of carrying the New Year’s tree, so people carry it to the festival ground without any stop with the root first, the top behind and above ground. At the destination, people dig a hole that is not concise with the hole of last year to plug the tree in. The tree now is called New Year’s tree, not bamboo. The chair ties two pieces of black and red cloth, a bottle of wine, 3 ears of sticky rice and a group of Sui plant (which is similar to firn) on the top of the tree. They then together stand the tree facing the direction of the sunrise.
The worshipping ceremony takes place right in that morning with offerings including chicken, wine and rice. The chair burns incense, votive paper and walks counter-clockwise around the tree while singing the song of “Tinh chay” to inform the gods that the homeowner is making a New Year’s tree to celebrate thanksgiving festival. people then receive the goodness right at the foot of the tree.
Seeing a high New Year’s tree in the middle of Hau Tao ground, people know that there’s going to have Gau Tao Festival that year. People inform each other at markets, on roads or whenever they meet to prepare to join the festival, creating a crowded atmosphere. People who are good at khaen will play khaen and show their children to play. People who are good at martial arts with weapons will practice performing in front of a crowd at the festival. Normally, these martial players only teach their elderly son, so not many people know and can play this kind of art in the Gau Tao festival. The festival is also the time for the young to prepare nice clothes, coming to see and play with friends, lovers to express feelings that they can hardly show in daily life, through the songs.
The main time of the festival is from 2nd to 4th of Tet, depending on the age of homeowners. The chair and the assistant hang the offerings on New Year’s tree, put the votive paper in tree stool and then kneel to immolate the tree. After that, the chair declares to open the festival. A singing performance to open the festival is performed by a good singer who has a healthy and prosperous family. The festival’s attendants then can sing, perform and enjoy many performances and games and are offered wine by the chair. The event lasts till night with complementary singing between host and guess, man and woman. Visitors from distanced places can overnight at the homeowner’s house to continue the festival the next day.
Gau Tao Festival lasts for 3 days. On the afternoon of the third day, the chair announces to lower the New Year’s tree and leads the group to counter-clockwise, singing the song of lowering the tree. Similar to the tree cutting ritual, the tree must be lowered toward the direction of the sunrise. The trunk is kept above ground and is carried to the house of the homeowner. Coming closer to the house of the homeowner, they cut a section of around 1m long from a tree trunk; get the seeds from 3 rice ears and put some money on the tray of rice. The homeowner is waiting but closes the door and sings to receive the tree with the chair. He then opens the door to receive the tree. The tree is entered home with its stool first. The chair gives the cloths and the section of tree stool to the homeowner. The tree stool is plated under the bed, and the cloths are used for making clothes for the children given thanks to praying on Gau Tao Hill or for the patient who has overcome sick owing to praying in Gau Tao Festival.
Gau Tao is the biggest festival and also the unique one at the community level which related to the spiritual life of the Hmong. However, the Gau Tao festival of the Hmong, in general, has been gradually deteriorated as the artists are getting older and older and they only pass for their eldest son. Thus, the inherence of the next generation is limited. Moreover, the young generation now is not really interested in those rituals and traditional art performances.
In order to assert the historical, cultural, scientific values and also the necessity of protecting and developing this heritage, the Gau Tao Festival of the Hmong in Lao Cai has been recognized as the national intangible cultural heritage. (The first time in December 2012), in the section of the traditional festivals.