According to ancient Vietnamese history, the unicorn made its
first appearance about 600 AD. 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.
The unicorn ( Ly or Lan ) is an incredible animal invented by Sino-Vietnamese
imagination. The unicorn brings to mind the English griffin; it is represented
with the body of an antelope, the feet of a horse, and the tail of a buffalo;
and on the head of the male unicorn, there is a single horn, the extremity of
which is covered with an excrescence of flesh. The unicorn is considered as the
symbol of intelligence and goodness, and appears only on very special occasions.
Today Unicorn or Lion dance is a joyful entertainment at the Tet festival in
Vietnam. The Unicorn is the symbol of powerfulness and prosperity. Well-to-do
families use to set prize money and invite the Unicorn Dance team to come and
dance in front of their house for entertainment and also as the first caller
to their house on the New Year's Day.
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. However, through time, nowadays, Lion dance can also
be observed during the Tet season.
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 facemask 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 home owner or shopkeeper then presents his donations, but to make the event
more difficult and exciting, people hang their gifts from the first story
balcony, window, or from 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 best part comes when the prize (usually money) is
grabbed by the unicorn's mouth and then slowly the group moves on the next
house for another donation.