Playing Bai Choi in Hoi An

Playing Bai Choi in Hoi An

Local and foreign visitors in Hoi An during its famous Full Moon Night Festival, held on the 14th day every lunar month and sometimes on Saturday evenings, will encounter Bai choi, a typical Vietnamese cultural game.

In bai choi, players sit inside makeshift thatched huts (choi) located around a tower, on which a hieu (speaker) stands. The speaker reads or sings lyrics to guide the play.

Most lyrics express the openhearted and reconciliatory nature of Vietnamese. They convey human emotions and are highly educational, differentiating bai choi from other games. The lyrics usually praise patriotism, parental and conjugal affection and good human nature and criticise social evils and outdated customs and habits.

Each bai choi comprises of 30 chess pieces with different names, assigned to 10 types of cards. On each card is written the names of three chess pieces and players will select the type of card they want to buy. After the nha cai (banker) gives out the cards, a bamboo stick, on which the name of a chess piece is written, is drawn to start the game.

Then the speaker, usually wearing ao dai and a turban, leads the game with lyrics about the piece’s name. If players hear the name of any of their pieces, they must shout “yes” and exchange the piece for a yellow flag. Whoever gains three consecutive yellow flags gets a red flag and wins.

Prizes for the winner and yellow flag holders are usually either den long (bamboo-framed lanterns coated with silk which is a specialty of Hoi An) or souvenirs from other regions.

The special bai choi song originated when players, who usually get together in the spring, shouted out their cards. Gradually their words were transformed into a musical chant. After years of making bai choi more creative and elaborate, it became an independent folk song.

Initially, the rules of bai choi were very strict. The speaker was not allowed to mention the chess piece’s name directly - players had to guess. For instance, if the name of the piece is ngheo (poor), the speaker described the condition in his songs, but could never say “poor” directly. However, the rules have been relaxed so more people could participate and win receive prizes.

No one knows exactly when bai choi appeared. It is said this game was played during every Spring Festival in Thua Thien Hue Province around 400 years ago. Then bai choi lost its popularity and was almost forgotten, until the festival was revived after the former Feudal capital ${bigcity_Hue:"Hue"} and the historic town Hoi An in Quang Nam Province were recognised as world cultural heritage sites.

And now, thanks to ${bigcity_Hoi_An:"Hoi An"} authorities who decided to preserve and introduce Bai choi to visitors, the game is played for all to see and admire.