The night is festive – music and laughter echo throughout the Old Town’s lantern-lit streets. Colours shimmer across the Thu Bon river. Against a milieu of UNESCO-listed heritage buildings, two elderly men sit, in traditional silken Vietnamese tunics and turbans, engrossed in a game of Cờ tướng – Chinese chess. Every month, on the night of the full moon, chess players gather together to play and maintain one of the town’s most time-honoured and cherished traditions.

Chess on a full moon night. Chess in Hoi An, Vietnam

If you’re in town during the legendary full moon night, you might very well see Mr Le Van Su – an affable gent in his late ’80s with a warming smile – engaged in a game of chess. With features and a personality that has infinitely more character than the ancient walls that provide the backdrop to his game, Mr Su is a delight to meet. He is also one of the people responsible for ensuring that the game of Cờ tướng continues to thrive in Hoi An. As the assistant head of the Hoi An Elderly Association, he is one of the organizers of the chess activities during the full moon – there are eight different locations where men play, with at least one pair at each venue in traditional costume (these are mainly the assembly halls and performance centres on Tran Phu, Nguyen Thai Hoc and Bach Dang streets). Fortunately for us, Mr Su agreed to an interview to further explain the significance of the game.

• Firstly, could you tell us a bit about yourself? 

I was originally born in Dien Ban district, a neighboring district to Hoi An. I was fatherless from age 3 and my mother worked hard to bring me up. I was a cadre for a commune and in 1954 was transferred to the state-run transport company where I acted as chairman of the trade union. In retirement and years later, I was invited to become assistant head of the Hoi An Elderly Association, which gives me the opportunity to help organize and manage the Chinese chess activities on full moon night.


• Could you explain to us the importance of playing this game on the full moon night?

Do you play at any other times? Chinese chess appeared in Vietnam centuries ago. Formerly, the older men would play the game in Vietnamese dress and their smart turbans (the ready-made style) whilst sipping tea. Nowadays, while some men – such as myself – play chess elsewhere, it has become an important tradition for the town on the full moon night; namely to showcase our cultural activities to tourists. When I am not playing on full moon night I play at the Hoi An Elderly Assocation Club and in street coffee shops.


• What is the objective of Cờ tướng and how does it differ from Western Chess? 

The game consists of a battle between two armies, with the object being to capture the enemy’s general (king). While there are differences, there are a lot of similarities between Western chess and Chinese chess. Both have armies and pieces that represent the king or general as well as horses and soldiers. The way to play the pieces is also often the same.

• When did you learn how to play this game? 

I was aware of the game from a young age and would study the older men when they played. As I grew up, I indulged in playing and developed more of a passion – I not only studied from other players but also researched different strategies in books. So step by step you could say I became an expert of the game. Now that I am old, I find that my moves are not so skilful. I remember when I was younger and had a more active mind, that I would imagine the whole game and be able to play it even without the pieces or chess table. I thought about chess a great deal – often playing a game in my mind.


• Is there an interest in young people in this game? 

Yes, Chinese chess has become quite a common activity in Hoi An – many are fond of the game. Most often younger people meet in coffee shops and play which differs from the old days where old men would play whilst drinking tea. Many coffee shops these days have a board available.


• Can you tell us what you most love about playing it? 

I love it when I’m in a very difficult situation – after being attacked by my opponent – and I find a way to get out of it. Of course, winning is wonderful, but for me I love a good challenge, that is what is most exciting.


• Is there anything you would like to mention to our readers about the game? 

We always hope that when tourists come to Hoi An they will have a chance to see some of our traditional activities. We invite tourists to watch us play and are also happy to teach them how to play if they would like to learn. Their pleasure is our pleasure.


Originally published in Live Hoi An Magazine

Updated June 2018

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