Vietnam's spirit mediums revive once forbidden ritual

Dating to the 16th century, Hau Dong centres on a belief in the Mother Goddesses of three realms – forest, water and heaven

Nguyen Huy Kham
Thursday 08 June 2017 16:37
Comments
Summon going on: An Chinh, a medium, in a performance of Hau Dong at the Viet Theatre in Hanoi
Summon going on: An Chinh, a medium, in a performance of Hau Dong at the Viet Theatre in Hanoi

Cross-dressed in bright silk garments and dancing with candles between his fingers, Nguyen Duy Nam leads a temple of worshippers in a ceremony honouring mystical goddesses of forest, water and heaven.

Nam is one of a growing number of spirit mediums who perform the Hau Dong ritual of blaring noise and vibrant colours, now enjoying a resurgence after once being banned by the ruling Communist Party.

“It's like an illusion, like a soul has taken over my body,” says the 24-year-old, who works in a garage in capital Hanoi when he is not performing Hau Dong.

Dating to the 16th century, Hau Dong centres on a belief in the “mother goddesses” of three realms: forest, water and heaven. It draws from elements of Taoism, Buddhism and animism.

During rituals, spirit mediums dance to loud folk music while appearing to transform themselves into different characters from legend and history. They display changing personalities as if different spirits have entered their bodies.

Sometimes they say it feels real. “One time I couldn't even move my body and just cried for no reason, but then I returned to normal when the next character came,” says Nam.

Spread on the floor are offerings for the goddesses and the spirits, which can be anything from money to instant noodles to big paper horses.

“It’s for every class of society, from rich to poor, from officials to citizens and from the mountain to the plain,” says architect and researcher Doan Ky Thanh.

Thanh adds the appeal of the ritual broadened as it could attract participants of either gender.

Hau Dong’s status was reaffirmed last year when it was recognised by Unesco as an item of lntangible Cultural Heritage.

In 2005, the Communist Party lifted a ban on Hau Dong, which until then it had regarded as superstitious. Interest in the ritual has since grown, as economic liberalisation has brought greater wealth and social openness.

Hau Dong is not predominantly about money, but offerings to the spirits and temples can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single ceremony.

Although the state frowns on wasting money, sponsoring a ceremony can be a status symbol.

Nam said after being called by the saints to become a medium he had given up the reckless lifestyle of his youth. That spurred him to work hard in his daily occupation. Now he owns two garages.

He is dedicated to continuing as a medium, whatever anyone thinks of him dressing as a woman and summoning the spirits. For now, only his close family know it’s part of his life.

“It’s my lifetime duty,” he said.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in