My name is Trinh Ngoc Minh, I’m 36 years old and live on Hang Buom. I was born and raised here. During my childhood, I was always near temples and as a four-year-old I walked into the nearby temple and witnessed my first Hau Dong. It was there that I saw a male spirit dressed in blue, and I could not stop obsessing about him.
Realizing I loved music, my parents sent me to a famous school of music. At the graduation, my classmates who are hat van singers took me to a Hau Dong ceremony, and after attending a few ceremonies, I became enamored with this type of devotional music and singing. I felt it was a valuable art of Vietnam, and I researched it, and gained more knowledge. My teacher is Nguyen Tat Kim Hung who lives not far from here on Hang Bac. He is one of the greatest and most famous in Vietnam. I always admired and respected him since my first meeting with him.
It was not until I was 24 years old that I really got involved in Hau Dong and started to take it seriously by participating as a singer in as many ceremonies as I could find. A year later, I formally started my own career of Hau Dong so that makes it 11 years that I’m a professional. My temple is Den Hang Bac, a few minutes walk from my home. When I started this career,
I just thought I was paired with fate, and never considered being a Master. I have much support from many, especially my parents who gave me much help to choose this profession.
It was financially very difficult at first, and I couldn’t get enough money for my ceremonies. I had just married and had no stable job and very little money. It was very expensive to finance even a single ceremony. I was offered by the National Art and Culture to sing hat van as an art form, but I quit after a short time because Hau Dong is much more important to me. Both are my soulmates to which I direct my passion and dreams.
Hau Dong is the cultural spirit of Vietnam. Only those with true hearts can follow this belief system. When you have a strong belief in it, you get peace in your whole life. The spirits are intangible, and cannot be touched or seen. When people face life difficulties but cannot share these with other people, they resort to the sainted spirits.
Before a ceremony, there is a magnitude of things to prepare. Counting only costumery, the number could go up to hundreds excluding jewelry and accessories. For a perfect Hau Dong, many people do important backstage tasks, and yet they are generally unseen.
When an individual wishes to hold a ceremony, they have to start it by wearing a scarf which represents the intersection between the dead and the living. Before being covered by the scarf, they are human but when under the scarf, they offer their bodies to the spirits. They are then able to foretell future events. However, they are aware of everything around them because the spirits only borrow their bodies. The hat van singers are the storytellers, and both need synergy in their understanding to have a successful ceremonies.
In ceremonies, a male medium can act as a female spirit, and vice versa. Males become graceful and feminine when they represent female spirits, and the reverse is true. In Hau Dong, there is no distinction in genders.
You ask about the cost of ceremonies. The cost can range from VND20 million to VND1 billion. Like a dinner party, it really depends on many factors: the number of guests, the quality and quantity of food, the medium, the location of the temple and many other things.
I have many favorite temples. They are historical ancient temples, and national treasures. My two favorite spirits are Hoang Bay and Hoang Muoi (The Seventh and Tenth Prince of the Mother Goddess Pantheon).
There are many benefits to Hau Dong. Many sick people who cannot be cured in hospitals find they are healed when they attend a ceremony or two; even from the most hazardous diseases. There are many such cases that I know of. The advice given by the spirits through the mouths of mediums must be followed. There are always distortions in every religion, and we must be careful of mediums who distort the truth.
Many Vietnamese believe Hau Dong is superstition, and some even consider it to be ridiculous but it was recognized as a national religion of Vietnam. It was also submitted to UNESCO to be recognized as an intangible cultural heritage in 2017.
Superstition involves something unethical or of amoral values. The spirits are respected and idolized, and the Vietnamese must reject actions that give a bad name to this religion or that affects its purity.
The participants in Hau Dong ceremonies have many diverse reasons to get involved. For instance, they may gather and invite many people to their ceremonies when they are in need to make more money. As with Christianity, some in the audiences ask for health, others ask for wealth and others ask for luck in their business and in their love life.
The costumes come from many places such as Ha Dong, Thuong Tan and most especially Hang Quat street. To prepare for a ceremony, mediums need at least 15-17 sets of colorful costumes. Some of the costume designs are so elaborate that they need some twelve months to sew and embroider. Costumes are critical to the success of the ceremonies, and must be treated with the utmost care.
Being a dong thay, I wish I could spread the true meaning of Hau Dong and guide people to the right way of morality, the good aspects of life. Hau Dong is a way of life, a deep seated culture that helps people and their lonely souls. It is the spiritual beauty that only belongs to Vietnam and nowhere else.
I hope more and more Vietnamese people will respect Hau Dong and experience it to relieve their souls by praying and have their wishes listened to by the spirits. I also hope this faith will reach a worldwide audience.
TEXT AND IMAGES BY TEWFIC EL-SAWY