My career as a travel photographer is underpinned by a fascination with ancient religious rituals, ceremonies and festivals still observed and practiced around the world, and it is this core fascination that steers my image-making, and provides context to many of the photographic expeditions workshops I organize and lead. It was on such a photo expedition in northern Vietnam in late 2014 that I was introduced to a ceremony of the indigenous religion of Dao Mau. Hearing chants and music coming from the small Gia Quoc Cong Vu Van Mat temple in Bac Ha, but finding no one who could understand English amongst the audience, I asked patrons in a nearby restaurant, and was told it was a Hau Dong ceremony.
I had heard that term a day earlier in Sa Pa when religious music drew me to a small nondescript building on Fansipan Road. Asking a passerby what the building was, I was told it was Den Hang Pho, a temple. I walked in and met women in long red robes who were preparing a rehearsal for a Len Dong (or Hau Dong) ceremony planned for the following day. I was allowed to photograph and, despite my being in the way during their processions, the women seemed pleased I dropped by. I did not know it then, but this group of worshipers are called ban hoi; an ad hoc “sisterhood” who belong to a Dao Mau temple.
My imagination went in overdrive when I later learned Hau Dong ceremonies involved mediums who communicate with the spirits of the Dao Mau pantheon. It was the evening ceremony in Bac Ha that triggered my interest in documenting this form of indigenous worship and adopting it as a long-term personal photographic project.
Since starting on this personal project, I’ve attended over three dozen Hau Dong ceremonies. Many were in the capital city of Hanoi and its suburbs, and others far in the east and north of the country, such as Hai Phong, Lang Son, Quang Ninh and Kiep Bac. Some went on all day (or all night), while others were only a few hours long.
The timings of ceremonies are based on the Vietnamese lunar calendar and are seldom advertised. The announcements are by word-of-mouth communication amongst the community, friends and neighborhoods. Some are held in large temple complexes, others in small out of the way temples and some in tiny private temples, or even in rooms. To have access and be welcomed in ceremonies wherever they are held (especially in private settings), one must gain the confidence and trust of the community, and be accompanied by someone known to the mediums or the musicians.
All the ladies
Dao Mau, the worship of Mau (the Mother Goddess), is an important part of Vietnam’s folk culture and identity. Although its historical origins are not clear, many scholars believe its roots go back to prehistory when the Vietnamese worshiped nature and its manifestations. It may have originated in the farmlands where people worshiped the heavens for favorable weather; worshiped earth for bountiful harvest; worshiped water to avoid disastrous floods and lastly worshiped the country’s highlands because it provided defense against northern invaders (China and Mongolia).
The Mother Goddess religion is based on the worship of goddesses. These goddesses are the Lady of the Kingdom, Thien Y A Na (The Lady of the Realm), Ba Chua Xu (The Lady of the Storehouse), Ba Chua Kho and Princess Lieu Hanh. It is associated with spirit mediumship rituals—known in Vietnam as len dong, hau bong or hau dong. It is also practiced in other parts of Asia, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Dao Mau can be described as a syncretic religion mixing elements of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, with substantial influences from other indigenous religions of Vietnam. Each domain, or realm, to which the spirits are assigned, have a specific color, and determine the color of the mediums’ costumes, headdress and even ritual implements. The color red is assigned to the domain of Heaven, the yellow to the Earth domain, the white to the Water domain and the green to the Mountains and Forests domain.
Since Dao Mau was born in the oral tradition, it does not exist in written form. The tradition lived on for millennia, passing from generation to generation through ritual, ceremonies, songs and dances and poetry.
The basic difference between Dao Mau and other religious traditions (including shamanistic beliefs) is that it is not concerned with life after death, but with life now. It is essentially a woman’s religion, and is concerned with people’s success, health, material benefits and good fortune during their time on earth, rather than in the afterlife.
In contrast with other universal religions, the cult of Mother Goddesses has neither a structured doctrine nor an organized clergy. It is grounded in daily life’s tribulations and contentments, and is concerned with the here and now of people’s existence, which explains its appeal to the younger generation. It also extols Vietnamese traditional values, virtues and naturally, its history and culture.
Hau Dong is one of the primary rituals of the Dao Mau religion and embodies the worship of mother goddesses in Vietnam. It is technically a ritual of spirit mediumship and literally means “receiving the incarnations of spirits” in Vietnamese. There are variations of the term, such as len dong (“mounting the medium” or “going into a trance”), and hau bong (“servicing the spirits”).
The religious buoyancy of the past two decades in Vietnam increased the opportunities for earning an income from mediumship. Many mediums make a reasonable income from their religious work and depending on their marketing acumen can become quite wealthy.
The ritual of Hau Dong takes between two to seven hours, and must start by submitting petitions to Buddha and to the spirits of Dao Mau for the ceremony to proceed. This is carried out by a spirit priest (thay cung) capable of reading and writing the petitions in archaic Sino-Vietnamese language. These men (as they always are) are Buddhist “masters” who were brought to Buddhist temples at a young age, and are taught the ancient Vietnamese characters along with written Chinese, but remain laymen throughout their lives.
The ceremonial rites start with mediums sitting at the center of the area in front of the altars, surrounded by at least two assistants (hau dang). Dressed in simple white satin pajamas, they light incense sticks, chew on betel leaf-areca wads, and may smoke. They often close their eyes and sway to the rhythm of the chau van music.
TEXT AND IMAGES BY TEWFIC EL-SAWY