Published October 26, 2016 in Episode 58
It is the second weekend in a sweltering August. Thousands of Vietnamese families from across the country are making their way to the Điện Hòn Chén festival in Huế. The festival is considered one of the largest gatherings to celebrate Đạo Mẫu, a religion indigenous to Việt Nam that centers around the worship of a Mother Goddess.
Some travel by motorbike, while others journey in large groups by boat on the Perfume River to reach their destination. They all have one goal: to pay their respects to the Mother Goddess at her temples and shrines. She is the ultimate deity of the Đạo Mẫu religion, often represented by a doll, golden urn, or mirror at the top of an ornate altar.
Among the travelers is Năm Trầu, a 59-year-old man with a long beard and heavy dreadlocks bundled in two layers of headwrap. He walks barefoot and wears a distinctive long white outfit that has two flaps in the front and back, with braided ribbons as buttons. It is the kind you usually see monks wear in Southeast Asia. The only difference is a red and gold lining at the end of the flaps. It’s an indication that Trầu identifies with the Chăm people, an ethnic group native to Việt Nam and Southeast Asia that was once a thriving empire in the region.
The flowery costumes and the dance are part of a ritual known as lên đồng or hầu đồng which literally translates to “soul possession” or “going into trance.” It is a central part of the Đạo Mẫu religion, in which the medium or practitioner transcends into the spiritual realm in order to worship the Mother Goddess. It is considered the obligation of the medium to continuously honor her in this way.
In most temples throughout Việt Nam, there are altars for the Mother Goddess. Yet most people are not aware of its history. Năm Trầu says the Mother Goddess figure originated from the Chăm people.
“According to the Vietnamese people, after they conquered [the Chăm], they had to adopt the deity of the Mother Goddess, so that both sides would not have further conflict.”
Trầu travels by land from Ninh Thuận to the festival every year, and everyone seems to know him around here, even the temple manager, Trần Bá Chiến.
Chiến is a 65-year-old local to Huế. For the past five years, he has overseen the shrines and coordinated the groups that use the temple's’ facilities during the festival. In fact, he is hosting Trầu at the moment. He says people come to the festival for different reasons, and at different times.
“People start to attend on the first day of the seventh lunar month. They go early to make their offerings to the goddess because by the evening of the ninth, rituals take place so they cannot offer incense,” Chiến explains. “Sometimes, there are days with very few people. Wealthy people can hire boats to attend which costs about 100 million Vietnamese đồng. There are those who go early to light incense for the goddess. They return home when they’re finished, they don't come back for a second time during the festival.”
Meanwhile on the Perfume River, two large wooden dragons steer the front of a rectangular boat. Inside the main room of the boat, there are two big altars that face one another while two smaller altars sit in the front corners of the room. Yellow cloth lines the walls and plates of fruits, snacks, and incense sit on top of the altar tables as offerings, surrounded by flowers.
Nguyễn Thị Kim Chi is the leader of her temple delegation with 40 people from Đà Nẵng. She calls her delegation her soldiers and commands them accordingly. At 70 years old, she comes from six generations of lên đồng practitioners. Kim Chi has been performing lên đồng rituals for the past 40 years and UNESCO considers her a key representative of the Mother Goddess religion in Việt Nam. She says her purpose at the festival is both to pay gratitude and to pray for others.
Kim Chi is the first in her delegation to perform the lên đồng ritual. Rituals can last anywhere from two hours to over ten hours. It all depends on how many practitioners perform, if they are experienced, and whether or not the medium can actually channel the spirits.
Kim Chi starts her ritual in complete makeup and the costume of a Vietnamese king. She bows to the two main altars that represent the Mother Goddess.
The music starts playing. Seconds later, she is in trance. Kim Chi takes a sword and mimics martial arts movements and then hops continuously on one foot while pulling the ribbon wrapped around her neck. This represents the movement of riding a horse on the battlefield as the king once did.
Next, Kim Chi bows once more to both altars and offers a plate filled with incense, lucky papers, and cigarettes as gifts to the Mother Goddess. She then sits down in the front altar facing a small mirror. She toasts to the Goddess Mother and takes a sip from a small cup while covering her face from the altar out of respect. It’s usually filled with tea or a high quality alcohol. Continuing to embody the spirit of the king, she offers some wisdom to those in attendance. Then she continues dancing while passing out money to particular people in need of healing or guidance. The money represents good luck tokens from the guardian spirits.
Afterwards, Kim Chi goes back to the altars and bows to them both before putting a red cloth over her head. It’s a sign that she is transitioning out of her trance.
She then changes into her next costume with the help of her two assistants who are at her side throughout the entire ritual.
Over the next three hours into the evening, Kim Chi changes into 12 vastly different costumes to represent historical figures of the religion. Each time she changes outfits, she transitions in and out of trance. With each character she assumes, her demeanor and movements also change. When she becomes a queen, she dances with lit candles. Seamlessly, she moves from the highest ranking figure to the lower ones, going in character like the King to the princess to the youngest son of the Mother Goddess.
A veteran medium like Kim Chi can transition in and out of trance without much physical aggravation. The process is much different for lesser experienced practitioners. Some of the mediums shake or drop their heads back during their transcendance.
According to Ngô Đức Thịnh, an expert in Vietnamese spirituality, there are nearly 50 different genies that are worshipped in the Mother Goddess religion. These genies are considered “historical celebrities" who have served Việt Nam, and for that reason, people still honor and remember them today.
Kim Chi believes festivals like Điện Hòn Chén play a crucial role in preserving Vietnamese culture and history. “If the world does not have a festival like this, how will people learn about the history?” she asks. “It’s people like myself really trying to capture all of its colors and dimensions, so that others can experience it fully and celebrate the tradition. If you really think about it, all of us, all of these people -- we're just normal people, and everything we do, all of this is to represent our national and cultural identity, our heritage.”
While the festival is considered a significant cultural and spiritual space, it has also changed over the years. There is now a big presence of makeshift vendors selling shrine offerings, costumes and souvenirs. For most Vietnamese people, it can be costly to travel to Huế and also to take time off from work. Trầu says the rise of the festival’s commercialization coincides with a loss of tradition.
“This is the result of money. It is money that has messed with our national religion of being human. It can no longer hold on to anything at all. The foundation is lost,” he says.
But Chiến, the local temple manager, says the changes are also due to the government profiting from the required licenses. He points to the police presence at the festival and says most are there to keep an eye out on unruly participants. Others say there are probably undercover police at the festival monitoring who participates.
“Sometimes you have to worry about putting out money to get a license. Why do authorities charge so much for spirituality! It didn't exist in the old days but now you must have money in order to get a license,” Chiến says.
Oscar Salemink is a Dutch anthropologist and historian who researches Vietnamese spirituality at the University of Copenhagen. He says lên đồng practices have many positive results for its followers.
Devout practitioners like Kim Chi believe in the healing power of lên đồng, and she says it is only right to pass her knowledge onto others.
“If you understand it and are able to liberate yourself but don’t share that skill with others, then you are not doing much good,” she says.
Today, lên đồng is considered a national cultural treasure and Việt Nam is seeking UNESCO recognition of this belief as an intangible cultural heritage. But this hasn’t always been the case. Professor Salemink says the Vietnamese Communist Party’s economic reforms had not applied to religious freedom.
“There have been a relaxation of policies in Việt Nam since the 1980s, since the economic reforms. Socially and culturally there is much more freedom. Now of course this freedom does not necessarily transfer to religious freedom in all places places and all domains but what happened was that there were quite a few colloquia and conferences that brought together Vietnamese researchers and Vietnamese policymakers about questions like, ‘Should we allow for this? Should we allow again for village festivals?’ In the end it was allowed"
And yet, Năm Trầu says he longs for the more traditional festivals of the past. “I attend many, many festivals. I look for the traditional experience but I can not find it. It does not have the same richness anymore,” he says.
Nevertheless, Trầu still makes his way on foot year after year alongside thousands of other Vietnamese in search of what once was or what it could be.
After days of festivities and rituals, traces of colorful styrofoam balls and burnt omen papers are left behind on the ground and floating in the Perfume River. The smell of incense, the sound of laughter, singing and dancing the tents and boats have disappeared as quickly as they came.
Năm Trầu, like most of the living, have left -- at least until February during the Lunar New Year when the other large festival calls for them, her children, to return and pay respect to their Mother Goddess.