Thursday, 29 October 2015

POV: What I'll Always Remember

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
As my readers know, I've been completely immersed in a personal project involving the Mother Goddess indigenous religion in Vietnam for almost a year now; making the long journey New York City to Hanoi three times so far, aiming to eventually produce a photo book. I envisage the photo book to include photographs (naturally) of the rituals, portraits of the mediums and fortune tellers involved in the practice of hầu đồng, as well as interviews with its practitioners.

I've attended over 20 hầu đồng ceremonies so far; featuring master mediums, intermediate mediums and neophytes. Most of them were female mediums, with a small proportion of the ceremonies conducted by males. Many were in the capital city of Hanoi and its suburbs, and some were far in the east and north of the country; Hai Phong, Lang Son and Kiep Bac to mention but a few.

The timings of these ceremonies are always based on the lunar calendar, and are not advertised. It's more of a word of mouth (aka mobile telephones) kind of thing amongst the community. Some are quite large and others are small. Some are held in large temple complexes, others in smaller out of the way temples and some held in tiny private temples or rooms with shrines in homes. To have access and be welcomed in these ceremonies wherever they are held, one must gain the confidence and trust of the community, and initially be accompanied by someone known to the mediums or the musicians.

The ceremonies are extremely complex, and involve sequential rituals that are accompanied by sacred liturgical music and songs. These ceremonies and rituals haven't changed in centuries, and neither has the music, although some modernization has creeped in by bringing in amplifiers...and to my untrained ears, a smidgen of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton riffs.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I researched and read as much as I could find online and in books about Đạo Mẫu, and its complexities are just staggering. However, I am at the point where I now understand a few of the rituals, some of significance of the various spirits of the Đạo Mẫu pantheon, and I even correctly interpreted the hand signals by a medium during a recent ceremony...hardly an "expert", but able to ask somewhat intelligent questions.

These ceremonies are religious events, but they are also part fashion show, part pantomime, part dance and re-enactments, and bottom line, are mind-blowing, fun and - for a variety of reasons - challenging, to photograph. 

However, I also look back to my 2015 three trips and realize that there's something infinitely more important to me than the photographs I made...and that's the human kindnesses I've been privileged to experience while at these ceremonies.

Here are just a few, out of the many, that will stay with me for a long time:

1. On a pre-dawn private bus trip to attend a ceremony in Lạng Sơn, not only was I given a choice seat but half way to our destination, the medium asked me if I needed anything. Unthinking, I replied that a coffee would have been nice. She immediately turned to a nearby friend, who smilingly gave me her half finished cup of Vietnamese coffee. I couldn't refuse.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
2. The hầu đồng ceremonies typically go on for 5-6 hours, and since I like to stand (most of that time) while I photograph, it's exhausting. In Lạng Sơn, I was also sweating quite heavily due to the humidity, tied a bandanna around my head and kept on shooting. At some point, I felt a waft of cool air on my face, and turning to see where it came from, I saw a woman in the audience (perhaps another friend of the medium) fanning me. Her kindness stunned me, and I didn't know how to react for a few seconds. I thanked her, telling her I was fine. What else could I do or say? She wanted me to be comfortable, but I couldn't let her go on fanning me. 

3. I was invited to attend a hầu đồng ceremony in Kiep Bac, about 2-1/2 hours drive east of Hanoi. A car, which I shared with other guests of the medium and her family, was provided and we drove off at precisely the time agreed upon. As I had to leave the ceremony before it ended late at night, the medium and her husband reassured me a car would drive me back whenever I wanted. When the time came, the medium's husband and his friends accompanied me to a small car, and told me that it was already paid for. Ignoring my entreaties that it was I who should pay, they bundled me in the car, and set me on my way. Its certainly not an insignificant fare, and adding to my discomfort, these are people of modest means.

4. The musicians, assistants and guests at the hầu đồng ceremonies are all fed before and after the ceremonies. The medium is usually fasting, and is meditating during these meals, which are literally feasts. I share these meals, even if I'm not hungry, because it's the right thing to do. And I realized that I was always being taken care of, asked if I had enough to eat or to drink, and offered whatever was available.

Photo © Trịnh Ngọc Minh-All Rights Reserved

5. During the ceremony in Kiep Bac, where it was also hot and humid, the medium's husband and her friends continuously made certain I had enough water to keep hydrated, and kept an eye on my camera bag. 

These are but a few of the many wonderful examples of the Vietnamese people's generosity and kindness that, as I said, affected me deeply because I know these gestures are genuinely selfless, and are given to me because of my interest in, and respect of, their culture, religion and ways of life.