Monday, 22 February 2016

Hà Nội Report | In Phúc Yên

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
An interesting day was in the offing as I met with Ms Kim Nga to drive to her home town of Phúc Yên; about an hour and a half drive from Hà Nội this early morning. A small Hầu Đồng ceremony was scheduled to start at a private temple at 8:00, and it promised to involve rites that I hadn't witnessed before. I hoped that would turn up to be the case for my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam.

Ms Nga is a final year student of Economics at the Hanoi National University of Education, and although her grandmother is herself a Hầu Đồng medium, she's only interested in its cultural aspects.

After an obligatory breakfast with the chầu văn musicians (one of them is Ms Nga's uncle), the ceremony started without much fanfare. The attraction in such rural ceremonies is that they're not as pomp and circumstance as those performed in the large cities such as Hà Nội, where money and donations flow virtually unchecked.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

I will not describe here the ceremony in details, but suffice it to say that it was the first time for me to witness a trance by an audience member during a ceremony. The woman was near me when she suddenly started to sway with the music, eyes closed in a beatific and rapturous expression until she finally collapsed. It was a joyful trance; none of the violent paroxysms that I had seen in other situations and other religious traditions. Her friends and family around her were smiling as if she had received a gift. Although there were other unusual occurrences during the ceremony, this was the most notable.

The ceremony ended at 12:30, and although we were pressed to share lunch with the 20 or so people involved in the ceremony, we had to leave to be with Ms Nga's family.

The owner of the house, upon knowing I was from the United States, proudly shared the information that he was part of the Viet Kong during the Vietnam (or American) War, and as they were barefooted, they would take the boots off the US soldiers killed during battle. I explained that I did not serve in the US Military and that I was against the war...so I would appreciate him not taking my shoes that I had taken off before entering his home. This, when translated, elicited chortles and chuckles from the audience. Phew!

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

We were welcomed by Ms Nga's family at her grandmother's home. A family of rice farmers, deservedly proud of their daughter, they had lived here for generations. The grandmother's house had beautiful ancient wooden pillars inscribed in Chinese characters, and on the walls were photographs of the family's ancestors. We sat down to a feast, and the hospitality and generosity were truly exemplary.

Following lunch, Ms. Nga's grandmother (Ms Le Thi Teu), a septuagenarian Hầu đồng medium welcomed us to her room where she conducted her ceremonies before she retired in 2008. AlthoughMs Teu is tiny, I sensed she was made of steel. She is a woman not to be trifled with, and is probably the master of her household. The interview of around 20 questions was conducted by Ms Nga in Vietnamese, whilst I recorded it. Ms Teu's insight will be interesting as she lived through the French occupation and the Socialist government which both discouraged (and even prohibited) Hầu đồng ceremonies.