Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Hà Nội Report | Tây Thiên

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
As a break from photographing Hầu Đồng ceremonies, I thought it would be interesting to travel the 50 or so miles north of Hà Nội to visit Tây Thiên, considered to be the birthplace of Vietnamese Buddhism, and an important footnote -to say the least to my research for my forthcoming photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Việt Nam.

Leaving my hotel at 7:30 am with my favorite acolytes, helpers, interpreters and fellow photographers, we reached the temple complex by mid-morning. The temple complex of Tây Thiên is located atop of a 600 meter-high mountain in the Vinh Phuc province. It is dedicated to Mẫu Năng Thị Tiêu, one of the seven spirits dispatched to earth by the Jade Emperor to treat diseases and to save humanity. She was conferred the title of Quốc Mẫu Năng Thị Tiêu, as mother of the country.

The complex consists of many temples but the must-see one is accessible by foot (around 4 miles) or by cable car. Naturally we chose the latter despite the incredible crowds. Vietnamese women (mostly from rural areas) don't take no for an answer, don't appreciate queues and lines, and, like mice, can go through the narrowest of gaps. This talent is very useful to find openings between people standing for their turn.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Naturally, because this is Vietnam, there were hundreds of small places where pilgrims (and we were pilgrims too) can have meals. While I was busy photographing a musical troupe, my two companions ordered lunch of chicken.

The troupe was performing a pseudo Hầu Đồng in an open air setting, not in a temple and without the spirituality associated with such ceremonies. The male performer was merely acting as a medium would in a ceremony, including changing into various costumes to the tunes of a Chầu Văn band. It was stunning to see how much money pilgrims gave the performer who just kept smiling and dancing. I don't know if there was any significance to this spectacle other than to relieve the pilgrims of their hard earned cash.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
With Tây Thiên being the birthplace of Vietnamese Buddhism, it reminds me of an encounter I had the day following our trip.  Naturally, I knew that there were Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns, I didn't realize that some take to the streets of the capital to collect alms. I came across two of them in Hà Nội's Old Quarter, walking in small alleys and stopping at each shop or tiny restaurants...standing there for a few moments until someone gave them a few notes, or not.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved