Sunday, 14 September 2014

Bac Ha | Report Five | The People of Tay Bac

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Rather than rising pre-dawn to drive from Sapa to Bac Ha in order to reach its famous Sunday market early, I structured the itinerary in such a way that we spent the night at the Sao Mai Hotel. Naturally, Bac Ha being a weekend destination for most tourists, the Sao Mai Hotel is the best there is in the small town...which doesn't mean much. That's said, its location is extremely convenient as it's only a couple of hundred meters from the Bac Ha market.

Once again, I took a walk along the streets of Bac Ha late afternoon Saturday, and wafts of religious chants emanated from a small temple. Asking around, I was told it was a hầu đồng ceremony, but I couldn't get firm information as to when it'd be over or how long it was to be performed.

Rushing back to the Sao Mai, I gathered the rest of the group and we photographed the ceremony  until late at night. Before describing what hầu đồng is, I must express my utter amazement and gratitude to the local Vietnamese congregants at this temple who welcomed us with open arms, and showered us with their tolerance.

Hầu đồng, also known as lên đồng, is a ritual of spirit mediumship practiced in Vietnamese indigenous religion and Đạo Mẫu, a Vietnamese mother goddess religion, in which followers become mediums for various deities. The main ritual, which may last from two to seven hours, begins with petitions to Buddha and to the deities for permission to carry out the ritual, after which the medium seats him or herself (both men and women may act as mediums) in the middle of four assistants, whose job it is to facilitate the medium's incarnation of different deities and spirits. (Wikipedia).

Although we were restricted by the temple's small space, I managed to photograph at will until I ran out of SD card space. I also recorded the live performance by the musicians; music that accompanied the medium as she went through the various incarnations. The live recording was badly affected by the small space of the temple and the resultant reverberation of the percussion and the gong.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy- All Rights Reserved
It was a pre-breakfast short walk to the Bac Ha market early morning Sunday, where the villagers had already arrived and spread their products to sell. It looked somewhat different than how I remembered it, and May Lan (our H'mong minder) agreed. The local authority had moved the eateries down to the entrance of the market.

That early, we were the only non-local people around....but I knew it wouldn't last long when tourist buses would arrive. There were mostly Flower H'mong, and a few Black Dzao, and Tay. The animal market was especially busy, with buffalos being bought and sold (one sells for about 30 million dongs or $1500...not much). A few local tribespeople were selling puppies and small dogs....whether for pets or otherwise.

Engaging the women vendors without buying any of their wares is not too difficult. Many of them have a very keen sense of humor, and are willing to have fun and be teased. A few are dour, and don't respond to bantering, and a few genuinely don't like to be photographed. Older women cover their faces, not because they don't want to be photographed for cultural reasons, but because -as they told May Lan- they were too old and had lost their beauty.

Just at the entrance to the market, there's a small restaurant where we had breakfast. It seemed its Pho Ga was the best some of my group had ever had.