Thursday, 23 April 2015

Hầu Đồng | Exposure | The Power of 'So Mang'

As readers and followers of this blog probably know, I've spent about two weeks in Hà Nội on a personal assignment to document The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam, who perform the rituals of Hầu Đồng; one of the main elements of Đạo Mẫu, the Mother Goddess religion of the indigenous Vietnamese people.

My passion for photographing esoteric religious and spiritual traditions, coupled with a thrilling sense of discovering a new one in Đạo Mẫu, made these two weeks one of the most rewarding periods of my photographic career. Overall, it exceeded my results expectation.

For the genesis of this project, let me briefly backtrack. 

Leading my September 2014 photo expedition-workshop to Vietnam, I accidentally stumbled on a Đạo Mẫu rehearsal ceremony in Sapa, and an actual Hầu Đồng ritual the following evening in the northern town of Bac Ha. Serendipity (or perhaps it was what the Vietnamese call số mạng) was certainly on my side on these two days, because I was completely in the dark about this religion and its rituals. 

Returning to New York, I started to research the subject, garnered as much information as I could, established the ground contacts through social media and resolved to return to Hà Nội to document as much as I could over a period of about 2 weeks; hardly enough to do a exhaustive job of it but sufficient to give me a solid head start.

I was extremely fortunate to have Ms Trần Thị Thanh Tú, a talented Ha Noi-based photographer herself, helping me every inch of the way. She generously took time off from her regular job and was instrumental in introducing me as a trusted friend to the Hầu Đồng community. Without her, this project wouldn't have taken off an inch off the ground. Her introduction and their acceptance were key to the success of the assignment.

Treated with nothing but over-the-top hospitality by the Hầu Đồng community, I made friends with Trịnh Ngọc Minh, Ms Lê Ánh Tuyết, and Ung Anh Tuan, to name but a few. News of my interest spread amongst other contacts, to the point where I was invited to a ceremony by the gracious Ms. Nguyễn Thanh Mai; owner of the Golden Silk Boutique Hotel in Hà Nội, where I stayed for these two weeks. Even the hotel's receptionists were intrigued by my progress and would ask how it was going on my return at the end of each day. Some of them were unfamiliar with Đạo Mẫu, so I was pleased to share my knowledge of this Vietnamese ancient religious ritual.

As I put together this gallery of the mediums, I realized I had barely scratched the surface of the Hầu Đồng ritual so, for example, I confused many of the names of spirits until Ms Tu corrected them. The difference between a Chầu đệ nhị thượng ngàn (the Second Lady) and a Cô Chín Sòng Sơn (the Ninth Princess), obviously significant, didn't come easily to me, no matter how much I relied on the material I had downloaded from the internet.

Despite the best efforts of my hosts and friends, my inability to speak Vietnamese, or even understand a few words of it, did reduce my understanding of the intricacies of the rituals. For this, I naturally blame my own shortcomings.

I've added some background information on Đạo Mẫu and Hầu Đồng on The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam for those who are interested. It's a fascinating syncretic religious practice mixing a number of artistic elements, such as music, singing, dance and the use of costumes. It also happens to be a joyous religious ceremony, without the dour, morose, guilt-ridden and fearsome ambiances of some other established religions we all know about.

What next? Well, I plan to return to Vietnam in the coming months to work on another phase of this project, and I'm also toying with the idea of eventually publishing a book of these photographs.

Let's see what số mạng has in store for me.