Malte Blas explores the pre-modern influence of ancient worship that is still practiced today in Northern Vietnam.
The tradition of ritual possession, known as len dong, is deeply rooted in an ancient matriarchal religion that supposedly predates foreign influences, such as Buddhism, Catholicism and Daoism.
The practice of len dong is an integral part of Dao Mau, or goddess religion, a shamanistic belief system that incorporates elements of nature and ancestor worship, as well as goddess figures from other traditions such as Chinese legends and Vietnamese history.
The ceremony is performed by a lay person, an individual with a special affinity for the spiritual world, called to act as a vessel for the ancestors to bestow blessings upon the living and drive out evil spirits.
For many years the practice of len dong was discouraged by the government, forcing the ritual underground, but today it is widely and openly practiced throughout the country.In 2016 Dao Mau and associated rituals were recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, creating new support and interest both locally and abroad. The ritual is usually practiced inside a temple, but today it is also possible to see a theatrical versions performed around Hanoi.
Len dong means “to mount the medium”, signifying that the gods, goddesses and spirits “ride” the performer while they dance ritualistically. The ceremony is also sometimes known as hau bong or “receiving the gods”.
The main goddesses invoked all represent different aspects of nature: Heaven, water, mountains and forests. Besides the main goddesses, a hierarchical pantheon of spirits reside in the celestial kingdom known as the Four Palaces, all of whom may possess the medium during the ceremony.
A typical len dong ceremony starts with a red shawl being placed over the spirit mediums head. Each entity requires a different costume, symbolic of the properties which that spirit embodies, and two assistants are responsible for helping the medium to change clothes between each possession. It is not unusual for male mediums to wear women’s clothing or female mediums to dress as men, depending on the gender of the spirit which is called. Each spirit also has different tastes, with some spirits drinking rice wine and smoking cigarettes, while other spirits only drink tea.
Dao Mau stands in stark contrast to the strictly patriarchal philosophy of Confucianism. It is also a reminder of the gender-fluidity which existed throughout most of Southeast Asia in the not too distant past, but has been largely repressed in Northern Vietnam since colonial times.
It is a common belief that feminine men and masculine women are more in tune with the supernatural, perhaps because they have a deeper connection with a past life.
Between each possession, the medium changes clothing and the red shawl is placed over his or her head. Offerings, consisting of fruits, cakes, soft drinks and beer, are brought out for the spirit to bless before they placed at a shrine near the temple entrance.
It is also possible for participants to approach the medium at the end of the ceremony and petition the spirits for some private favour or blessing.
The ritual blessing and distribution of “lucky money” is also integral to the ritual and it is common for the len dong practitioner to pay for the ritual, at a significant personal cost.
An assistant hands out the money to participants between each performance and the medium also throws handfuls of money to the congregation while dancing.
This money is collected from the temple floor by participants and kept in small envelopes, thought to bring good fortune to the receiver. The act of blessing and handing out money is also a way for the spirit medium to achieve merit, gain favour among the goddesses, and atone for any past sins.
How, When and Where to See a Possession Ceremony
Len dong ceremonies are performed on auspicious days according to the Vietnamese lunar calendar. They are open to the public and visitors to temples in Hanoi’s Old Quarter may be lucky to stumble upon one if they explore the many small temples in the area.
According to Dao Mau, there are four festivals that are particularly auspicious for len dong rituals. They are the First Full Moon Festival, the Year-End Festival, the Beginning of Summer, and the End of Summer.
Foreign visitors are usually welcomed with curiosity and openness, but it is important to be respectful of the sacredness of the space and the ritual. Take care to remove your shoes and do not obstruct the movement of the spirit medium or assistants. Taking pictures and filming the performance is perfectly acceptable, but avoid using flash photography.
You should not pay anything to participate in such a ceremony and it is considered taboo to try and hand any money received back to the temple.
This money should be kept as a good luck charm, or if you do not wish to keep it, you can give it to one of the younger children who will usually gleefully collect the lucky money in their envelopes.
Scrambling to collect money off the temple floor is an important aspect of the ritual and believers of all ages will eagerly participate. It is also possible to witness a theatrical production of the tradition at the Viet Theatre in Hanoi. This performance is called “Tu Phu – Four Palaces” in reference to the spiritual realm in which the goddesses reside.
The Four Palaces Show is a choreographed interpretation of a traditional ceremony, with colourful costumes and sets that provide a unique cultural and artistic experience.
It serves as a great introduction to the tradition of Dao Mau and is quite popular among foreigners and locals alike.