Throughout the years, the religion has waxed and waned, but its practices have recently seen a resurgence following their inscription by UNESCO in 2016 as intangible cultural heritage.
The fascinating performance at Cong Nhan Theatre portrays a trance-like hau dong practice, a ritual of spirit possession.
“Vietnam is an agricultural country so the worship of agricultural goddesses is especially common. Before (UNESCO’s inscription), the audience was mostly either farmers or businessmen. Today’s audience includes everyone, from civil servants to high-level officials.”
Opened in late 2017, the Quintessence of Tonkin is an open-air show combining water puppetry, a light show and a broad review of Vietnamese culture.
What is Mother Goddess worship?
Devoted to female deities, Mother Goddess worship was established in the 16th century as an alternative to Confucianism.
“Women are expected to play a passive, submissive and subservient role (in Confucianism),” says Dr. Nguyen.
“They are not well respected and have to rely on men. The people needed a symbol, so they invented mother goddess ‘Lieu Hanh.’
“She represents Vietnamese women’s burning desire for freedom, independence and happiness.”
In Mother Goddess worship, hau dong (which loosely means ‘to mount the medium’ or ‘to go into a trance’) is the most important step.
During the ceremony, mediums (who are traditionally chosen by deities at birth) and their assistants will don bright costumes, make offerings to Buddha, perform folk dances and petition the goddesses to descend and possess their bodies.
When spirits are believed to have entered the body, the medium will appear to change personalities. From that point onward, all actions and words are said to be those of the spirit.
The purpose? The mediums believe that these spirits will bless them with health, hope, happiness and good luck.
“The hero will come and mount my body … they’re acting into my body,” says Nguyen Duc Hien, a medium.
“When the fragrance of the joss sticks and the music combine … you have the chance to ask god to (incarnate) you. The dance is quite different from normal acting in life.”
The evolution of hau dong
Considered a superstitious ceremony during Communist rule, hau dong was prohibited until 1987.
Since the government relaxed restrictions, the ritual slowly made its way back into urban communities like Hanoi.
“The main thing is to help you be peaceful in your mind — you can learn how to help people, be open with people, do the good things, avoid bad things,” Nguyen adds.
“These are Vietnamese heroes, gods of Vietnam. They are very, very holy to help the people.”
Hanoi’s Thanh Chuong Viet Palace features elements from 54 ethnic groups, making it one of the most comprehensive catalogs of Vietnam’s cultural history.
Over the years, the ritual has modernized with an influx of new practitioners, who don’t always follow age-old customs.
“With growth comes many changes,” says Nguyen. “For example, in the past, costumes were also embroidered with certain patterns denoting religious and philosophical symbols. The patterns today are quite spontaneous.”
Where to see it
Inspired by a hau dong performance in 2013, director Viet Tu set out to bring this ritual to the stage in a respectful way.
“Along with water puppetry, hau dong is one of a few rare art forms that is purely Vietnamese, uninfluenced by other cultures,” says Tu, whose wife is a medium.
“My show not only has to be lively and entertaining, but it must also accurately reflect the ceremony of Mother Goddess worship.”
He set out to explore the spiritual tradition, albeit with a few tweaks to make it more approachable and enjoyable on stage.
“We have a lot more open space on the stage, which allows us to perform bigger moves like spinning. Mediums are not allowed to spin — their faces always have to face the Mother Goddesses altar,” performer Lien Kim tells CNN Travel.
“Every country has its own spiritual practice. For Vietnamese people it is the tradition of worshiping Mother Goddesses. I think the beauty of it is the appreciation of women and their role in society.”