Dressed exquisitely in elaborately embroidered silk robes, heavy hooped necklaces and flashing hair adornments, Mrs Nguyen Ngoc Dan steps gracefully into the center of the room. Around her cross-legged believers watch her every movement, their eyes wide and bright in anticipation. Suddenly the musicians strike up and the crowd cheers in delight as Mrs Nguyen Ngoc Dan throws her arms open wide to begin the dance of the Second Dame. Onlookers thrust bundles of paper money into her hands and she throws them into the air like confetti. The crowd scrambles eagerly to collect as much as they can.
This is ‘Hau Dong’, an ancient, theatrical ritual that is at the heart of Mother Goddess worship. This uniquely Vietnamese folk belief is currently the subject of the Vietnamese Women’s Museum’s special exhibition ‘Worshipping Mother Goddesses: Pure Heart – Beauty – Joy.’ As the exhibition explains, worshippers believe that the Mother Goddess is the mother of all things and rules over four palaces; Heaven, Earth, Water and Mountains and Forests. Underneath her is a complex pantheon of nearly 60 deities, both male and female, who are thought to provide good health and prosperity for those who request it.
In recent years, Mother Goddess worship has gone from strength to strength, with the annual festival in Nam Dinh attracting tens of thousands of followers a year. Staff at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum conducted hundreds of interviews with followers from Hanoi and the Northern provinces to provide answers as to why the cult attracts such a widespread and devoted following. One follower Mr Bui Dac Truong, a 23 year old student, explains that followers find great emotional support from Mother Goddess worship; ‘The Mother Goddess is our spiritual mother. Whenever we are happy and joyful, we come to Her and whenever we feel sad, we talk and share with Her. Whenever we face difficulties, we look for Her and find Her support and protection. The Mother Goddess means everything.’
Recognising the importance of ancestor worship in Vietnamese culture is essential in understanding the Mother Goddess cult. Many of the figures in the Mother Goddess pantheon are deified historical figures, such as the Trung Sisters who led a rebellion against the Chinese in about 39 AD and the heroic female warrior Lady Trieu (3rd century AD.) Spirit mediums such as Mrs Nguyen Ngoc Dan evoke these figures using ritualized dances and gestures accompanied by traditional music and singing from the ‘Chau Van’ musicians. As each deity has his or her own story and appearance the medium must be able to change costumes and movements flexibly. By channeling these figures, the medium allows worshippers to make a connection between the past and their hopes and desires of everyday life.
Followers believe an atmosphere of beauty and joy help evoke the deities and attract their good favour. Followers spend large sums of money on decoration and offerings, such as elaborate votive papers styled into representations of the goddess or symbols connected to them. As Ms Nguyen Thi Ngai, an 80 year old spirit medium and temple keeper from Hanoi explains, ‘if the votive paper is beautiful, the Goddess will stay with us longer.’ However, there are concerns that followers have put too much emphasis on extravagant and ostentatious offerings and there have been cases of followers bankrupting themselves in the process. Purity of heart, says Ms Mai Thuy Vinh, 60, spirit medium, is the only thing that really matters. ‘A rich follower can offer a bundle of things; a humble follower can offer a stick of incense. ‘
Nevertheless, supporting the needs of worshippers is big business for many of the craft villages around Hanoi. As plastic products became more widespread, the wicker-work industry in Phuc Am village began to die out. However, after switching to votive paper making workshops which supply the Hanoi market, village income has been on the increase. Similarly, the Son Dong carving village benefits from the Mother Goddess cult. Mr Nguyen Van Thang, 37, owner of one of the many statue carving workshops in the village, says that they show their respect for the Mother Goddess through well-made and honest trade; ‘If (a follower) orders a statue worth 5 mil dong then the final product must be worthy of the price. We must not deceive our customers.’
However, the exhibition highlights aspects of the booming Mother Goddess market that do not preserve the ideals of ‘pure heart.’ Some spirit mediums have been known to exploit followers who have fallen into misfortune. They put pressure on the follower to hold expensive and unnecessary initiation ceremonies and out of fear and desperation they accept. Followers spend a great deal of money to meet the master medium’s demands which can be two or three times more than the real cost.
Despite the difficulties of a growing market, followers insist that Mother Goddess worship offers them something unique. Ms Nguyen Thi Thoa, a 70 year old farmer describes her feelings after attending a ‘Hau Dong’ ritual; ‘I feel very happy, spiritually refreshed, and have a sense of pleasure which cannot be described in words.’ The exhibition, which took museum staff 4 years of extensive research and development, aims to express this. ‘We wanted to recreate this meaningful and sacred experience, both for worshippers and for visitors who have no previous knowledge of Mother Goddess worship’ says museum director Ms Bich Van. The exhibition offers a fascinating insight into the contemporary worship of the Mother Goddess; a growing belief with ancient roots that shows no sign of slowing in an increasingly modernized Viet Nam.
The exhibition was officially launched on January 5th, 2012 at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum on 36 Ly Thuong Kiet Street, Hanoi.