Vietnam: Encounters with the Spirit World

From New Dawn 148 (Jan-Feb 2015)

A medium is an individual who has a connection with the spiritual world, or the “other side” as some people call it. The spirits on the other side of the veil between life and death can communicate with them. In the West, there is a long tradition of mediums relaying messages from the deceased to family and friends left behind. This is known as “mental mediumship.” Another more intriguing form of mediumship known as “physical mediumship” prospered in the 19th century. In this form, mediums would sometimes go into a trance and spirit controls would subsequently speak through them. These controls would harness subtle forces as well as the medium’s own energies to levitate objects and produce materialisations. These displays stunned great men of science like Alfred Russell Wallace and William Crookes.

In Vietnam, mediumship has been turned into an art form. Far from the table tipping and communication with deceased loved ones in the West, Vietnamese mediumship more resembles divinely inspired performance art. These spirit possession rituals are known as Lên đồng. With an array of beautiful glittering costumes, heavenly music, and dancing, watching a mediumship ritual in Vietnam is akin to visiting Broadway. However, mediumship in Vietnam is not completely uniform.

There are two basic camps of mediums – those affiliated with St Tran Hung Dao and those associated with the goddesses, princesses, princes, and mandarins of the Four Palaces. The latter mediums are associated with elaborate performance rituals. The former don’t often give elaborate performances, but play a key role in protecting people via the power of St Tran.

Four Palace mediums accept the existence of four realms: Heaven, Mountains and Forest, Waters, and Earth. Each realm is presided over by a goddess, the highest being Liễu Hạnh, who is the goddess of Heaven. Under each of these goddesses there lies a pantheon of warrior heroes (called Great Mandarins), Holy Ladies who are the royal representatives of the mother goddesses, and stately Princes and Princesses.1 A mythology associated with each of the spirits grants them their defining characteristics. Mediums of the Four Palaces may actively incarnate each spirit in the pantheon except for the mother goddesses at the top of the hierarchy. They are said to make only brief appearances with no accompanying performance or speech.

To get a feel for the setting, cultural anthropologist Kirsten Endres reports:

Lên đồng rituals are undoubtedly symphonic in character, as they tease the senses with a complex blend of sights, scents and sounds: the magnificent temple interior, the artfully arranged trays of offerings, the intoxicating smell of incense and flowers, the sumptuous robes and accessories that transform the medium into a deity, the entrancing rhythm of the liturgical music, and, ideally, the virtuosity of the ritual performance.2

The first key ingredient in a successful Lên đồng ritual is distinctive costumes. Each spirit sports its own unique blend of costume and accessories. For this reason, a contemporary medium requires upwards of “20 different brocade tunics, wrap-around skirts and blouses, as well as various headdresses and a range of trinkets and jewellery.”3 Male spirits often require accessories such as swords, spears and sticks with bells. Female spirits, on the other hand, require things like fans, rowing oars, combs, flowers, bracelets, and makeup.4 Once the medium is adorned in the right attire, they must then put on a great performance.

Each spirit has a particular style of dance. A good mediumistic performance is one in which the medium’s heart and soul is divested in the ritual. They must lose themselves as any great actor would and truly embody the spirits. During the performance, the spirits are said to act upon the medium and guide his or her movements, but in order for this to happen, a total and wholehearted submission to the spirits’ guidance is required.5

Most mediums do not actually enter a full trance state during the rituals. However, they are aware of the spirits presence through various sensations such as a feeling of lightness for female spirits, or, conversely, heaviness in the head and shoulders, or “hotness of the guts” for male spirits. In some instances, especially if the medium has a close affinity with a particular spirit in the pantheon, they may become fully entranced and lose all awareness of their surroundings.6 In any event, the spirit is said to be incarnated in the medium during the performance.

A typical possession ritual begins with food offerings to the various spirits at the main altar. The medium then sits in front of the altar surrounded by ritual assistants who help them change into the appropriate dress for each spirit who he or she embodies during the performance, which can last for several hours due to the great number of spirits the medium may embody. Next, the medium covers his or her head with a red veil, sometimes shaking or swaying as the spirit descends into him or her. Then, by a hand gesture, the medium signals which spirit has descended, and throws off the red veil once the spirit has embodied him or her. The assistants then act quickly to dress the medium and hand them the accessories. The medium next performs a ritual dance, the movements, postures and gestures of which reflect the deity’s rank, gender and personality. Depending on the spirit, they may dance with rope candles, oars, fans, swords or other items. After the dance, the deity might speak through the medium expressing words of thanks, blessings, or wishes to the participants. Afterwards, the deity may bless the altar offerings, and participants can come forward to present offerings and request a favour from the deity, such as advice, divination, healing, prosperity or protection.7 Granting a specific favour will depend on which deity is currently ‘possessing’ the medium. The Seventh Prince was a gambler in life, so devotees will ask for his blessing on their next gambling venture. The Tenth Prince, associated with talent and knowledge, may help devotees with studies.8

When a medium’s spirit embodiment is complete, they will replace the red veil over their head until a different spirit in the pantheon embodies them, and the process is repeated. During each incarnation, a band of musicians plays specific musical pieces for each of the different spirits. In these songs, traditional instruments play a melody appropriate for the spirit, and a vocalist sings a song that tells the history, merits, and amazing powers of that spirit.9 Finally, when the ritual is finished, the offerings (gifts presented to the deities during the ritual) are redistributed among the participants as lộc, meaning ‘blessed gifts’. Since these items now have the blessings of the spirits, they are thought to be imbued with power and are prized by all. Each participant receives a bag of gifts to take home. These may include food, beverages, and money.10

Becoming a Medium

Mediums enter their trade because they have a heavy spirit root (căn), meaning their fate is tied to one or more of the spirits in the pantheon. This usually means they owe a karmic debt to the spirit(s) incurred during a previous incarnation.11 A medium thus has close affinity with a pantheon spirit who shares a strong spirit root with him or her. This particular spirit may influence the medium’s personality and habits. If a male medium has a female spirit root, they may act effeminately and, vice versa, a female medium with a male spirit root may act hot-tempered and masculine.12 Even clothing style can be traced back to a medium’s spirit root. One medium, Mrs Duoc, has a fetish for pink clothes because she has the root of the Ninth Young Lady, who always wore pink.13

Besides having a spirit root, there are other reasons to be a medium as well. Sometimes a person will become a medium as a debt of gratitude for a service provided by the spirits.14 The biggest reason for entering mediumship is to relieve suffering. Anthropologists Karen Fjelstad and Lisa Maiffret explain:

Several individuals become mediums in response to life crises – such as the loss of a loved one, financial problems, or interpersonal conflicts. These crises caused grief, mental and physical illness, stress, and generalised anxiety.15

Mediumship in this context is a way to connect with a support group of fellow mediums (and spirits) and find greater meaning in life through spiritual practice. Another interpretation, however, is these misfortunes are caused by the spirits in order to drive people into mediumship.

Illness & the Supernatural

Vietnamese mediums recognise two kinds of illness, yin and yang. A yin illness is one caused by supernatural forces, whereas a yang illness is physical in nature. A person afflicted with a yin illness may indicate they are destined for mediumship. The spirits will cause misfortune and sometimes mental illness until the person enters mediumship. Other times, of course, they are not destined for mediumship, but are simply afflicted by an angry ghost and must make offerings at a temple or drink healing water. One example of the former is described by Fjelstad and Maiffret:

Hung’s life was full of difficulty before he became a spirit medium. He worked on a lunch truck from two in the morning until six in the evening every day of the week… During this time, Hung’s son was imprisoned for a shooting, and his eighteen-year-old daughter tried to commit suicide. Full of stress and anxiety, Hung said he wandered the streets “like a water buffalo,” roaming here and there. Physically ill for three months before he attended his first possession ceremony, Hung said he had intense stomach pain and vomited everything he ate. Everything changed when he became a spirit medium. His physical health improved, he stopped wandering the streets, he found a better job, and his daughter began feeling better.16

The above story and many others hint at the belief that spirits in the other world have control over people and worldly affairs. Kirsten Endres describes a woman who was told she must become a medium or her husband would die. Not believing this, she ignored the advice and a few months later her husband suddenly became ill and died. She was subsequently told that if she did not enter mediumship her son would begin behaving badly. This time, she did not want to take the risk, so went ahead and organised an initiation ceremony and is now a medium.17

Besides relieving hardship, mediumship has other rewards. The Mother Goddesses of the Four Palace religion are said to bring prosperity and good fortune to their adherents.18 This is why mediums spend lavishly on Lên đồng rituals. In essence, Four Palace mediumship is said to bring material success to the medium and his or her devotees. Researcher Pham Quynh Phuong writes:

For spirit mediums, mediumship is an endless circle: working hard to earn money in order to spend generously in possession rituals, hoping to be more successful and luckier in business, then using part of the profits earned from doing business to thank spirits by performing more rituals. In Hanoi, middle-class mediums who host Four Palaces rites often spend between two and ten million dong (US$150 to 700) [for a single ritual], six to fifteen times the monthly salary of the average civil servant…19

Mediums believe the more they spend, the more the spirits will appreciate and help them further to succeed in life. As one medium told Phuong, “Many people who calculate carefully are quite willing to spend money to serve spirits because after they perform the rituals their business becomes more successful and they gain more money than they spend.” Phuong says he is struck by the wealth of some master mediums and their disciples. He is awed by the opulent shrines some master mediums own, with dozens of gold-inlaid statues. He describes leaving one Lên đồng ceremony with his bag of blessed gifts containing “not only a ‘green rice’ cake and some apples, but also a note worth one-fifth of my monthly salary as a researcher.”20

Not only do the spirits of the Four Palaces provide material success, they also help mediums feel more at ease and confident in their daily lives. One medium explains: “Firstly, when I serve the spirits, I am very happy, I like it. Secondly, when I return home after a Lên đồng, living is easier and more prosperous, and the children study well.”21 Many mediums speak this way and say their mind is at ease after performing a spirit ritual. They “have something to trust in” and “don’t have to worry anymore.” They feel confident in their activities, knowing the spirits will look out for them.22

Another controversial view of mediumship in Vietnam is that it allows both males and females to transgress gender boundaries.23 In a country where homosexuality is still taboo, being a medium of the Four Palaces is a way for men to openly act in an effeminate manner – wearing women’s clothing, makeup, and other accessories during possession by a female spirit, as well as acting and speaking like a woman. Not only during the rituals, but also in their daily lives, it is not looked down upon for male mediums to act effeminately. It is communally accepted because of the male’s spirit root with a female member of the pantheon. Likewise, this interpretation vindicates a female medium’s masculine behaviour, an embodiment by a male spirit.

Interpreting personality via a spirit affinity can give license to all sorts of behaviours. One medium, Rose, traces not only her hot-temperedness back to the influence of the Prince spirits, but also her love of gambling, smoking cigarettes, and having love affairs. Furthermore, she traces her unforgiving nature to the spirit root of the Third Princess who, legend has it, never forgives. Finally, she says she has a very sharp tongue and will not concede an argument because of her affinity with the Little Princess.24 We see here that mediums can claim karmic ties to multiple spirits of the pantheon, and by doing so almost any behaviour can be justified. Even drug addiction could be said to be due to the influence of the Seventh Prince, who was addicted to opium in his earthly incarnation.25

Mediumship of St Tran

The other main form of mediumship in Vietnam is the mediumship of Tran Hung Dao and his family. Tran Hung Dao is a national hero in Vietnam who is best known for defeating the Mongol-Chinese army in the thirteenth century.26 As commander-in-chief of the Vietnamese military at the time, his multiple victories over the much larger Mongol-Chinese army are seen as being due to his “sound and creative military tactics.”27 Held by many as an exalted warrior, his spirit is now called upon for protection. He protected the Vietnamese territory physically during his earthly incarnation, and now from the afterlife he provides spiritual protection against ghosts and demons.28

The mediumship of St Tran is said to be a polar opposite of the Four Palaces’ mediumship. While Four Palace mediumship is theatrical, beautifully performative, and meant to confer prosperity and good fortune upon its participants, St Tran mediumship is violent and intended to protect one from worldly and spiritual dangers. Phuong details his experiences at a St Tran possession ceremony:

Four men of the Nguyen lineage, dressed in the red and white costumes of Saint Tran’s sons and generals, repeatedly throttled themselves with white cloths, pierced their cheeks with skewers, and used a small knife to cut their tongues, smearing their blood on sheets of paper to distribute. The last man… held a sword in one hand, shouted at the top of his voice, and jumped forwards and backwards before cutting his tongue…. Blood was smeared on two kinds of papers on which were written, in Sino-Vietnamese characters, “Trừ tà sát quỉ” (expel ghosts, kill devils)…. People excitedly vied with each other for them, groaning, even laughing, while attempting to grab the bloody sheets.29

These sheets of paper, marked with the blood of St Tran or one of his generals or family members, are thought to have the power to keep evil spirits away and protect one from yin, or supernaturally caused illness. In the past, these bloody sheets were burnt to ashes and then the ashes were mixed with water for drinking. Nowadays people make amulets out of them and carry them around their necks, in their wallets, or even under their pillows.30

You would think these two completely different forms of mediumship will always exist in total separation, but in recent times there has been an integration of sorts. Four Palace mediums have started to adopt St Tran as part of their pantheon of spirits. Mediums of the Four Palaces will embody St Tran just like they embody other spirits of the pantheon, performing a beautiful dance and delivering messages to the participants. This is, however, extremely controversial. One medium explains: “A ‘great hero’ like Saint Tran ‘never appeared to dance like others’ or ‘deliver nonsense messages’.”31 Even so, it is often the case that mediums serve both the spirits of St Tran and his family, and the spirits of the Four Palaces. This is because each has its own set of benefits. By serving St Tran, one affords oneself good health and protection from ghosts. On the other hand, by serving the spirits of the Four Palaces, one gains material success and prosperity. As was told to Phuong: “A pagoda [temple] that has no mother goddess altar has no wealth,” and “Saint Tran’s altar is essential for every shrine to protect the shrine from harassment by evil spirits.”32

It seems Vietnam has a spiritual marketplace rivalling Thailand in its immensity.33 There is a cultural heritage in both places for worshipping spirits. In the past, Vietnamese kings and high-ranking civil and military court officials would make offerings and pray to St Tran at a temple before conducting important national business or going into battle.34 Today, though a lot has changed in the world, the situation is much the same. You can see company directors attending spirit possession rituals before signing or bidding for a contract. Likewise, government officials sometimes make generous offerings to the spirits at these same rituals before and/or after an important election.35 In Vietnam, the power of the spirits in the minds of the people is still very much alive.

This article was published in New Dawn 148.
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1. K.W. Endres, Performing the Divine: Mediums, Markets and Modernity in Urban Vietnam, NIAS Press, 2011, 16
2. Ibid., 64
3. Ibid., 95
4. Ibid., 95-97; K. Fjelstad & Hien, (eds.), Possessed by the Spirits: Mediumship in Contemporary Vietnamese Communities, Cornell University, 2006, 60-61
5. Endres, 85
6. Fjelstad, 90
7. Ibid., 27-28, 40; Endres, 3-4
8. Endres, 101-102
9. Fjelstad, 62, 65
10. Ibid., 28; Endres 114
11. Endres, 31, 52
12. Fjelstad, 67-68
13. Pham Quynh Phuong, Hero and Deity: Tran Hung Dao and the Resurgence of Popular Religion in Vietnam, Mekong Press, 2009, 104
14. Fjelstad, 120-121
15. Ibid., 112-113
16. Ibid., 115
17. Endres, 45
18. Phuong, 131
19. Ibid., 138
20. Ibid., 138-139
21. Fjelstad, 69
22. Ibid., 84, 88
23. Endres, 98
24. Ibid., 50
25. Ibid., 100-101
26. Phuong, 21
27. Ibid., 24
28. Ibid., 74
29. Ibid., 85
30. Ibid., 86
31. Ibid., 111
32. Ibid., 131-132
33. ‘Living With Spirits: Magic & the Supernatural in Thailand’ by Daniel Neiman, New Dawn 141 (Nov-Dec 2013); ‘Mystery Thailand: Monks, Magic & the Spirit World’ by Daniel Neiman, New Dawn 140 (Sept-Oct 2013)
34. Ibid., 27
35. Ibid., 135

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About the Author

Daniel Neiman is a paranormal researcher and author with a focus on exploring the dimensions of the mind and reality. His previous articles for New Dawn include “Vietnam: Encounters with the Spirit World” (New Dawn 148), Living With Spirits: Magic & the Supernatural in Thailand (New Dawn 141), “Mystery Thailand: Monks, Magic & the Spirit World” (New Dawn 140), “Intelligent Design: Scientific Facts Point Us in a New Direction” (New Dawn Special Issue Vol 7 No 5), “Hypnotic State of Mind: The Untapped Power Within” (New Dawn Special Issue Vol 7 No 2). His book Enter The Light was his first attempt to come to grips with a wide range of paranormal phenomena and how they relate to the mind and reality. Dan lives in Seoul, South Korea where he teaches English and researches.

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