Photographer Tewfic El-Sawy on hau dong, a practice of spirit mediumship in Vietnam

VOV.VN - Hau dong, or "going into trance" ceremony, is a ritual of spirit mediumship practiced among followers of Dao Mau - a Vietnamese indigenous mother goddess religion.

Captured by its artistic elements, New York based photographer Tewfic El-Sawy has spent the last 2 years to do a photo project about this ancient tradition of Vietnam.

Q: Hello Tewfic. You just published a photo book about the practice of hau dong and became the first-ever non-Vietnamese photographer to do so. I think the book is fantastic and very informative. Why did you decide to focus your project on hau dong?

AHau dong attracted me because it combines a lot of elements such as fashion or theatre. I call hau dong a spiritual theatre. It brings in the Gods into the temple and uses dance, music, sacred songs, costumes, colors, fashion, and spiritual ideas to the whole performance. That’s why it is totally different from the other religion of the world. It’s a happy and joyful religion.

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New York based photographer Tewfic El-Sawy (Photo: VOV/Dieu Ha)
When I accidentally found out about hau dong, I went back to New York city and researched everything I could about hau dong and Dao Mau. I googled and looked at books, but I found that no non-Vietnamese photographers have ever done a documentation about hau dong.

I found many, many beautiful pictures from many talented Vietnamese photographers but nobody from the US, Europe or even Asia. So I decided to take pictures of hau dong as many as I could to make into a book and introduce hau dong to the West. I want to tell them that hau dong is a very important cultural tradition and a very important religion to the people in Vietnam. And perhaps the book will help Vietnam to get UNESCO to approve the inclusion of Dao Mau to its list of heritages.

Q: The practice of hau dong and Dao Mau is so complicated that not every Vietnamese can understand it. How can you conduct such a detailed project into this ceremony?

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Le Thi Tam, a former actress in chèo (Vietnam's traditional popular opera), is now a master medium. (Photo: Tewfic El-Sawy/Dieu Ha)
A: I read a lot of books by Vietnamese professors and scholars which was translated into English, and also books by American professors about Dao Mau. 

The other difficulty is the language because I don’t speak Vietnamese so I don’t understand everything but after attending 30-40 ceremonies, I started to understand its meanings.
 I learnt that a lot of the Gods in hau dong are historical figures or national heroes. Hoàng Bảy, for instance, is real.

He existed. He was in Lao Cai province and when the foreign invaders came to invade Vietnam, he pushed them back. So I think it’s the essence of Vietnam and the nationality of Vietnam.

When joining a hau dong ceremony, can you really immerse into the surrounding environment?

- Not really but what I felt a lot is the music. I joined in by the music. I think it’s the music that grabbed me in and made me feel happy. The act of spirituality itself did not impact me. But as one medium told me, maybe because I’m not Vietnamese, I can’t feel it. In fact, I don’t believe in any religion. That’s what I am. But again, the music is fantastic.

As a traveling photographer, you must have been to many different places around. Have you seen any similar ritual practice like hau dong in other countries?

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Tewfic is the first non-Vietnamese photographer to publish a book about hầu đồng in English. (Photo: VOV/Dieu Ha)
A: Like hau dong? No. There are other ceremonies in other religions but they are not like hau dong at all. They are very different. I went to India and went to a ceremony but it was more severe and not happy. It was a little bit scary. Hau dong in Vietnam is otherwise, it is fun. I think it’s the happiness of the audience that is striking to me. 

And I think whenever the medium noticed me, he or she usually were generous to acknowledge my presence and said thank you. Those moments were when I felt a lot of appreciation for the people in the people who accepted me, told me to come in and join them. I felt the sense of community with the audience, with the Vietnamese people. I’m not Vietnamese but I felt like a Vietnamese and happy.

A big thank to Tewfic for sharing with us about his book and experiences with the practice of hau dong in Vietnam. 

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