How a privileged young Vietnamese man chose to abandon his education to pursue a rich, if controversial spiritual calling.
In the yard of Kiep Bac Temple, Long Nguyen's tall, slender 25-year-old frame sways in a large red cloak embroidered with dragons.
Behind him, the voices of four singers fill the 13th century sanctuary, a dusty hour's drive outside Hanoi.
As the invocations grow faster, the band wails on zithers, tom-toms, cymbals and flutes. Suddenly, Long claps his hands and tosses away his cloak, revealing a white princess’ dress and a silver turban tied in a bow.
The crowd cheers; Long smiles and dances coyly—weaving streaks of smoke in the air with four sticks of incense burning in his hands.
The middle-aged audience applauds.
In their eyes, Long is no longer himself but an incarnation of a deity—the Holy Dame of Bo Waterfall.
For the past four months, Long has trained as a medium, an important shamanic figure in the Vietnamese tradition known as Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms.
Believers hold that only a chosen few can bridge the chasm between gods and humans.
During a spirit possession ritual (hau dong), the deities incarnate the mediums and distribute blessings, cure illnesses and tell fortunes to those around them.
The degree to which modern Vietnam appreciates these efforts is complicated, to say the least.
A centuries-old tradition
Since the 16th century, Vietnamese faithful have gathered at palaces, sanctuaries and Buddhist temples to worship a trio of heroic female spirits revered for meting out justice and protecting the nation.
In Vietnam’s eclectic mix of animism, Taoism and Buddism, the Mother Goddesses of the Three Realms (heaven, water and mountains) exist below the Taoist Jade Emperor and are assisted by about 56 human and animal gods.
Within this tradition, it’s believed that the Jade Emperor punished his demigod daughter, Princess Lieu Hanh, for breaking a jade cup by sending her to earth.
Lieu Hanh spent her time here fearlessly challenging the wicked and helping the meek. A witty and audacious woman, she was both venerated and feared by the Vietnamese people as the Mother Goddess of Earth, one of several figures who complicated the patriarchal creep of Chinese Confucianism.
While Mother Goddess rituals played a role in Vietnamese village life for centuries, they often drew scorn from conservatives and skeptics.
Then, at the close of 2016, UNESCO recognized the century-old tradition as Vietnam’s 11th intangible heritage, lending a kind of official legitimacy to the practice.
A controversial role
That same year, a documentary about Hanoi’s most famous medium, Master Duc, described how the tradition created a venerated role for gay men in traditional Vietnamese society.
In one scene of In Between, Duc explains that the deities traditionally called on homosexual men to serve as mediums because their spirits balanced the yin and yang traditional gender roles and provided an ideal vessel for deities of any gender.
At some point, the Vietnamese word for spirit medium became a pejorative term for gay or ostentatious men. Today, many mediums are women and men who lead heterosexual lives and have children. But, the derogatory use of the phrase is still widely understood.
Mediums often give away thousands of dollars (or everything they own) in rituals that can take days to prepare and hours to perform. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many in a rapidly developing Vietnam have come to view the tradition as a waste of time and money.
Critics have also jumped on the ways that some mediums make money instructing novices, telling fortunes and performing exorcisms. Results vary and the tradition survives as something at once revered and disdained.
The post-war government outlawed hau dong rituals, closed temples, remanded mediums to detention centers and confiscated their costumes.
This strict approach to the practice largely ceased in 1986, but the public remained ambivalent about the practice until 2008, when Ngo Duc Thinh, Head of The Cultural Research Institute, published the first book that objectively and comprehensively explored the phenomenon.
Thinh depicted mediumship more as a calling than a vocation.
“Nobody can voluntarily become a medium,” he wrote. “He or she must be called by the Gods; those who choose to ignore their calling suffer frequent misfortunes.”
An unlikely medium
Last July, Long received his master's degree in International Marketing and Communications at ISMAC Business School in Paris, France.
Another school offered him further funding to pursue an intensive course in Food and Beverage Management, which Long declined.
“I was very sick. I had fevers that lasted up to six hours and suddenly stopped. I was nervous all the time and had constant dreams about the Goddesses,” he said. “I was indeed scared, so I decided to go home.”
Back in Hanoi, he visited Buddhist temples hoping to find a spiritual solution to his condition.
During one such visit with his cousin, Ly Nguyen, he believes he became possessed.
“His eyes shut tight and his head swung around lightly,” Ly said.
Over his mother's objections, Long became a medium last year in the hopes that if he fulfilled his duty to the goddess, he'd begin to feel well again.
The unknown journey
Long still has nearly three years before the deities are expected to offer him guidance on whether to spend the rest of his life as a medium or return to civilian life.
“It was a little scary at first to discover that I have connections with the spirits,” Long said. “Now, I trust that if I serve the deities dutifully and I’ll be blessed, so I’m getting used to it.”
Roughly three months into his practice, Long Nguyen packed a bag full of bank notes ranging from VND500 to 500,000 ($0.02-$24) and traveled to the Kiep Bac Temple.
Long invited friends, relatives and locals to witness his transformation on the 100th day of his practice.
After performing the ritual, he personally presented bank notes to his four assistants, his relatives and local villagers who'd come to witness the event. The closer people sat to the medium, the more money they received.
As the crowd cheered, the Goddess threw fistfuls of VND1,000 notes into the air. His mother sat quietly in a corner, clapping along.
At the end of the ceremony, his relatives handed out dozens of gift bags to the villagers who had wandered over to attend. Though appreciative of the pocket money and gifts of groceries, no one in the audience agreed to speak to a crew filming the event.
Meanwhile Dan, Long’s uncle, though eager to support his nephew, insisted on not being filmed.
“I don’t want my neighbors to spread rumors that I’m advocating superstition,” he said.
After four hours of dancing (most of which was spent in a deep trance), Long looked utterly exhausted. He didn't say much about his uncle or the audience, but seemed to blame their reticence on a persistant stigma.
Since leaving France, Long's career and future have been thrown into uncertainty. He wants to move to Saigon for more work opportunities, but he's left his ultimate destination to the deities.
Long said he's asked his spiritual advisor whether the deities might allow him to move south; the master assured him they’d all figure it out together.