It was an improbable, if not unbelievable sight.
Those who might have thought this was some kind of circus act would have been thoroughly mistaken.
It was 7 p.m. in the evening and the holy dance was at its peak.
Wearing a Vietnamese tunic, a woman swayed to upbeat music and singing by her accompanists. A big black motorbike was balanced on her head. Surrounding her was an awed crowd, cheering the feat with reverence. Once in a while, one of them gently stepped into the ring and carefully tucked bills of Vietnamese dong on the motorbike.
The heart-thumping performance was taking place in a small shrine of a few dozen square meters in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, without the altar on yellow walls enshrining female figurines, one would easily overlook the sacred space that nestles in the middle of a dense tube-house neighborhood in a narrow alley.
Over the next five minutes, the performer, a trans-woman, danced non-stop with the vehicle on her head. It was not just an amazing balancing act with an unwieldy object, the object was heavy - weighing 100 kilos – and she was smiling the whole time.
With her daring act, she was representing the community to entertain the Ladies of the Five Elements (Ngu hanh nuong nuong) and their lords, in the hope of impressing them enough to join the worshippers in the rites and ensuring the prayer’s success.
"That night none of the deities seemed to accept the invitation," said Eason Chang, a Ho Chi Minh City-based photographer who documented the three-day-long peace prayer festival (Le hoi Cau an) in March, or the second month of the lunar year.
The shrine is dedicated to goddesses embodying the five elements of nature in Eastern astrology – earth, fire, wood, water and metal.
If the ladies did visit, they would have entered the performers who would become mediums, and sent out blessings to the crowd. "It would be an enormously lucky year for the community when it happens," Chang told VnExpress International.
"Some locals said that Lady Fire and one of the lords, Mister Tiger, visited them once," Chang said. "They said Lady Fire was really hot-tempered and yelled at everybody, while Mister Tiger entered a man in the neighborhood and climbed to the roof like, you know, a tiger."
(Story continues after the photo essay)
The peace prayer festival (Le hoi Cau an) takes place inside an alley on Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, one of the busiest streets in Ho Chi Minh City. Before the three-day-long celebration starts, the community heads offer wine in the neighborhood temple to ask the City God for permission for the event to start.
Accompanying them is a troupe of transwomen, who sing prayers the entire time, during the ritual and on the way back.
A man kneels in front of the Ladies' altar with a golden paper tower on his head. He seeks peace and prosperity for his family.
Families in the neighborhood take turns to send their prayers, each with a tower of their own.
The towers will be burnt in keeping with a long-standing Vietnamese tradition of making votive offerings to the spirits.
A transwoman performs a flower-offering dance in front of the Ladies altar with a bowl of rice and chrysanthemums on top of her head. It is believed homosexual men/transgender men are traditionally chosen as mediums because the yin and yang are balanced in them, making them an ideal vessel for deities of any gender.
To please the goddesses, the community hires a troupe of tuong artists to perform for two nights at the shrine. Tuong is a form of folk musical theater performed in southern Vietnam.
The play also entertains festival goers.
Neighbors dine with each other outside the shrine as a part of the celebration, which usually lasts two to three days, from 8 a.m to11 p.m., with some variations in different communities. The festival takes place in the second and third lunar month as a part of the bigger Spring festival in the South.
At the end of the festival, people rush to take home fruits placed on the altar. They believe the fruits have been blessed by the Ladies, and keeping some at home would bring luck to the family.
While this prayer and tradition can be seen as an odd mix – the primacy given to goddesses in a traditionally patriarchal community and nation, and the importance given to transgender people performing crucial functions in the ritual, cultural experts insist otherwise.
They say that the prayer ritual reflects robust cultural and spiritual development in the southern part of the country.
Ngo Duc Thinh, a prominent cultural scholar, interprets the worship as evidence of Vietnam’s ancient matriarchal roots before the advent of Confucianism from China.
In fact, around 75 goddesses are worshipped across the country, Vietnamese researchers have found, either at home altars or communal shrines. The goddesses usually have the powers of bestowing fertility, nurturance, prosperity and protection upon their followers.
The goddesses are particularly prolific and popular in the southern part of the country.
This can be attributed to the fact that the first Vietnamese groups venturing to the southern frontier hundreds of most of years ago, were considered "commoners", war escapees and refugees, explained Le Cong Ly, a researcher at the Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Arts Studies in a 2017 paper published in Vietnam’s Research and Development Magazine.
Marginalized by the then ruling dispensation, they held Vietnamese folk heritage dear, and among the beliefs they brought with them to the new land was the veneration of a female pantheon.
This then combined with the indigenous religion to form the Viet-Khmer hybrid goddesses like Ba Chua Xu, or Lady of the Realm, who would bestow prosperity on her followers.
The culture continued to evolve with the later arrival of migrants of Chinese descent, now locally known as the Hoa people. One of the products of the latter fusion was devotion for the Ladies of the Five Elements.
Based on field surveys and written records of local history, researcher Ly pointed out that first shrines dedicated to the Chinese belief in the primordial elements (metal, wood, fire, water and earth) was established at the time of growing presence of the Hoa people in the region. As their population boomed, so did their cultural influence.
By early 20th century, there were 300,000 Hoa people living in the south, hundred times the 3,000 recorded in the 17th century, alongside the boom in their hallmark rice trade.
In 1911, the court authorities of Nguyen Dynasty organized the worship of the Ladies of the Five Elements in an ordainment ceremony for the goddesses in Saigon-Cho Lon, the center of the Hoa community in the country. The event marked the first official recognition of the female spiritual personification of the elements.
The 1911 ceremony was the highest formal recognition accorded to the worship of the Ladies of the Five Elements. So these deities have not had large temples and pagodas dedicated to them. They are usually placed either in small communal shrines - some can be as small as a table-sized altar – that clutter certain residential areas.
Contemporary scholars believe that this has happened because of the hybrid nature of the custom, which made it less appreciated by the elites. This is not a very convincing explanation, but it is all there is, for now.
Yet, over time, worship of the Ladies of the Five Elements has expanded beyond ethnic boundaries and become commonplace in the south. Nowadays people from all walks of life seek blessings from them in a dense network of shrines. In a recent count, Ho Chi Minh City had 248 shrines dedicated to the goddesses scattered over many residential clusters.
Since the five basic elements are fundamental to creation, the goddesses have wide-ranging powers. Their blessings are sought by many, including farmers who work with soil and plants, fisherfolk who rely on water for their livelihood, craftsmen who use metal tools, and traders at markets who are always afraid of fire.
When put together the goddesses represent the promise of balance, peace and above all, wealth.
Worshippers take warmth from candles burning on the altar of the Ladies onto their palms and "shower" their heads with the blessings.
Chang said the event pulls the community together. "Everybody tries to play a part in organizing it, regardless of whether they are rich or poor," he said.
"Some pay to find a famous tuong troupe to perform, while others rush in and out in the kitchen to cook the offerings and big meals for the three-day event. Or they can simply help guarding the bikes of visitors.
"It is truly a celebration of a folk tradition by the people for the people," he added.
In the few days of photographing the crowd, Chang was surprised to see such a close-knit bonds still existing in a busy city.
"It was like watching a village unveil itself inside Saigon," he said.
"It feels very familial," Chang, who is an atheist, said of the relationship between the devotees and the goddesses.
"Everyone looks up to them for motherly love and protection.”