Shaman's chant rises above stigma in Vietnam's misty mountains

The government tried to ban the practice and turn it into a political tool, but as one artist said: 'You can't just suppress folk culture.'

It’s 10 p.m. in Lang Son in Vietnam’s northern mountains, and most of Coc Tao Village and its rice paddies have long been asleep. But strange yet soothing music can be heard from a small concrete house built from the remains of a wooden stilt house.

I pass children chasing each other in the front yard as I follow the mystical signing. My eyes start to get sore. In a 20-square meter living room, behind the smoke coming from incense burning on four altars, four generations of a family clan are gathered. Men sit quietly by a coffee table. Women rush in and out; some hide in the kitchen. Old ladies chat on a bed, others sit on the floor preparing betel.

But at some point, all eyes become fixated on the far right corner of the room. There, sitting on an imposing wooden bed, is a chubby young man wearing a black beret and a traditional Tay attire. His index finger is strumming a three-stringed instrument at a speed that would leave any guitarist speechless. Eyes shut, he’s half singing half humming in a language foreign to the majority of Vietnamese people, while also chewing betel mixed with lime and tobacco that has left his lips bright red.

That’s Nguyen Van Tho, a 25-year old shaman known in the area as a Then master.

Then is a centuries-old ritual practiced by the Tay, Nung and Thai ethnic groups in Vietnam’s northern mountains. Artists play the dan tinh, a three-stringed instrument, and a singing technique that involves a lot of humming to connect the living with the Then spirit army who are being called on to bless the master’s client.

On this night it’s Tho’s brother, whose son has just turned one month old. He’s sound asleep in an auntie’s arms as Tho invites the Ba Mu, 12 spirits who form babies and look after them all the way to adulthood, to come and bless him.

During the three-hour ceremony, and another three hours of non-stop singing the following morning, Tho shows no sign of fatigue as he instructs his five assistants to burn incense and offer wine to the spirits while preparing betel nut.

For the final song, two assistants pick up brass bells and chime to the rhythm, an urgent crescendo symbolizing horses pulling a carriage of offerings. The Then master and his assistants rise to dance around an altar as family members pour rice and place money over an incense bowl.

“I never know exactly what I’m going to sing,” said Tho, just before the “baby shower”. “I perform the same song differently every time, depending on what the elders tell me. The music, the words, even the length of the song, can all change.”

The elders are Then spirits Tho speaks to during the ceremony each time he raises a blue fan to cover his face. No rehearsals are ever needed.

Skeptics could say Tho is just good at improvising. If so, he must be a genius because Then songs are compilations of huge epic poetry in ancient Tay and Nung, often sang from night till dawn, or even days on end.

The chosen one

On the start of his spiritual journey, Tho managed to recite thousands of Then lines in just one night in the Nung tongue, despite being a Tay raised speaking mostly Vietnamese.

“Nung and Tay have a lot of similarities,” Tho explained. “Nobody taught me how to practice Then. The Then spirits just tell me what to do during the ceremony or in my dreams.”

After his dreams, Tho used to write down everything he could remember and ask his grandmother, Ma Thi Thu, to help out with ancient words.

“Tho’s grasp of ancient Tay is amazing,” author, poet and researcher of the Tay culture Duong Thuan told VnExpress International. A Tay man himself, Thuan, who is currently working on Vietnam’s first Tay dictionary, said even he doesn't know many of the words Tho sings.

People like Tho are said to have căn - a calling from the gods. Tho took up his calling at the age of 14 when he suddenly became obsessed with Then. The boy would sneak out to attend ceremonies at strangers’ houses and sit close to Then masters who noticed his face glow - a sign of being a chosen one.

Tho during the Then ceremony to bless his nephew who'd turned one month old.

While most practicing Then masters inherit căn from their parents, researchers have identified a number of masters chosen by the gods. They’ve either fallen ill or behaved strangely until they started practicing Then.

“You can’t fight destiny,” Tho’s father, a retired police officer, said with a sigh. Tho’s mother, a literature teacher, wishes he had a steady job and would marry soon like his brother, who is a government clerk.

To add to the irony, the same grandmother who occasionally acts as Tho’s assistant was once a Women’s Union officer, who advocated against Then

When culture gets political

During the Vietnam War, the government banned the practice on the grounds of superstition as part of its vision to build "a new socialist culture". 

The ban was effectively "an excuse for a majority ethnicity to homogenize the minorities," Duong Thuan writes in his book Van hoa Tay Viet Nam va Tien trinh Hoi nhap The gioi (Tay Culture in Vietnam and the Global Integration Process).

At the time, any Then master caught performing a ceremony would have their tools burnt and end up in correction camps.

Even so, convincing followers wasn’t easy, and some families continued to hold Then ceremonies in secret. Then masters would disassemble their dan tinh to avoid being caught on the road, only to re-assemble it for the ceremonies. Instead of accepting offerings from clients, they took cash.

"The government misunderstood Then," Tho's grandmother Thu said as she recalled the time she went from door to door to explain the ban. “I had to approach the topic in a gentle way, otherwise people would get offended.”

Still, many masters gave up the practice and chose not to pass it onto their children for fear of persecution.

So it came as surprise to all when around 1985, public servants suddenly started throwing their own lavish wedding celebrations, a practice that had been banned for not aligning with socialist ideas. The government never issued any statement to revoke previous bans, but people got the message: it was OK to resume Then ceremonies.

The only logical conclusion for the sudden turn was: "nobody can suppress folk songs," Thuan writes. 

From left to right: and Then master's altar and dan tinh.

But Then's darkest times, according to Thuan, were just about to come as the post-war government had another idea: to use Then songs as a propaganda tool.

Local radio stations were filled with "Then songs" praising government policies, telling people to work hard and have no more than two children.  

Then once again became political and people rejected it,” Thuan wrote in his book. 

He attributes these “mistakes” to a “lack of cultural understanding" because "Then is no superstition". Neither is it a set of melodies for which any lyrics that rhyme can be written. 

Back to the baby shower, and the old ladies acting as Tho's assistants say they do it because Then's lyrics are beautiful and make them happy. 

It is, after all, a folk performance that combines indigenous knowledge, poetry, and music. It's a way to bring generations of a family together to share happiness and allay fears.

The most well known Then chapter, Kham Hai, meaning Crossing the Sea, tells of a journey from earth to heaven. It’s a tale of hardship and battles against forces of nature and mystical creatures, which eventually leads to a utopia.

“When you listen to something this beautiful after midnight, at the most quiet time of the day, it makes your heart sing and gives you hope for a better future,” Thuan said. 

Return and transformation

Desperate to prove to authorities that Then is not simply a shamanic practice, the late Tay songwriter Hoang Hoa Cuong developed a romantic, non-secular Then genre. Cuong went on to compose new Then songs that describe the beauty of nature, village life and relationships. It is also Cuong that first brought Then to the stage so it could reach a wider audience.

Rewind to 2017, on the hills that surround Vietnam’s largest natural lake, Ba Be, stands a rare, 50-year-old wooden stilt house - the last to remain in Ban Hon Village, Bac Kan Province. Inside, a slim man in his late 30s sings Then while playing a dan tinh he has made himself, captivating a small audience of 10 sat around him on the floor.

Ma Trung Truc is no shaman. The self taught Then singer and dan tinh artist has been dedicating his life to reviving part of his village’s eroding identity. To this day, Truc remembers his grandfather, who was a Then master, carrying him on his back singing Then.

“It’s all in me,” Truc said smiling, his dan tinh in his arms as if he’s following a different kind of calling from Tho - passion.

Truc made his first dan tinh based on his grandfather’s model from an old soap box in 1989. He was just 11 at the time. Four years later, he managed to find a calabash, a type of gourd used to make the instrument’s body.

It took Truc years to figure out how to make a proper dan tinh and sing Then because the radio was the only source of reference for the high school dropout, who had never seen a sheet of music.

Today, he travels around the district teaching Then and selling the dan tinh he makes, which go for VND1.5-2 million ($66-88) each.

Last year, following an initiative by Care International, Hon Village’s Women’s Union conducted a survey on the villagers' interest in Then. To everybody’s surprise, even young people were eager to learn. They just didn’t know they could, and that’s how the club led by Truc was founded.

“Young people here listen mostly to nhac tre [Vietnamese pop],” said Chu Thi Boi from the village Women’s Union. “But now, at village gatherings, we don’t just sing karaoke, we sing Then too.”

Gracing the wall of the last remaining stilt house in Hon Village are posters of Vietnamese pop stars.

The club has 14 members who work on a voluntary basis. “We have no rules really, anyone can join,” Boi said as she was pouring tea for guests.

Truc, who earns just VND200,000 or less per day, is delighted when teenagers come to his house for lessons, sometimes staying till midnight. “I just want as many people as possible to know about it. It’s important to pass on culture from one generation to another.”

But there are no Then masters left in Ban Hon Village, and Tho is convinced that spiritual Then is disappearing.

“In the past, a single village used to have two to three Then masters. Now there’s just one in the region,” said Tho. “My work takes me across the country, wherever there are Tay or Nung people.”

Both Truc and Tho are hopeful Then will reach a wider audience once it’s recognized by UNESCO as an intangible heritage. Vietnam submitted the necessary paperwork earlier this year.

They agree more funding is needed to “properly” teach Then, and Truc wants to travel further outside his district to meet Then masters and teach the art.

Yet how Then should be promoted is up for debate.

Duong Thuan in his house in Hanoi.

Researcher Duong Thuan believes Then belongs in front of an altar or by a friendly fire in a family home, so it should be taught and preserved in these settings.

Then doesn’t need UNESCO recognition because Then in itself is special,” he said.

For this reason, Thuan is worried that a UNESCO title could actually make matters worse. “People today are materialistic. They applied for UNESCO recognition to commercialize it, not to preserve it,” Thuan said.

Perhaps the best known case study of a UNESCO heritage gone wrong is Hoi An, which now suffers from what anthropologist Nir Avieli calls an empty shell syndrome. It’s a situation in which “the structures ‘were kept and maintained’ but their ‘content’ - that is, the residents of these houses, and the ‘traditional lifestyle, religion, customs and cooking’ [...] were quickly and efficiently displaced.”

Tho, who himself has performed Then on stage and has a gold prize from a regional folk singing competition, admits it’s just for “preservation."

“You can’t put a six-hour Then ceremony on stage,” Tho said. “You have to be selective and not meddle with the spirits.”

It doesn’t mean stage performances of Then should be outright rejected. The criticism lies in performances that lack respect for what Then actually is.

A raw performance like Then should be adjusted to fit the stage, Nong Xuan Ai, vice director of the Viet Bac Folk Theater, explained in a VTV documentary. He experimented with Then singing techniques, turned the dan tinh into a dance prop and combined them with other folk instruments to create something new that reflects the diversity of Vietnamese culture.

Another example is contemporary folk artist Ngo Hong Quang, who has been at the forefront of putting Vietnamese folk music onto the global stage, with many critically acclaimed performances. One example is Ve doi non (Back to a Young Hill), a contemporary folk song written for the dan tinh that takes inspiration from Tay music and the beauty of Vietnam’s mountains.

What worries Tho and Thuan most is the preservation of the spiritual line of Then. Few Then masters are left, especially young ones of his age.

Rehearsal at the Then - Dan tinh club in Hanoi.

On the demand side, a Then ceremony can cost over VND10 million ($440), a sum not every ethnic family in the mountains can afford. However, Kinh people living among Tays and Nungs have started to adopt this folk tradition. Even as far as Hanoi, Hien, a Vietnamese hotel owner who grew up among Tay and Nung people in Cao Bang, can be found playing her dan tinh and singing Then songs from her childhood till the early hours. She's part of a Then - dan tinh club, where Tay, Nung and even Kinh people, from young students to retirees, come together every Sunday to learn and practice. 

Hien’s case reflects Thuan’s argument of how, folk culture, when left to strive on its own, can spread and evolve.

Everyone VnExpress International spoke to said they were singing Then simply because it was beautiful and made them happy.

Back in the Vietnamese mountains, Tho explained how a medium asked him to sing Then and play the dan tinh during a hau dong, a spirit possession ritual of the majority Kinh people, which is gaining ground after the decades-long superstition ban was lifted.

Hau dong itself was last year recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible World Heritage.

But no matter what world recognition Then ever receives, Duong Thuan holds the belief that: “So long as there are Tay people, there will be Then, because it’s in our spirit.”

Lam Le

By Lam Le