Vietnam's spirit mediums revive once forbidden ritual

HANOI, May 26 (Reuters) - Dressed in the bright silk garments of a woman and dancing with candles between his fingers, Nguyen Duy Nam leads a temple of worshippers in a ceremony honoring mystical goddesses of forest, water and heaven.

Nam, 24, is one of a growing number of spirit mediums who perform the Hau Dong ritual of blaring noise and vibrant colors, now enjoying a resurgence after once being frowned on by the ruling Communist Party.

"It's like an illusion, like a soul has taken over my body," said Nam, who works in a garage in Hanoi, the capital, when he is not performing Hau Dong.

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Hau Dong ceremony
Medium Pham Ha Thanh prepares for her performance at a Hau Dong ceremony at Chau De Tu temple in Thanh Hoa province in Vietnam, May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Pham Thi Thanh reacts during a ritual at a Hau Dong ceremony at Phu Day temple in Nam Dinh province, outside Hanoi, Vietnam, May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Money and food are prepared as an offering during a ritual at a Hau Dong ceremony at Lanh Giang temple in Ha Nam province, Vietnam, March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Paper figures, which will be offered as gifts to saints, are seen outside Lanh Giang temple during a Hau Dong ceremony in Ha Nam province, Vietnam, March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Medium Nguyen Duy Nam performs during a ritual ceremony at the Lanh Giang temple in Ha Nam province, Vietnam, March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Vietnamese mediums get ready for a performance at a theatre in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Relatives assist Nguyen Thi Xuyen (C), during a ritual Hau Dong ceremony at Phu Day temple in Nam Dinh province, Vietnam, May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Pham Thi Thanh drinks a glass of water used as a treatment during a medium ritual at a Hau Dong ceremony at Phu Day temple in Nam Dinh province, Vietnam, May 7, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Vietnamese medium Nguyen Duy Nam, prepares his costumes at his house in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Medium Le Thi Ha performs during a ritual ceremony of Hua Dong at Phu Day temple in Nam Dinh province in Vietnam, March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Statues of a goddess are seen during a Hau Dong ceremony at a temple in Hai Duong province, Vietnam, April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Medium Pham Ha Thanh (C), performs as the legendary military General Tuan Chanh during a ritual Hau Dong ceremony at Chau De Tu temple in Thanh Hoa province, Vietnam, May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Medium Nguyen Bich Thuy performs during a Hau Dong ceremony at Kiep Bac temple in Hai Duong province in Vietnam, February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Medium An Chinh is seen during a Hau Dong performance at the Viet Theatre in Hanoi, Vietnam, March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Medium An Chinh (C), performs as a jungle princess character during a ritual Hau Dong ceremony at the Viet theatre in Hanoi, Vietnam March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People react to bank notes being thrown during a ritual Hau Dong ceremony at Lanh Giang temple in Ha Nam province, Vietnam, March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Medium An Chinh walks through smoke during a Hau Dong performance at the Viet Theatre in Hanoi, Vietnam, March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Medium An Chinh (C), is seen during a Hau Dong performance at the Viet Theatre in Hanoi, Vietnam, March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man carries a paper horse which will be offered to saints before a ritual Hau Dong ceremony at Lanh Giang temple, in Ha Nam province, Vietnam, March 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kham SEARCH "KHAM MEDIUMS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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Dating to the 16th century, Hau Dong centers on a belief in the Mother Goddesses of three realms - forest, water and heaven. It draws from elements of Taoism, Buddhism and other religions.

During rituals, spirit mediums dance to loud folk music while appearing to transform themselves into different characters from legend and history. They display changing personalities as if different spirits have entered their bodies.

Sometimes they say it feels real.

"One time I couldn't even move my body and just cried for no reason, but then I returned to normal when the next character came," Nam recalled.

Believers kneel behind mediums and cheerfully grab money thrown by the spirits. Spread on the floor are offerings for the goddesses and the spirits - which can be anything from money to instant noodles to life-sized paper horses.

Thanh said the appeal of the ritual had broadened as it could attract participants of either gender.

Hau Dong's status was reaffirmed last year when it was recognized as part of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO.

In 2005, the Communist Party lifted a ban on Hau Dong, which until then it had regarded as superstitious. Interest in the ritual has since grown, as economic liberalization has brought greater wealth and social openness.

Hau Dong is not predominantly about money, but offerings to the spirits and temples can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single ceremony.

Although the state frowns on wasting money, sponsoring a ceremony can be a status symbol.

Nam said after being called by the saints to become a medium he had given up the reckless lifestyle of his youth. That spurred him to work hard in his daily occupation, paying off in the ownership of two garages.

He is dedicated to continuing as a medium, whatever anyone thinks of him dressing as a woman and summoning the spirits. For now, only his close family know it's part of his life.

"It's my lifetime duty," he said.

(Reporting by Nguyen Huy Kham and Hanoi Bureau; Writing by Mai Nguyen; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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