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The first day we were in Sapa, in the far north of Vietnam, we could hear music. It seemed to be going on all day, so after our walk I went to find it. It was at the temple, right below where we were staying. The music was drumming, and some other instruments, and chanting. At first I just sat outside and listened to it. It moved me to tears. Then someone invited me in, so I stood just inside the doorway to watch, and a bit later another person invited me in to sit down. I must have been there for about two hours, swept up in their ceremony. It was extraordinary, and colourful, and very moving. Again and again I was moved to tears and smiles.

I can best describe it as Shamanism dressed up in the most gaudy of Chinese glitz. The Chinese were in Vietnam for one thousand years so the influence of their culture is strong, and apparently Confucianism is quite strong here, but I read something at the Ethnology museum that makes me think this was a more shamanistic ceremony. From what I gathered from the man who invited me inside, in his somewhat limited English, and from the Ethnology Museum: The Religion of the Four Worlds, a northern popular folk religion. In this religion the system of spirits is imagined like an imperial court that rules the four worlds: Sky, Earth, Water, and Forests. I think that’s what I witnessed.

Anyway whatever it was, it was extraordinary. There was a crazy colourful huge Chinese style altar towering in the front of the room made up of lanterns and huge vases, and flowers, and gold statues, and huge candles and a great pyramid of coke cans on one side and a great pyramid of beer cans on the other, each pyramid with a green candle on top of it.

In front of the altar were three people – the female shaman and her two male attendants. She wore a basic white silk outfit of top and pants, but the ceremony consisted of her attendants dressing her in more and more elaborate glitzy and sparkly Chinese-style robes and head-dresses – first green, then aqua, then blue, then yellow, then white. And this was just during the couple of hours that I was there. The dressing in each outfit took some time. Some of the head dresses were really elaborate and required lots of folding of cloth and colourful pins and brooches, and then there was the robe, and the sashes. It was all done with the three of them sitting until the final putting on of the waist sash. During it all one of the attendants kept filling a shot glass with something from a bottle in a bag for the shaman to drink, and she also smoked cigarettes through it all.

When she was dressed she stood to dance in front of the altar often waving flaming incense sticks, and flashing sparklers in each hand. And then one of her attendants gave her a huge pile of money fanned out in each hand. She danced with the money for a while and then threw it into the crowd and everyone dived for it. After a bit she stopped dancing and sat down again. Then a red and gold cloth was thrown over her head for a couple of seconds, and then the next outfit was put on her. And so it went on. Money being thrown to the congregation, and all kinds of goodies being handed out, such as packs of cigarettes, and boxes of cookies – just handed out at random throughout the crowd. And the whole time the fabulous music is going with new music for each outfit and dance. Twice various attendants, directed by the Shaman, handed out small paper flags each with money taped to it. Some people received a handful of flags, many only one. During the second handing out of flags a woman sitting in front of me indicated to the person handing out the flags that one should be given to me. And one of the times the shaman hurled notes into the crowd one of them landed right next to me. And at another time a woman sitting a little bit away from me passed a small bill over to me. I felt so honoured – to be seen, and included in this way.

While the shaman was sitting she would, from time to time in a very languid way, pick up a large note and give it to one of her attendants, or indicate it was to be given to the musicians. Actually I can best describe the whole demeanor of the Shaman as languid, amidst all the shiny metallic glitz of the altar and her outfits, and the busyness of those in the crowd who were handing out the gifts, and the haunting and enthralling music. It sounds so hokey with all the sparkling glitz, and the Shaman smoking and drinking, and the coke and beer cans on the altar, and yet there was a depth to it, a real feeling and conviction and joy. All day this ceremony went on. I can only imagine I stumbled into what seemed to be an annual ceremony for prosperity and good luck. I was completely transfixed, and feel really lucky and privileged to have been there.

I have no photos. The woman sitting next to me pointed at my camera and seemed to indicate that it would be OK to take pictures, but it just didn’t feel appropriate, so I hope my words can give some idea of what I experienced.

On our return to Hanoi we took a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda, one of the most important for the Mahayana Buddhists. It’s about sixty kilometres from Hanoi and was a complete surprise. It is unlike any pagoda we could have ever imagined.

We had a car and driver and guide for the day. We drove for about two hours to get to the Perfume River, and then were rowed in a sampan for an hour and a half up the river to get to the start of the walk to the pagoda.

Images of our trip on the Perfume River

We then had a four kilometre uphill hike to get to the pagoda – it was pretty brutal in the forty degree heat, but we are intrepid travelers! Even though we drank gallons of water all day I still became a bit dehydrated and finished the day with a headache. But it was definitely worth it.

The path up to the Perfume Pagoda

The pagoda itself is a cave, an enormous cave, with stairs going down into it, and an outer altar set up in front of a huge stalactite-stalagmite column. Such a natural and obvious place for it.

Looking down into the cave towards the outer altar

The outer altar

As you go further into the cave there is a much more elaborate inner altar. The altar and the cave itself are extraordinary. People always find sacred places. And this cave is certainly one of them and has been used for spiritual practice for hundreds of years. I was awed by the cave, and the energy there. No photos are allowed of the inner sanctuary and altar.

Walking into the inner sanctuary

Inside the cave

In front of the outer altar looking out

There is actually a whole series of pagodas in the area, and we went to one other. This one is a more traditional building, and like the cave pagoda has a rich and elaborate and gold encrusted altar. It was absolutely beautiful, and the whole day an explorer’s joy. Thank you Ruth for making sure we got there.

Next post – more of our experiences in Hanoi, and our trip to Ha Long Bay.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.