Viet Nam’s traditional Chau Van ceremony of folk art can have such an effect. Listening to the delicate beauty of the music and dance, embracing its mystical charm and paying silent respect to its religious significance can be a hypnotic experience for observers.
Chau Van is unique but its indefinable quality is one that many such wonders around the world possess. It is also why UNESCO called their operation that helps to preserve them ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ (ICH).
Combining trance singing and dancing, Chau Van can be a haunting medley of music and poetry. It has a wide variety of rhythms, pauses and pitches while both sounds and script may relate to events that are mostly mythical but occasionally modern. All in all, it makes for one of the most distinct elements of indigenous Vietnamese culture.
Few have contributed more to its preservation than Pham Hai Hau who was just 24 when he fell for its charms in Ha Noi in 1997. Under the tutelage of Ms. Nguyen Thi Phuc, Mr. Hau displayed an aptitude and dedication that have seen him go on to teach more than 800 students over the ensuing decades and win countless awards.
Hailing from the Duy Tien district of Ha Nam province, he remembers taking to it immediately: “From the time I was introduced to Chau Van, I practiced it at Lanh Giang temple in Ha Nam about 50 times a year.” The following year he was put in charge and toured the country practicing in temples such as Dong Cuong, Mau Tien Huong Chua Be and Tran Thuong among others.
The Chau Van ceremony itself is performed on many notable occasions such as: “Entering the Temples” (after New Year’s Eve), “Thuong Nguyen” (in January), “Welcoming Summer” (April), “Saying Farewell to Summer” (July), “Hap An” (25th of December) and New Year’s Eve (December).
There are two other important feasts. In March is the anniversary of the death of the Mother Goddesses while August marks the death of the Bat Hai father (Holy Tran). Several lesser rituals are performed throughout the year.
“In the religious system of beliefs in Viet Nam,” Mr. Hau explains, “the worship of mother goddesses has very distinct characteristics and indigenous elements of Vietnamese culture. Thus the Chau Van ceremony is what best distinguishes it from other faiths and religions. It is a form of folk religious practice from ancient times, but also a cultural phenomenon that has been studied by many scholars.”
Practicing it takes a special kind of dedication; teaching it and preserving it to the lengths that Mr. Hau has achieved are way beyond the call of duty. And that, besides his being one of its leading exponents, is why he has been so widely decorated.
Matter of factly, he recalls: “In 2009, I participated in the Chau Van festival that reflected the third great mandarin legend. In 2012, I took part in the ceremony of Kieu Nam Quan at Nam Dinh to propagate the worship of mother goddesses, to wish for national peace and prosperity. In 2013, I won the Gold Award at the Chau Van Festival Singing Contest in the Red River Delta. In September 2014, I won the excellent prize at the Chau Van Open Festival Celebration of Ha Nam province...”
He could go on but he makes it clear that he is anything but a trophy hunter. “In the process of participating in the preservation of this intangible cultural heritage,” he says, “I always help the people in the area in praying for the peace and prosperity of the nation, happiness and wealth in families, and to guide people to have a good life while supporting families in difficult circumstances.”
In 2015, he was awarded the title of Elite Artist of the folk-art form of Ha Nam province by the President for outstanding contributions in preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the nation. Upon receiving this accolade he said: “I am dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of Chau Van, contributing to promoting the values of Mother Goddesses worshiping, especially in tourism development.”
Listening to a performance - usually in the favourable acoustics of a temple - can be a mesmerizing experience the like of which is hard to describe. It is why UNESCO has to give a lengthy definition to this aspect of culture: “ICH is made up of oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and traditional craftsmanship knowledge and techniques”.
Chau Van singing has a bit of all of those and Mr. Hau is honoured to be one of its leading exponents.