Minh Tran

To be considered mature, Dao men must complete the Ordinance of Maturity Ceremony. We look into this age-old custom

The Ordinance of Maturity Ceremony is a unique ritual passed down by generations of Red Dao people in Vietnam’s northern province of Lao Cai. Men who have not completed the ceremony are regarded as immature and prohibited from taking part in serious community events. Men who have completed the ceremony may help village shamans to perform important rituals.

The Ordinance of Maturity Ceremony is hosted each November, December or January of the Lunar calendar, during the low season for farm work. A maximum of 13 men may gain ordinances during each phase. If less than 13 applicants are suitable, the number of given ordinances must be odd – such as three, five, seven, etc.

The ceremony requires offerings of pork and chicken to the ancestors and displayed images of the deities of Hell. Before the sacrifices, the shaman cleanses the premises and strikes a drum to invite the ancestors to attend. The shaman performs an opening ceremony to inform the ancestors why the ceremony is being held. 

Older brothers should complete the ceremony before the younger ones. Married men have priority. The ceremony must take place in the house of the eldest man in the family. Married Dao women must cover their heads with red scarves throughout the ritual.

Youths admitted to this ceremony wear traditional clothes. Their caps are especially important as the deities are thought to reside in the cap of a man who has obtained the ordinance. Rites take place both indoors and outdoors. A magic transmission rite takes place inside via notes in Nom Dao books and sacrifices of sticks, dice, a mat, a seal, a bag of rice and candles etc. The shaman makes prayers before the altar asking the deities for yin-yang permission to recognize the men as mature.  Prayers for luck are written on sheets of paper that are folded and burned after the ceremony.

The Dao Ordinance of Maturity Ceremony follows a hierarchy: the first rank is three candles and 36 chevaliers, the second rank is seven candles and 72 chevaliers, and the highest rank is 12 candles and 120 chevaliers. The event lasts from one to five days, including the presentation rite and butchering the pigs and poultry to be dedicated to the ancestors.

This ceremony is essentially an educational ritual and a milestone marking a young man’s entry into adult life with full rights and responsibilities in his community. The most important rule is that men who obtain the ordinance may do no evil. The ceremony educates young Dao people about their ancestry, beliefs and traditions.

Since Sapa celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003, the Ordinance of Maturity Ceremony has been fully and elaborately reenacted. As well as hosting a solemn and complete ceremony, both shamans and assistants don new clothes in accordance with their ranks. Religious rituals are held. Practitioners learn about the rites and perform their roles to educate onlookers about their traditional values.