Story: Tan Vinh

Photos: Tan Vinh, Thanh Ha

The traditional ceremony of Then is a fascinating blend of song, dance and colorful costumes.

Ethnic women dancing with dan tinh, a sacred stringed instrument in a Then ceremony

Then singing is popular in Vietnam’s Northwest among White Thai communities, mostly in Lai Chau and Dien Bien, and in the Northeast in the renowned Then region of the Tay-Nung people. According to statistical data from the Department of Cultural Heritage, there are now 817 Then masters (213 male, 604 female), made up of 439 Tay people, 328 Nung people, 23 Thai people and 27 others from ethnicities such as Hoa, Cao Lan and Dao.

Tay girls putting on makeup, costumes and accessories before Then singing

The musical accompaniment for Then singingis thedan tinh- a stringed instrument consideredsacred due to its association with religiousactivities. To commence the ceremony, Thenmasters dress in formal attire and sing whileplucking the dan tinh and waving a paper fan.

According to tradition, Thai and Tay peoplebelieve in heaven and earth. When peopledie, their bodies stay on earth and their soulsreturn to heaven to continue into the next life.The Then ceremony describes a journey whereThen masters lead the dead traveling fromearth to heaven, bringing offerings and wishesto the gods. Thai people generally believe thatThen is “celestial” – a song of heaven – andThen masters are messengers of the godswho will relay people’s prayers, thoughts andaspirations. Therefore, Then is maintained andpracticed mainly in rituals related to humanlives with spiritual elements including the badluck relief ceremony, manhood ceremony,ancestor worshipping, prayers for health, newhouse celebration and longevity ceremony forgrandparents and parents.

Costumes of background dancers in Then ceremony

Another unique element of the Then ceremony is the colorful clothing worn by Then masters and others that participate in the rituals and singing and dancing performances. During Then singing, people will wear traditional costumes representing their ethnicity while Then masters will wear hats with tassels of various colors, creating a formal and mystical air. Women dress in long shirts, dresses, scarves and belts, all in indigo blue or purple without much decoration or embroidery, in order to highlight their necklaces, bracelets and xa tich (silverchains worn around the waist as an accessory). Women also hold a pair of rose-colored paperfans, while men remain modest in long pants and short indigo-dyed cotton blouses.

A Then master in a unique costume

Then singing closely relates to concernsfrom real life, from blessings of happinessand bountiful harvests to expressions of lovefor partners, family and village. Embedded inThen lyrics are wishes of fortune for villagers:“Properties firm between fingertips/ Moneyfirm in palms/ Any deed is possible/ Any wishwould come true/ Rice is plentiful/ Richnessoverflows/ Peace to the mortals/ Strength tothe living.

”Also present in lyrics are love and hopefor the homeland, with calls for “the flowersto bloom more colorfully, the trees to brimmore lively, the wind to glide more subtly forthe clouds to follow, the streams to whisper,the rice to blossom, the corn to merrily grow.”(Tay- Nung folk music). Because of such humanebeauty, Then singing and the dan tinh aredeeply rooted in the hearts of Tay, Nung andThai people, with lyrics that follow the course oflife from birth to death.

Then is a sacred ceremony, sent by people to heaven but blooming on earth with humane values. It possesses an eternal vitality while continuing to evolve and remains central to the cultural and artistic creativity of people in the Northeast and Northwest.