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The ‘Nao Long’ Ritual and Spiritual Forests


Located in the northeastern province of Lao Cai Province, Simacai district is home to 11 different ethnic groups, which are mainly Mong people, accounting for over 80% of the population. For those who first time step on this land, can easily discover the outstanding typical colors of the Mong given in the traditional brilliant costumes of the Mong woman, mixed with indigo colors of the Nung, Thu Lao and other groups at on the roads, farms, and especially in the local markets rotated from Lung Phinh, Can Cau, Sinh Cheng, Simacai communes. These rotated markets is garthering spaces and social connections of local people who throughout the year just attach with clouds and mountains, live in villages covered by the forests and along with the streams, and walk on the paths hanging on the cliffs.
The Mong is well-known as an ethnic group with many uniques of the high mountains, terraced fields of the slopes, skillful artists of the blacksmith, textile embroidery and powerful healers and so forth. In particular, one of other prominent features of the Mong is the martial spirit, solidarity and community cohesion very closely and sustainability. Over the all, the Mong is a group for the strict rituals with the sacred, mysterious prayers, but also fully generous and idealistic.
Vis-à-vis the values of cultural spiritual life and local knowledge of the ethnic minoritty groups, we can not separate them from the environment where they embed, which are forests and high mountain areas in the watershed settings. The values ​​formed by the close interactions between human and nature, are often expressed in the life through the behaviours with forests. In contrast, as regards the forest, we cannot forget, unfeel the values of local knowledge of the people who are living and bonding there.
Overhanging on the mountains, daily facing with harsh natural conditions, the Mong in Simacai particularly, for their existence, besides the experience dealing with nature summed up in the process of production, formed the behavioral rules amongst people in each community. These rules over time prolonged with the people self-serving and voluntary, gradually became a factor of cultural identity of the Mong. Afterwards, these values become an indispensable part of the daily life in where the mountains, clouds and forest are their close neighbors. One of the most typical activities of the community - the clearest expression of the cultural identity of Mong people is is the ‘Nao Long’ ritual - a space reflecting the local democracy, particiation, voluntary and willingness, but always implemented and followed strictly in a sanctuary.
The ‘Nao Long’ ritual is also known with names like ‘Nao Song’, ‘Tong Senh’ depending on the pronunciation of the Mong in particular region. The ritual is to keep the unwritten rules and committements of the Mong living in the specific location. The ‘Nao Long’ along with ‘Thu Ti’ – other type of traditional ceremony of the Mong to pray for the peace and express the love and nurture to nature, as well the role of kinship in the community and every family have been hitherto considered as the basis for promoting the spiritual values into the practices of community governance and natural resources management. In other words, the ‘Nao Long’ and other rituals are to protect the security of the community life. Commonly, the Mong in where else, there life cannot be separated from the community as well as the rules and commitments which have been evolved through the ‘Ăn Lồng’ in the ‘Nao Long’ ritual - means, eat and promise to do something together. The following story is about the ‘Ăn Lồng’ in Can Ho commune, Simacai district that we attended.
As the specific conditions of living habitat, the Mong in Can Ho annually held two ‘Nao Long’ rituals. One happens in the spring, around February lunar to worship the spirits who protect the forest, properties, human and animals. The second is hold in June lunar to pray for the spirits who protect farms, fields, trees, etc. from pests and natural disasters. Basically, it can be understood that these two rituals are for a new year (‘Nao Long’ in Febuary) and the beginning of new planting season (‘Nao Long’ in June).
After over more than 100 km journey with many bends, including roads made from asphalt, stone and clay from Lao Cai city, along the Chay River, through Bao Thang, Bac Ha and Simacai districs, we reached the forest where the ‘Nao Long’ ritual in Can Ho commune is organized. Beside the biggest tree where the ‘Nao Long’ ritual arranged, villagers just completed a simple bamboo altar with offerings includings incense, wine, Chinese papers, chicken and pig’s head. As soon as villagers all come, the spiritual leader begins worshiping to invite the spirits.
Like every year, the person who is the spiritual leader in the ritual of offerings is Mr. Hoang Seo Cau, the most prestigious elder in the community. Assistants of elder Cau are two men, namely ‘Long Tho’. These two assistants are selected by community members in the annual occasion of the ‘Nao Long’.
Slowly, moderate with the solemn as any rituals of the Kinh (Vietnamese), elder Cau pours wine, lights incense, rearrange the offerings on the altar. Then, he returns abit then seriously stands before the altar, stroking two laps and folds his arms across his chest. Next to elder Cau, the two ‘Long Tho’ stand a bit lower in position, fold their arms with such dignity.
The notion of the Mong is that, everything on the earth has its soul, also known as ‘spirit’. There are many types of spirits to protect and help people in everyday life, for example, the rain spirit pressing harmonious rain and wind, and good harvests; pest spirit preventing pest damages and so forth. Therefore, a part of the “Nao Long” ritual, the calling and giving the offerings to the spirits for good luck and healthy in the New Year is a must. In the end of the ceremony, everyone sit together to eat and drink, as well see the signals from the Spirits after receiving the offerings.
Elder Cau worships by the Mong language. His voice is joined together the sound of the wind…
Supprising! Why such a solemn and imperative ceremony, the behavior with the divine who are holding the destiny and prosperity of the whole community is so simple? The simply reflects from the altar just set up under the tree, a black and bent aluminum pot, along the cleft cups used to contain the offerings - all are items of the Mong’s everyday life. It further echoes into the traditional costumes of the majestic elder - spiritual leader, the respectful ‘Long Tho’ to everyone represent in the ceremony.... Then, the vocative, conversation between people attending the ceremony with the spirits are also very intimate, close, sounds like elder Cau is inviting a friend who is around somewhere for drinking... Unlike with the serious, other than cold atmosphere in many festivals in lowland areas, the impression of the ‘Nao Long’ ritual in Can Cau suddenly reminds us the true feelings about the things that have been heard and known, but now really poignant, really understand. That is in this place, people consider nature and the spirits as close friends and relatives. The most important thing in behavior of people is the discretion of the mind, and daily activities, but not only reflected in the ritual. Human and nature are thus very sociable, fair and friendly.
As long as the completion of the ceremony, while the two ‘Long Tho’ and all participants together take down the offerings on the altar, then prepare for the party under the forest, elder Cau and several old men sit apart to view a chicken legs in order to read the fortune of the year for whole community. Viewing and telling the chicken leg is an indispensable custom in every ceremony of the Mong. Derived from the notion of the Mong, that is, verything on the earth has its soul, also known as ‘spirit’. There are many types of spirits to protect and help people in everyday life, for instance, the rain spirit pressing harmonious rain and wind, and good harvests; pest spirit preventing pest damages and so forth. Therefore, praying for protections and helps from the spirits is as an essential part of the ‘Nao Long’ ritual. In the end of the ceremony, everyone sit together to eat and drink, as well see the signals from the spirits from viewing and reading the chicken legs.
In this year, through viewing the chicken legs, the spirits told that everbody in the community is not allowed to go the field and forest during 2 days right after the ‘Nao Long’ ritual. This is good news, so all villagers feel happy.
Elder Cau told: ‘The ‘Nao Long’ ritual has had for a long time ago, started when the first Hmong settled here. According to the legend transmited from the previous generations, the ‘Nao Long’ besides is to pray for good weather and harmonious wind in one hand, help people to be healthy, educated and thriving in other hand. Since the ‘Nao Long’ appearance, trees in the forest are protected, everybody strictly abide by the regulations set by the community as well as the crop is also getting more secured. As elder Cau sharing, in the old days, after the ceremony, families in the community and whole region togeter discuss and agree upon committements, customs and activities which must be done in the year - a sort of the most primitive "grassroots democracy" in the community. All people involving in the ‘Nao Long’ ritual have the rights to participate in making the community regulations, and then are responsible to comply such rules, whether he/ she either presentedt in the “Nao Long’ ritual or not. If anyone violates the rule, one shall be punished i.e. re-organizing a ‘Nao Long’ ritual and inviting all community members to take part … A villager presented in the ceremony told us.
In the practice of the Mong as well as many other ethnic groups in the highlands, elders are most powerful and respected in the community. They not only represent morality, but also the knowledge pool regarding the customs and practices, as well the social point of view. They are selected by the entire villagers to lead all activities of the community in terms of religion, conflict reconciliation and resolutions, and supervise the organization of traditional rituals. All the words of elders are respected and followed by the community members. Therefore, maintaining the ‘Nao Long’ ritual is also contributing to the protection and promotion of cultural identities. Elder Hoang Seo Cau is in charge of organizing the ‘Nao Long’ ritual in Can Ho for years. Through the ‘Nao Long’ ritual, many issues of the community have been peacefully resolved. So, it could be understood that, via the contributions of elder Cau, local knowledge, social capital of the Mong in Can Ho are still preserved and continued development for future generations ...
As soon as the ritual completed is the ceremony of ‘Nao Long’. While the ritual echos the traditional belief aspects, conducted by elders and spiritual leaders, the ceremony of ‘Nao Long’ is space for participation of everyone - a vivid manifestation of the spirit of democracy representing the daily life of the community. The traditional customary law of the Mong is regularly built and maintained through the ‘Nao Long’ ceremony. In this occasion, all people are free to join the discussion in a democratic manner in order to set up rules or commitments of behavior, especially in the field of natural resource governance; then, they will voluntarily abide thoroughly, both beliefs and absolute self-discipline.
As every year, the ceremony of ‘Nao Long’ in this year is held in the center of the commune. The ceremony is performed via the traditional dances, the singing words, lively discussions and promises... and finally, a feast distributed from all the family's rice pots, the cups of wine poured out from all the bottles of each man take part in the ‘Nao Long’.
Regarding the role of the ‘Nao Long’ in natural resources management and protection of cultural identity of the local communities, Mr. Sung Seo Pao - the Communist Party Secretary of Can Ho commune, said: the ‘Nao Long’ is the basis to of the customary laws to resolve all issues of the Mong, notably in the field of water protection and forest protection... and the moral behavior of people. It is built on the basis of everyone involved, so people are self-serving. The rules adopted in the ‘Nao Long’ are also very effective. The management and protection of forests in our commune from ancient times until now remained very good, no one violation. To do so, the introduction of this practice into the ‘Nao Long’ is very significatnt…
As a spiritual cultural activity, but the ‘Nao Long’ also reflects the social meaning along with the extremely deep community spirit and unique of the Mong. The traditional customary law and cultural institutions of the community has always formed and evolved through the ‘Nao Long’, especially at the present, when the ‘Nao Long’ in Simacai is offically recognized and integrated into activities of the local government. Such involvement of the local government in the cultural activities is an integration of customary law with the statutory law, a positive and effective solution in natural resources management, protection of cultural values and properties of the local communities…

The reason for the Mong always paying attention to their customary laws on management of natural resources is because they are all the time living in harmony with nature. Nature is the source of their life, and nature also shapes their characters, moral standards as well as inspiration of creative. Then, all of these values become the belief of the entire community in which the ‘Nao Long’ as well as the sacred forests with full of spiritual beliefs are just an expression, but also an environment to nurture, preserve and maintain a culture filled with uniques refined over the years and generations.

The flavour of corn wine making red look on a girl faces, the ‘Khen’ – flute of the Mong making hands and foots of the boys unrefused to move, so mentoring and guidance until the sun also unbearable, then gradually hidden after the mountain ...

Luong Ngoc An

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