Ly A Cha: Sapa's Txiv Neeb

As the night falls over Sapa’s mountains, a thick mist lighting the interior of the homes, rice wine and smiles filling the tables, the loud sound of the gong calls the spirits. It’s the time of the shaman.

During one of the rituals, I started to shake. For months every time I attended a ritual, I became ill. It was then that I knew I had been chosen to be a Shaman in my village. I was very young at the time, and I started to learn from the former Shaman of my community. I became a Shaman at 25 years old,” says Ly A Cha, a 54-year old Shaman from a community near Sapa, Vietnam. 

According to Hmong traditional lore, before humans came a deity – named Saub, the deity of life – who lived on the moon. Saub oversaw the creation of both the world and the original man and woman. One day, Saub came across the deity of death – name Ntxwj Nyoog – who was eating humans, threatening to destroy the species. To help combat this deity, Saub recruited a human being and equipped him with special powers to fight this Ntxwj Nyoog. This young man was named Siv Yis – “the healer.” In order to keep fighting these evil forces, Siv Yis chose a successor and transferred his powers.

It follows from this tradition that Shamans do not become Shamans out of choice, nor are the powers transmitted from parent to child. Siv Yis alone selects his chosen successors. 

Hmong Shamans attempt to heal illnesses though offerings to the spirits, such as with meals or with a sacrifice of an animal. In Hmong culture, the souls of sacrificial animals are connected to human souls. As such, Shamans use an animal’s soul to support or protect the soul of the human patient.

Shaman rituals can last for hours, during which the Shaman signs his experiences: what he sees, what he does, and most importantly, the orders that he gives to the spirits. 

After long hours of ritual, the Shaman runs out of energy. A day is normally needed to recover from his travel to the other world. Two to three rituals are performed a week: rituals for healing, for blessing, for protections, for depression, for bad dreams. 

Their life remains in the darkness of the homes, taking care of the fire, practising herb healing and waiting for the call of the death spirits to keep protecting the Hmong traditions as they have for generations.

We need a shaman, we cannot live without them. They are fundamental in our beliefs; they protect us from the devil. My father is the shaman. He does good things and he will never perform a ritual to damage anyone. I am proud of my father,” says Ker, Ly A Cha’s young daughter.

Photography ©Omar Havana. All Rights Are Reserved