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The tunes of gods and fairies

Then singing, regarded as the tunes of gods and fairies, deeply shows the religious life and culture of the Tay, Nung and Thai in the northern mountainous region. With its human values, the folk singing has been recognized as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO.
According to the Tay, the word then originates from thien, which means heaven. Therefore, then singing is believed to be the tunes of gods and fairies. Then singing constitutes a form of cultural and spiritual activities and a type of folk music, telling the journey of humans to heaven to beg for the Jade Emperor’s support for happiness and good luck. 

“For the Tay, Nung and Thai, Mr. or Ms. Then is a knowledgeable intellectual who can give advice on farming and other social issues.”
Dr. To Ngoc Thanh,
President of Vietnam Folk Arts Association. 
Then songs depict the daily lives of people, their love, religious ceremonies and festivals.  It is an appealing art performance which can draw the audience into an unreal world. Then traditional worshiping ceremonies reflect the Tay’s outlook on life and the world and show their cultural identity.

We visited Nong Van Sep in Ha Thoi village, Chiem Hoa district, Tuyen Quang, the locality regarded as the cradle of the then songs of the Tay. Sep’s family was holding Cau Khoan, an ancient then worshipping ceremony of the Tay to pray for health and longevity for their parents. The ceremony was conducted by Cao Xiem, a well-known shaman in the region. In a then ceremony like Cau Khoan, the ritual holder is called Mr. or Ms. Then, the spirit medium who connects people with gods.

Cao Xiem conducts a Cau Khoan ritual for a Tay family.
The ritual aims to pray for good health, longevity, peace and luck for people aged 50 or older. Photo: Trinh Bo 

A then singing performance named “Viet Bac then songs” in Hanoi. It is an art program
performed by Tay and Nung singers from Lang Son, Thai Nguyen and other northern provinces. Photo: Tat Son 

Ma Van Doan, chairman of the Then Singing Club in Tan An commune, Chiem Hoa district,
Tuyen Quang, and other members practice new versions of
then songs. Photo: Trinh Bo

Nong Thi Phuong Lan, a Tay singer from Bac Kan province, performs a then song with a
dan tinh during the "Viet Bac then songs" performance.
Photo: Tat Son


 Ha Thi Chinh from An Thinh village, Tan An, Chiem Hoa, Tuyen Quang,
teaches the youngest member of the Tan An
then singing club. Photo: Trinh Bo

A then singing rehearsal at Tan An lower secondary school in Tan An commune, Van Ban district, Lao Cai. Photo: Tran Hieu

A dance to invite gods to the Long Tong festival of the Tay in Van Ban district, Lao Cai. Photo: Tran Hieu

A bell dance of Tay women in Van Ban district, Lao Cai, to invite gods to the Long Tong festival. Photo: Tran Hieu

With a dan tinh (three-stringed lute) in his hands, Cao Xiem in a red robe and hat started the Cau Khoan ceremony with an ancient then song. Surrounded by the smoke of incense, the voice of Cao Xiem and the sounds of his dan tinh led people into a mysterious world where descendants go to heaven, asking the gods to bestow health and longevity to their parents.

We also visited Cao Loc district in Lang Son province to explore the enchanting then tunes of the Nung. In the past, whenever an odd incident occurred which could not be explained using common sense, the Nung held a then worshipping ritual. This ritual was held by Ms. Then who sang then songs and played dan tinh, which conveyed the people’s prayers to gods.

An offering ritual to invite gods to a festival of the Nung in Lang Son province. Photo: Cong Dat 

Nong Thi Lim, a Nung folk artist from Lang Son, sings an ancient then song. Photo: Cong Dat 

At the “Viet Bac then songs” performance in Hanoi’s old quarter. Photo: Cong Dat 

A then singing and worshipping ritual of the Nung usually lasts two days with various formalities, including an ancestor worshipping ceremony and a journey to heaven to invite the Jade Emperor to earth. Music is the key element in the ritual with diverse then tunes relevant to each of the formalities.

Then is considered a spiritual product reflecting the social and cultural life of people with a special combination of literature, music, dance, painting and theatre.”

Music theorist and critic Nguyen Thi Minh Chau
Then singing, which is always accompanied by a dan tinh, represents the cultural identity of the Nung community here,” said Hoang Van Pao, a folklore researcher in Lang Son province.

Meanwhile, the then tunes of the Thai in the northwest region bear the humanity of this ethnic group’s traditional cultural values. For the Thai, then singing is not only a religious practice but carries moral lessons which praise virtues, love and patriotism while criticizing vices and bad habits. Then singing of the Thai is an art composed of poetry, music and dancing which arouse beautiful emotions of the soul and aesthetic tastes and human values.

“When ripe rice is spread at the mountain’s feet, young men and women from villages flock to the Then festival” are the verses about the unique Then Kin Pang festival of the Thai in Khong Lao commune, Phong Tho district, Lai Chau.

Then Kin Pang is a festival of the white Thai in Khong Lao, Phong Tho, Lai Chau, held in the third lunar month.
The festival is to pay gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Then and pray for bumper crops, prosperity and happiness for Muong villages. Photo: Thong Thien 

Thai people believe cay neu (Tet pole) is the shelter of gods when they come down to earth from heaven.
Thai women dance around
cay neu to praise the merit of gods at the Then Kin Pang festival in Phong Tho, Lai Chau. Photo: Thong Thien 

Nong Van Nhay, an old folk artist who plays a three-stringed lute during then singing
and dancing performances of the Thai in Phong Tho district, Lai Chau. Photo: Thong Thien

Nong Van Nao, an old artisan who makes three-stringed lutes for then singing in Lai Chau. Photo: Thong Thien 

Then Kin Pang is held annually on the 10th of the third lunar month to show gratitude to the kind and generous gods in heaven, who are believed by the Thai to go down to the lower world every year to save humans from sufferings. The festival is a religious practice of the Thai which seeks the gods’ support for peace, happiness and good luck throughout the year. The festival is also dedicated to the village founders and heroes with meritorious services to protect the homeland from invaders.

Then Kin Pang consists of a worshipping ritual and festive activities, including a pray-for-rain festival held at Nam Lum spring in Phong Tho. In the pray-for-rain festival, thousands of people from Phong Tho gather at Nam Lum Springs, believed to be where the gods from heaven come to meet people, cheering and splashing water at one another in the belief of getting bumper crops during the year. The festival is followed by folk games and folk dancing and singing.

The practice of then singing by the Tay, Nung, Thai in Vietnam was named on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity at the 14th session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, held in Bogota, Colombia, on December 12, 2019. 
Story: Phong Thu & Vy Thao
Photos: Trinh Bo, Tat Son, Cong Dat, Tran Hieu & Thong Thien


Dien Bien - A New Tourism Hub in the Northwest

Dien Bien - A New Tourism Hub in the Northwest

70 years ago, the name Dien Bien shone brightly on the world map with the historic Dien Bien Phu Victory over the French which "resounded throughout the five continents and was world-shaking” (05/07/1954-05/07/2024) Today, Dien Bien is known as a new emerging tourism center in the Northwest region with its strengths in historical-cultural and spiritual tourism, eco-tourism and nature exploration, and wellness and leisure tourism.