With around 5’500 people the Pa Then are one of the smallest minority groups in Vietnam, mostly living in Quang Binh (Ha Giang, Vietnam). The Pa Then believe the universe was created by the god Quơ Vo and the devil goddess Me Quơ O. Their cosmology divides the universe into four parts.
- The sky, where the sun, moon, stars, ancestors, God of Thunder, God of Lightning, Great Buddha, and others gods and spirits reside.
- The earth, where human beings, plants, animals, ancestors, and various ghosts and spirits (soil, forest, stone, plants, etc.) reside.
- The water, where there are various naiads, dragons, and gods of rivers and springs.
- The underworld, where the devil goddess Me Quơ Lê and various spirits live.
The idea behind the „Fire Dance“ is to ward off danger and evil spirits with the power of fire, but also to worship heaven and earth and to encourage the youth to master their path. The shaman calls out the gods to induce the dancers into trance. As soon as he’s satisfied with the stage of the bonfire, he gives his fellow dancers absolution and sends them into the blaze. A good dozen Pa Then men prove their strength and throw themselves into burning coal. Some say it’s the courage, I believe in the power of a farmer’s cornea. The festival starts in the early afternoon with a sewing competition and offerings from the shaman. Later the day dancers perform traditional Pa Then dances and songs while others start the bonfire. It ends after the Pa Then men jumped into the fire. I wasn’t just observing, the Pa Then invited me to be part of the performance. I could finally tick „walking over burning coal“ from my bucket list.
It turned out that those who joined the dance had to drink alcohol before dancing (not too much, they still have to concentrate). Suddenly, the flame flared and shot the red coal dust up. Bare feet were jumping on the fire and dancing to the tune of the steel bar beaten by the shaman. Burning coal was flying all over the place. The whole fire dance is exceptionally mystical and includes ancient traditions. While the participants proof their courage, most of the fellow villagers enjoy drinking rice wine or smoking the bamboo pipe.
When arriving at the place one day before the festival the mayor of the town invited me for tea and sent me to a typical stilt house to spend the night with the local community. As the only foreigner around I was invited to witness every single point of the program. Not only the extraordinary festival, but also the kindness of the Pa Then made my trip worthwhile.
November 2016, Quang Binh district of Ha Giang Vietnam. A hick town along the most horrible road in Vietnam.