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Spirits without Borders: Vietnamese Spirit Mediums in a Transnational Age Essay (Book Review)

The book under analysis is called Spirits without Borders: Vietnamese Spirit Mediums in a Transnational Age. Karen Fjelstad and Nguyen Thi Hien have dedicated the book to discussing the reasons and preconditions for spread of ritual from Vietnam to the United States, as well as to understanding the influence of ritual transnationalism on both nations.

The rituals and spirituality that was shaped in Vietnam has now a potent impact on non-Vietnamese residents in the United States. Additionally, the authors seek to provide a comprehensive ethnographic account on Len Dong and Dao Mao, a ritual which was also held in the United States among migrated Vietnamese, creating the estranged connection between American Vietnamese and native Vietnamese spirit Mediums.

Despite the geographic distance, mediums from both countries have managed to reunite and preserve their customs and culture.

At the beginning of the book, Fjelstad and Hien introduce a brief overview of the theoretical frameworks and rationale for examining the topic. Subsequent chapters describe the author’s personal experience in dealing with the subject and outline the research environment, including several protagonists.

The sixth chapter portrays such themes as topography of Len Dong and Dao Mao, as well as how the changing socio-political and legal frameworks influence the ritual. The researchers focus on the flexibility and adaptability of the ceremonies that are significant for survival during rigorous persecution and suppression of Len Dong activists.

In addition, the chapter discusses the connection of Len Dong ceremony with transnational age that is displayed through doctrinal, cultural, and ritual challenges that mediums residing in US face along with their Vietnamese-based supporters.

While analyzing and synthesizing the information, the authors skillfully emphasize the idea that religion and culture are constantly changing to adapt to the changing social environment.

To underline the transnationality of Len Dong, Fjelstad and Hien emphasize, “transnational flow of religious phenomenon sometimes referred to as sancroscapes or religioscapes indeed move in ways that a multidirectional but such movement is embedded in social behavior and constrained by power relations”1. The ritual Len Dong originates from northern Vietnam and spread to other regions in the country.

In 1975, it moved to the United States after thousands of Vietnamese refugees escape from their homeland after the Vietnam American war. The religion deployment, however, was carried out through informal channel.

The authors writer, “U.S. mediums were then able to serve the spirits alongside their Vietnam-based counterparts, many of whom had been former enemies during the Vietnamese American war”2. Such a practice has affected significantly the religious practice in the United States.

The so-called “overseas Vietnamese” were also holding ceremonies and rituals, but the process differed a bit from that organized in Vietnam. Specific attention was given to spiritual possession and regional variation.

At this point, the author recollect their experience in contemplating the place of ritual in California: “The temple.. did not have any traditional patterns, decorations, or colors of temples in Vietnam”3. As per spiritual possession, the ceremony was different as well. Although the ceremony adhered strictly to all the rules, including the display of spirit reincarnation and mediums dancing to the ritual music.

However, the music “was played on a cassette player”, unlike the alive music that was typical of native Vietnamese ceremonies4. Finally, the matter also concerned the Vietnamese’s attitude to war and residual anger. In this respect, native Vietnamese expressed their anger and discontent with the Vietnamese Americans due to their anticommunist beliefs.

The authors write, “…it was uncommon for Vietnamese Americans to be labeled “communist” if they traveled to Vietnam, attended Vietnamese cultural events, or did not engage in protests against the Vietnamese state”5. Thus, geographical distance played an important role in creating discrepancies in ritual process in Vietnam and in the United States.

The reunion of Vietnam-based and U.S-based mediums became possible as soon as certain social, political, and cultural factors have become relevant, including technological change and shifts in political and historical backgrounds of both countries. Despite the constraints in communication, “relationships between U.S. and Vietnamese mediums are beneficial to both parities”6.

The complex relations between mediums originating from Vietnam and United States premise on such issues as differences in ritual processes and disagreement based on political issues. At this point, the authors remark, “by having ceremonies in the “place of their ancestors” some mediums report they feel closer to the environment of their spirits”7.

In conclusion, it should be stressed that, despite the challenges of establishing relationship between native Vietnamese and overseas representative living in the United States, the medium from both countries have managed to establish fruitful interaction and encourage maintenance and preservation of Vietnamese culture and traditions.

The main difficulties of communication lied in spiritual possession, geographical distance and historical background. The latter specifically concerns Vietnamese American war in 1975.

The technological progress, particularly the emergence of the internet, has served as a powerful means for cooperation and reincarnation of spiritual knowledge. In general, the book provides an extensive account on the authors’ personal experience through which they cognize the peculiarities of Len Dong ritual.


Fjelstad, Karen and Hien, Nguyen Thi. Spirits without Borders: Vietnamese Spirit Mediums in a Transnational Age. US: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.


1 Karen Fjelstad and Nguyen Thi Hien. Spirits without Borders: Vietnamese Spirit Mediums in a Transnational Age. (US: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011),5.

2 Ibid., 6.

3 Ibid., 32

4 Ibid., 32.

5 Karen Fjelstad and Nguyen Thi Hien. Spirits without Borders: Vietnamese Spirit Mediums in a Transnational Age. (US: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 34.

6 Ibid., 144.

7 Ibid.,143.

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