The Secret of Superstition in Vietnam
What is the best way to keep a child healthy? An old Vietnamese grandfather believes the charm of a certain necklace wards off evil spirits and he may give it to his grandson to protect the boy.
An employee fails to show up for work on the third day of the lunar month because he believes that particular date brings him bad luck.
A student tries to borrow money to buy lottery tickets because he dreamed of fire the night before.
These are some examples of superstition which may baffle the foreign visitor to this country. But, in Vietnam, it is part of tradition and customs passed down from one generation to the next.
Ignorance, of course, plays some role in the traditional acceptance of superstition. Not having sufficient knowledge, faith or trust in scientific methods, a Vietnamese often relies on his prejudices, emotions and the word of his forefathers to guide his daily life.
Superstition, sometimes, plays more than a passing role in Vietnamese society. By the time a boy is old enough to marry, for example, he may not be able to wed the girl he loves because she was born in the wrong year.
On the 12-year lunar calendar commonly used throughout Asia, many of the years are considered incompatible. Such years are thought to bring misfortune if they are improperly matched with other years. Thus a young man born in “the Year of the Tiger,” cannot marry his beloved from “the Year of the Horse” unless he wants to risk a break in family ties with his parents and elder relatives.
To the conservative relatives, the Tiger and Horse are incompatible and sure to bring bad luck to such a marriage. The hoot of an owl is regarded as a bad omen announcing death or illness. According to ancient tradition the bird must be chased away and those who heard his cry should be extremely cautious about their personal safety.
A large number of fortune-tellers, astrologers and palm-readers owe their living to Vietnamese superstition and often made a small fortune from their clients.
Even the poor save money for occasional visits to well-known soothsayers. Superstition has been known to determine the conduct of the war in this ravaged country.
A friendly or enemy commander may refuse to attack or may alter his strategy if the stars are not in his favor. One story has it that an American commander always consulted a Vietnamese astrologer before planning the deployment of his troops.
The presence of the dead, the behaviour of the living, and an influence on the future – the many generations of the Vietnamese family.
Ancestor worship was introduced into Vietnam by the Chinese during their long occupation of the country that began 200 years before the birth of Christ. Since then, it has been fully absorbed into the Vietnamese consciousness and, with Confucianism, underpins the country’s religion and social fabric.
Ancestor worship is not only the adhesive that binds the Vietnamese together, but also one of the most difficult concepts for people from Anglo-Saxon or European origins to understand. It has been said that the Vietnamese believe in the dead while the Occidentals believe only in death.
How do Vietnamese people worship their ancestors?
The practice of ancestor worship is relatively straightforward. Nearly every house, office, and business in Vietnam has a small altar which is used to commune with ancestors. Incense sticks are burned frequently. Offerings are made – fruit, sweets, and gifts. The latter items are paper replicas of dollar notes (‘ghost money’), motorbikes, cars, houses and so on. After worship, the paper gifts are burnt so that the spirits of the gifts can ascend to heaven for the ancestors to use.
In the past, the income from a plot of land was used to maintain the altar and arrange the rituals, but this tradition has now faded away. However, the custom that the eldest son will arrange the ceremonial and inherit the family house upon the death of his parents is still generally observed.
Another traditional element is the placing of wooden tablets on the altar for each of the ancestors over recent generations. This is less rigorously observed today, and tablets are often replaced by photographs. Some pagodas house commemorative tablets for ancestors on behalf of regular worshipers.
When do Vietnamese people worship their ancestors?
Worshiping takes place regularly on particular days, such as festivals, new and full moon days, the death day of the ancestor, and so on. On important occasions, such as moving house, starting a new business or the birth of a child, and whenever a member of the family needs guidance or a favour, the ancestors are consulted.
A proliferation of small fires of burning paper in the streets of towns and cities means that it is a festival or moon day. One paper fire is likely to be an event affecting a single family.
Why do Vietnamese people worship their ancestors?
For the Vietnamese, ancestor worship is not related to ghosts, spiritualism or even the supernatural in the Western sense. It is not even a ‘belief’ in the sense that it is open to question by the ‘believers’. The Vietnamese accept as a fact that their ancestors continue to live in another realm and that it is the duty of the living to meet their needs. In return, the ancestors give advice and bring good fortune.
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