FOLK RELIGION, ANIMISM, SPIRITS, GHOSTS, DRAGONS AND OTHER SYMBOLS IN VIETNAM

FOLK RELIGION AND ANIMISM IN VIETNAM

The belief in good and evil spirits, or animism, is antedated to all organized faiths in Vietnam and permeates society, especially in the rural areas and in the highlands. These beliefs hold that all phenomena and forces in the universe are controlled by spirits and that the souls of the dead are instrumental in determining an individual's fate. If propitiated, they provide the living with protection; if ignored, they induced misfortune. Although officially condemned as "superstitious practices," these beliefs continued to proliferate in the rural and in the highland areas as well as in the cities in the 1980s. [Source: Library of Congress]

Spirits and deities found in Vietnamese folk religion, or "popular religion", include: 1) tutelary or guardian spirits, either originally worshipped by the villagers or historically instituted by Vietnamese or Chinese rulers. They include the nation-founding patriarch, past male and female heroes, and able ministers; 2) nature spirits of the grottos, rocks and trees, and rivers and oceans; 3) Immortals (tien) and holy sages (thanh), in the Daoist tradition, together with Lady Lieu Hanh and her affiliates, including the Mandarin Snakes and the Five Tigers (Agents), forming the chu vi (divine ensemble) in the belief systems of shamans and mediums; 4) Deities of Cham and Khmer origin, such as Po Yan Inu Nagar, the Whale Spirit, and the Neak Ta (Ong Ta); and 5) founding patriarchs of the arts and crafts (including the martial arts), the domestic deities, marginal demonic spirits, and lonely ghosts. [Source: Thien Do (1997), Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology ~~]

The places of veneration and features of spiritual practices are divided between the village communal house or dinh, where local participants emulate the court elite in Daoist-Confucian formats, the private Buddhist-Daoist temple or chua, where a three-religion pattern of Chinese origin has been practiced and modified to suit Vietnamese adherents, the trance mediumship, with the special importance of the Earth God and of female deities, and finally the practice of self-cultivation, mainly practiced by Daoists (ong dao). ~~

Centuries of animism, ancestor veneration, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc., have deeply etched the cultural influences in Vietnam. Each of these religions has affected the Vietnamese culture so that at the present time behavior patterns and customs subtly, or obviously, reflect these concepts. The Vietnamese do not make the distinctions between secular and sacred as clearly or precisely as do most Westerners. Therefore the total life of the Vietnamese peoples is much more affected by religious concepts than seems to be the pattern in America. The primary or basic religion of Vietnam seems to be that of Animism. Animism is the religious faith of nearly all the tribes-people, or as the French called them, Montagnards. Traces of Animism are found also in most of the other major religious faiths in Vietnam today. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967]

See Separate Article: FOLK RELIGION, SHAMANISM AND ANCESTOR WORSHIP IN CHINA FactsandDetails.com

Sexual and Gender-Bases Elements of Vietnamese Folk Religion

Of importance for gender images is the fact that many of the Vietnamese deities were thought of as female and sometimes even worshipped exclusively by women. This behavior has not stopped with communism or doi moi. Since the late 1980s, village pagodas have undergone a frenzy of refurbishment. As Stephanie Fahey (1998) reports, in a pagoda in a village near Hanoi, a local woman pharmacist of two hundred years ago is revered for the birth of the prosperous traditional craft of pharmaceutical production, and a temple on West Lake features Ba Chua Lieu, supposedly a princess who developed a prosperous silk industry. The young, as well as the prosperous, patronize these pagodas to implore the appropriate female deities with such different petitions as economic success and the birth of a son. It seems that with the demise of the Communist moral code, the Vietnamese are searching their past for more traditional values. [Source: Thien Do (1997), Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 2.hu-berlin.de/sexology ~~]

Among the religions in Vietnam, the "Popular Religion" seems to be the most liberal in sexual aspects. Khuat Thu Hong (1998) presents dozens of examples that show this liberal attitude from ancient times to the present. Lingam and yoni worship is the most obvious. But there is also the worship of the god No Nuong (No meaning a bamboo phallus, and Nuong, a vulva, made of a spathe from an areca tree). This worship centers on the ritual striking together of these genital symbols by the village head and deputy village head, while the young boys and girls called out, tung tung, dap (onomatopoeia of a drumbeat in Vietnamese) according to the beat. There is also the game of grabbing eels from a jar: In this game, each team of a young man and a woman observed the following rule: While trying to catch the eel in the jar, neither the young man nor the woman could look into the jar, and the young man had to keep one hand on the young women’s breast. At the same time, a committee of judges closely watched, along with fellow villagers who called out and teased them.

Animism in Vietnam

Animism, currently called "People's Religion" by some, is a belief "in spirits." These spirits may be those of deceased persons or inanimate objects such as stones, rivers, mountains, trees, etc. The basic core of Animism is the belief that spirits by appeasement can be used to create good, or pleased so that they will not create harm, danger and trouble. Moreover, each person has a spirit without which sickness and death would soon occur. This spirit continues to exist even after death has claimed its possessor. The death of the person creates a demand for the provision of the needs and desires of the on-going spirit. Unattended or dissatisfied spirits may become angry, bitter, or revengeful. They may seek to re-enter the present life which will create havoc and harm in numerous ways. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Because of the spirit's ability to continue an independent existence, it must be cared for properly. As spirits are associated with people, Animists perceive them to be greedy, deceptive, unpredictable, and possessing every trait known to man. Normally, the departed spirits of the good do not create too much concern if the proper rites are performed at the appropriate times, especially those rites which will send them happily on their way to the "spirit world." However, those people who die violently cause great fear as their spirits may be embittered by such a fate and create havoc to individuals, families or communities. Violent deaths include accidents, war, those killed by tigers, women who die in childbirth or die childless, or those whose bodies are not recovered and properly buried or cremated. ++

Animists seem more anxious to placate angry or evil spirits who pose constant danger than to seek the favor of the happy or good spirits who may help them. In this sense, fear of the evil wins out over honor toward the good. Because of such concepts, animistic rites become methods which utilize fetishes, blood sacrifices, symbolic designs, magic words, taboos, etc. These are techniques which cause the spirits to do the will of the worshipper. The animist does not view himself as a helpless or passive victim of the invisible world. He views himself as one who by use of the proper religio-magic formulae may achieve his own goals. The various spirits to be placated are from human, animal and inanimate sources. The animist expends much of his thought, effort, energy, and wealth in religious observances designed to channel the powerful forces to his benefit and in accord with his own desires. ++

To the animist all existence is one and the same thing, and has no permanent divisions or distinctions of animate and inanimate, human or non-human. Everything past and present is contemporary. This requires that all rituals must follow the prescribed pattern to avoid discomfort to the spirits. Living in fear as he does from birth to death, the animist is almost obsessed with religious observances as he seeks to placate one spirit or the other. He seeks to avoid offending any spirit that may cause trouble. ++

Animism is basically non-ethical and non-moral. The aim of the animist is not to have his character transformed or changed. It is to create the proper atmosphere so that spirits will comply with the will and wish of the animist. Therefore he does not hesitate to utilize any means which will provide him the protection which he desires, since these are merely means whereby he may relate to his world in a meaningful manner. This is especially true in the more backward areas where Animism is yet untouched by other religious concepts. The animist in his continuous power struggle with the invisible world grapples for the best advantages so that he may avoid that which seems otherwise certain and dreadful. ++

The animist has a pantheon of spirits which range from those in man to those in birds, animals, rocks, trees, streams, etc. He is constantly on the lookout for those who demand immediate attention, and the situations which cannot be ignored with impunity. Because this search is aided by religious "personalities", the shaman, magician, or shaman, these persons occupy positions of peculiar importance, power and influence. Since these persons have prestige and special powers in the mind of the animist, special care must be taken by Americans in dealings with them, in discussions about them, or in encouraging courses of action not agreeable to them. ++

Animist Beliefs in Vietnam

The simple animist places great emphasis on omens which may be in dreams or signs. These are believed to be sent by spirits to warn of future evil or good. If the animist sees the track of a certain animal on his path in the jungles, it is indicative that if the traveler continues his journey, he will surely meet the "evil one" himself. He must therefore return to his home or village and consult the shaman to determine when it will be safe to continue his trip, or if his plans must be radically changed. If during a wedding, a dog sneezes, the animists of Vietnam believes this to be a sign that the marriage is not a wise one. Normally the ceremony is halted immediately. If the couple insists on completing their wedding, some terrible fate is believed to await one of them. The tribesman on the way to his fields may notice a bird perched on a nearby bush or tree, and he will carefully look to see the direction in which it flies. If it goes to the left, friendly spirits are warning him of impending danger, making it necessary for him to retrace his way home immediately. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The animist perceives of sickness, disease and death as being spirit-related, so that treatment is given to appease the spirit rather than directly to cure the ailment. Because death claims such a large number of children in Vietnam, especially among the primitive tribesmen, the fear of evil spirits causes parents to give their children "nick-names" while their given names are kept in the strictest of confidence. The use of such nick-names is an attempt to fool the evil spirits so that they will not seize the child and take away its spirit. Sometimes little boys are actually nick-named after female organs as the parents believe this will surely fool the bad spirits. They are sometimes named after the various animals so that when they are called, the lurking evil spirits will not recognize that the children are being addressed and will not harm them. Many of the children have nick-names that when translated sound unsavory to Americans, but when it is recognized as a defense procedure by parents, it can be appreciated. Especially is this true when it is realized that three grown children out of ten births is considered fortunate among some of the Vietnamese peoples. ++

The head is believed to be the residence of the "spirit". The older folk and those less acquainted with Americans, may be disturbed if a stranger pats their children on the head since this may be viewed as an attempt to steal the child's spirit. This concept of the residence of the soul or spirit is widespread and it is often found among the other major religions in Vietnam. Those acquainted with this almost natural reaction of Americans to children may view the matter quite differently from those who have learned about Americans from antagonistic sources. The communists, for example, carefully study ways to use the various religious beliefs as means of preventing success in the joint Vietnamese-American efforts to bring peace to Vietnam. ++

Animist Sacrifices and Customs in Vietnam

Blood sacrifices, either of fowl or animals, may be used for both fertility and ceremonial rites. They are performed at childbirth, weddings, funerals, etc., and may be offered to either good or evil spirits as the occasion demands. Despite the objections of the French previously, and the Vietnamese currently, some of the animistic tribesmen are believed still to practice the sacrifice of human beings for the puberty rites for young men and also as supreme offerings of appeasement to spirits troubling individuals or communities. The identity of these spirits is determined by the shaman through appropriate rites. Blood sacrifices of various kinds may be offered to the spirits for protection, health and prosperity, events relating to birth, marriage, death, drought, warfare, choosing a new field, building a house, planting a crop, harvesting that which has been grown in the swidden-patches, etc. It is through such sacrificial rites that the Vietnamese animist seems to find order and meaning in his life, and they provide that which is essential to integration and sanity. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

Sometimes little boys are dressed as girls to fool the spirits who would prefer boys. Their hair is often cut so that the spirit will be fooled. The long hair is believed to hide the place where the child's spirit actually resides and under this cover the evil spirit cannot find it. Quite frequently mirrors are placed by the doorway of a home, or placed within the house so that they reflect anyone entering. This position is carefully chosen in order to cause an evil spirit to become frightened when it sees itself in the mirror and not enter the home. Because of the belief by many that sickness and death are caused by spirit activities, jokes dealing with these topics are considered shocking, irreverent, and could provoke evil spirits. ++

Within many ethnic Vietnamese homes, forms of Animism are quite evident. If sickness occurs, it is not unusual to have the shaman, the medicine man, etc., come to give treatments. If the illness is that of a small child, the question may revolve about an aunt that died childless, or an ancestor who desires that his bones be given a more desirable location. In such cases the Taoist or Buddhist monk or even the shaman or shaman, etc., is just the one to ascertain the answer. For a small fee, some rice, a bit of tobacco, a chicken, or some betel (acreca) nuts, a ritual is performed and the answer discovered. If it is the ancestor's spirit who wants the bones reburied, this can be done. If it is the maiden aunt's spirit which is troubled and creating the problem, the solution may be to make little paper images of children and with a bit of paper money, burn them. This sends them off to the spirit world where the spirit is made happy, and the child is made well. Sometimes treatment given to the ill is that of acupuncture (hot cups are used to create vacuum burns or needles inserted about the body). This treatment transfers the felt pain of the patient, and is used sometimes to draw evil spirits out of the patient's body. Similar medical treatment has also been used in the Western world of Europe and North America and still may be found in other parts of the West. ++

Among the animistic tribespeople barriers are often erected along the pathways leading to the village in order to keep evil spirits from entering. These are carefully placed in accord with the shaman's advice in order to be effective. It is vitally important to keep the evil spirits from the village lest they bring sickness, hunger, harm, danger, or even death to its residents. Sometimes the barricade may simply be a board or bamboo fashioned in place across the path: it may consist of amaze of barriers along part of the path so that several turns must be accomplished to enter the village. The tribesmen believe that human beings can figure out the maze, but that evil spirits do not have the reasoning ability. Sometimes the approachway will feature quite elaborate temptations to draw the spirit aside so he will forget his mission, or it may feature attempts to frighten the spirits instead. ++

Among some of the tribespeople, it is fear of the spirits which causes them to build their houses in a certain direction with doors on only one side so that the evil spirit who always travels in one direction cannot enter home. It is a similar concept that causes a number of Vietnamese to place the various red papers which represent the god of the threshold or doorway on or near the doorposts to frighten evil spirits. This belief also underlies the custom practiced by many folk who avoid carrying a small child across the threshold. Instead they carefully hand it across the threshold to prevent evil spirits entering the house with the baby and taking its spirit while it is unguarded. This fear of evil spirits accounts for the strings often seen about the wrists and the necks of small children to guard against evil spirits. Fear of spirits also accounts for the wearing of fetishes, charms, etc. Perhaps this is not too much different from the customs of many Americans (who may be superstitious in spite of their religious teachings, while the animists is superstitious because of his religious beliefs). ++

Guardian Spirits in Vietnam

Vietnamese villages have traditionally had local cults to honor village guardian spirits. The guardian figures are often traditional heroes worshiped as powerful spirits after death. These spirits are less important today than they used to be but are still revered. Guardian spirits, it is believed, if given proper respect, have the power to ward off illness and misfortune. Many homes have small altars and shrines for various spirits, such as the earth god Shakyamuni, the goddess of mercy and the god of wealthy. Ritual offerings are presented once or twice a month.

There are many kinds of malevolent spirts, ghosts and demons. People who have died violent deaths are thought to linger as angry spirits and ghosts and cause misfortune if not properly appeased. There are also a number of minor deities who intervene in human life and are the equivalent of fairies and elves.

According to a Vietnamese student at the University of California, San Diego: "Vietnamese people believe in ghosts, spirits, and souls. Every Vietnamese house that I have been to, without fail, has always had an altar dedicated to their ancestors. We remember them and pray that they can either go to heaven or rest in peace. Gods are another story. Due to missionaries in Vietnam, a tenth of the population now does not believe in the traditional gods of Vietnam, but I mean they are still interesting stories. The main important one is the Jade Emporer, otherwise known as Ong Troi or Ngoc Hoàng. He is the supreme over-looker of the universe. During Tet, people would make offerings to this god and ask for various wishes for the new year. Another god person is Ong Táo who is known as the kitchen god. He is responsible for reporting everything in your home to the Jade Emperor. That’s why one of the Vietnamese superstitions is to never gossip in the kitchen because the Kitchen God will overhear and report you to the Jade Empower. In order to be viewed highly by the Jade Emperor, you would first have to go through the Kitchen God. Therefore, there a week before Tet, when the Kitchen God goes back to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor, many families will make an offering to the Kitchen God so that he will give good notes about the family to the emperor. [Source: Culture Corner, Vietnamese Student Association, University of California, San Diego, November 25, 2012 ]

Vietnamese Village Dinh

Every village has a dinh , a communal house or temple with a pond in front and a shade tree in the back, and often a Buddhist pagoda or shrine. The dihn is where village elders meet and a guardian spirit—usually associated with a Vietnamese hero—resided. Every year festivals are held to celebrate this spirit. The Communists discouraged the worship of guardian spirits and the use of dihns but they have made a comeback in recent years.

The Dinh is a combination of the temple and the community center in many Vietnamese villages. It is within the Dinh that the housewives offer prayers not said at home. It is here that they also offer food to the guardian spirit called "thanh hoang" in Vietnamese. At such times, the "thanh hoang" is asked for protection against the various natural disasters and for his good will toward the individual worshipper or the worshipper's family. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division, 1967 ++]

The "thanh hoang" can be a spirit (ghost) of someone who died a violent death, an unnatural death such as murder, childbirth or failed to be buried; or a supernatural or celestial spirit without human origin. Though the villager may claim his faith as Buddhism, Confucianism, or another of the ten or so faiths in Vietnam, the animistic belief of "spirits" who can affect and control destiny is very strong. Often the courtyard of the Dinh or adjoining temple has a lotus pond with the large round green leaves floating on the water's surface. The lovely flowers of the several varieties of lotus rising above the dirty water, give color to the area. They remind the beholder that, as the beautiful flower grows in such a humble environment, so good may come from each regardless of surrounding conditions. ++

Should the village have a Buddhist temple or even a Taoist one, it will normally be the most elaborate structure in the village. As the foreigner listens in the quiet of the day, the sound of the monk's almost monotonous prayers and sermon recitations, with or without audience, will be broken from time to time with the rhythmic beat of the mo, which is a wooden instrument normally found on or near the altar, or the ringing sound of the altar gong being struck with a small wooden mallet. If the government does not have a school in the village, the chances are that an elementary school will be located near the temple and taught by someone of the religious organization of the community be it Buddhist, Roman Catholic or Protestant, except among the tribespeople villages where many have no formal schooling. ++

Concept of Spirits and Spirit-Controlled Environment in Vietnam

Belief in good and evil spirits, both animate and inanimate, is basic throughout Vietnam regardless of other religions professed. Some Americans are superstitious; but usually in spite of their religious beliefs. Many Vietnamese are superstitious because of their beliefs. Some Vietnamese are very serious in seeking to appease evil or harm-causing spirits and the spirits of deceased ancestors. Not to appease would be to create problems. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division,1967 ++]

Thus the Spirit House, the Spirit Pole in the rice paddies, the mirror by the door of the home, the "ishi" lions at the Temples or homes, the Ancestor Altars or Shelves, etc., are attempts to be in harmony with the spirits, and to have the spirits to do the will of the appeaser. Moreover, pleased spirits can do much to counteract evil ones. It is widely believed by most classes throughout Vietnam that spirits have the power to do evil by causing sickness, death, and other troubles. It is because of such beliefs that: 1) Mirrors by the door frighten spirits and prevent them from entering the home. 2) Red paper representing the "Door God" does the same thing. 3) Buddhists desire that an even number of people be in a picture lest death be caused to one of the group. 4) Since spirits cause sickness and death, never joke about these lest the spirits be angered and take action. ++

Since the "life-stuff" of man lives in the head, patting the head is believed by some to be an attempt to steal away the spirit and cause death. NEVER PAT ANYONE ON THE HEAD. Better yet, simply keep your hands to yourself. Because the head is the residence of the soul, the feet are considered of lowest value. So do not sit with feet crossed, pointing the soul of the foot to anyone. This is considered gross insult by many Vietnamese. Many of the rituals created by Animism, wherever found in Vietnam, are designed to ward off illness, death, etc., by requesting protection or by propitiating an errant or evil spirit. Many women have small shrines to Quang An for protection during childbirth and while children are small. The small children may also wear numerous amulets as charms against harm or ailments caused by errant or wandering spirits. ++

Many Vietnamese families have a service within the first twelve years of a child's life which is suppose to cleanse the child from the evils of its birth and allow intelligence while promoting a healthy adulthood. This service may consist of a small altar dedicated to the goddess of birth--usually Quang An--on which are placed twelve bowls of sweet soybean and sugar soup. Twelve pieces of paper with pictures of the calendrical cycle is then burned. Because childhood is the time when the evil spirits are most zealous, the little ones must be carefully guarded. It is now that little boys especially must be protected and brass bracelets may be placed on the small child as the spirits do not like the feel of metal, or an earring may be worn by the male-baby to fool the spirits into thinking it is a girl. Likewise, the small children are sometimes cautioned not to play under the trees where the spirits "rest" for fear they may anger the spirits. ++

Pregnant women often observe many taboos in order that the strains of pregnancy be eased and that birth may bring forth well-formed children without deformity. They must not eat "unclean" foods such as the snake, rat, mouse, dog, or beef lest the child be retarded; this does not preclude the use of tobacco or betel-nut. Because her presence might create "bad luck" for a bridal couple, a pregnant woman is not supposed to attend weddings, nor is she to take part in funerals as this may cause her child to be a "crybaby". She is to also shun places of worship including the pagoda and shrines to avoid angering the resident spirits of these places: since the spirits often promenade at twelve and five o'clock, she must not be outside her house so the evil spirits will not see her and create harm for her or the baby. Within the house, she must always take care to avoid stepping over a sleeping place or the unborn child may be infected with lethargy so that it will take seven days after birth for its eyes to open. Moreover, stepping over her sleeping husband can afflict him with sleeping sickness even as drinking from a cup which he is using may create many problems for him. ++

Ghosts in Vietnam

Walter Pearson wrote in AsiaLife: "Vietnamese life seems to be full of ghosts or spirits. This stems from the idea of the wandering soul, the idea of a good or bad death. A good death involves having a lot of surviving children, dying quickly and painlessly and having one’s body whole. These things are important because they help the soul make its way to the otherworld. When a person dies his soul hangs around the corpse for a while, unaware that the body is dead. If it has died peacefully and is in a familiar place then it stays quietly there until the family begins the rituals necessary to assist the soul through to the other world. If the rites are done correctly and the circumstances are right, the soul will enter the other world and become a beneficent ancestor. He will look after the family, provided the family looks after him by doing the yearly ritual of "dam gio", the feast on the anniversary of the death. [Source: Walter Pearson, AsiaLife, January 31, 2013 <>]

"A bad death is just the opposite. And in Vietnam there are plenty of bad deaths. Apart from all the souls left wandering the face of the earth after the war, many people die violently and away from home. It is imperative that the body is repatriated to the family home as soon as possible so the rituals can begin. If not, the soul wanders around and if it feels like it, enters the body of some unsuspecting person. In the past 12 months or so I have seen at least three people who have been taken over by the spirits of dead people. Or, at least, that is the way people have characterised it. The subject moans and cries and wails. He or she leaps up and says incomprehensible things. Naturally, friends and relatives are very concerned. The question is what to do. <>

"One treatment is a leaf that grows in the jungle and can be made into a tea. One relative at Loc Ninh had been possessed for some time and this was the treatment tried, without success. The Catholics resort to prayer and intercession by the Holy Mother. Groups of believers gather in the lounge room before the family altar and pray and repeat the Rosary. Again without much success. What does succeed is rest. In cases where the possessed are taken over for just a couple of days or so, I have come to the conclusion, they are suffering some type of psychotic event brought on by too much work. It is mostly women who suffer these events. And from what I can see they succumb after periods of intense work over long hours. They are simply exhausted. <>

"When the family gathers around and comforts them and forces them to lie still and relax, they initially have disturbed sleep, which slowly gets more and more relaxed, and eventually they sleep normally for a period and wake up sane and sensible. Another miracle of holy intervention. I have tried to explain to my friends and relatives that these events are psychological or psychiatric in nature but to little avail. I feel quite disturbed that one or two have been "possessed" for some months. I have argued they should be sent to the psychiatric hospital in Bien Hoa or Ho Chi Minh City where their symptoms would be treated very quickly. But no one believes me. Not even My Vietnamese Wife, who has seen the effects of medical treatment on a friend who was "possessed" for a long time, is willing to take a stand. Sadly, I think sometimes the fear of the cost of medical treatment deters people. I often ask young people if they believe in ghosts and they invariably reply that they do. I then ask if they have ever seen a ghost and they recount stories of all sorts of red eyes in the dark night and strange sounds their friends have seen and heard — but no, they personally have never seen a ghost. <>

July: Wandering Ghost Month

According to VNO, Vietnam Travel & Living Guide: "In many Asian countries, Lunar July signals bad luck and curses of the wandering lost souls. It is believed that sometime during the first half of the month, the gate of hell is open and the ghosts from the Lower Realm will roam free on Earth. The ancestors and the deceased relatives will find their way back to visit living descendants. Other so-called "lost ghosts", which have no home and hear no prayers, will wander around, lost, lonely and bitter. The ancestors find their way back by tracing back the offerings and prayers of children, and upon feasting will bless them with good luck. Meanwhile lost ghosts, the ones with no relatives, forgotten by descendants or those who died without proper burial have nothing offered to them and will angrily curse bad luck upon strangers. [Source: VNO, Vietnam Travel & Living Guide ><]

"Vietnamese widely believe that July is the month that ghosts roam around and create trouble for just everyone. Many wholeheartedly blame their bad luck in July on the ghosts, and this contributes a major tank of gasoline added to the flame. To this modern day, even more than in the past, people often restrict from doing major projects or embarking on trips during this period of time. Others, mostly Buddhist practitioners, go on a vegetarian diet and pray for a rather unhealthy amount of time during the day. It is believed that the evil lost ghosts tend to stay with the likes of them, so the bad persons will end up paying a high price because of his companions. The atmosphere is more or less a "speak-easy", since bad luck is just around the corner and one cannot see it coming, or rather being thrown upon by the ghosts. ><

"The most notable event of this month, July 15th is the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. Vietnamese families will prepare two feasts during the day. The first one is offered early, usually at noon, to ancestors. The second one, often offered sometime after sunset, is meant for the lost souls. People sometimes go to temples to pray to deceased relatives, while monks ask Buddha to forgive condemned souls that have committed sins in their human days and are cursed to be hungry ghosts. Many people also bring offering to the temples and donate for the purpose of feeding these ghosts. After the monks finish their prayers, people are encouraged to act the part of the ghosts and fight for the food. It is a day that everyone eases up and forgives the sinful souls. For their sins, these poor ghosts are already cursed to never be full again - they are pictured to have long pencil-thin necks and huge bellies. (Not to mention that food in hell is probably not that good either!). ><

"July 15th is the only day during the year that they can feast. Because they cannot eat proper food, the second offering of people usually consists of congee in very liquid form. Also, since Buddhism has that beings which do good and not harm living creatures will be rewarded, the offering to hungry ghosts are all vegan in nature. People trust that by restraining these ghosts from doing further evil - making them feast on no animal, they will be forgiven and one day regain their human form. It is a day of great compassion. ><

July Ghosts Offerings in Vietnam

According to VNO, Vietnam Travel & Living Guide: "In many Asian countries, Lunar July signals bad luck and curses of the wandering lost souls. It is believed that sometime during the first half of the month, the gate of hell is open and the ghosts from the Lower Realm will roam free on Earth. The ancestors and the deceased relatives will find their way back to visit living descendants. Other so-called "lost ghosts", which have no home and hear no prayers, will wander around, lost, lonely and bitter. The ancestors find their way back by tracing back the offerings and prayers of children, and upon feasting will bless them with good luck. Meanwhile lost ghosts, the ones with no relatives, forgotten by descendants or those who died without proper burial have nothing offered to them and will angrily curse bad luck upon strangers. [Source: VNO, Vietnam Travel & Living Guide ><]

"For many in Vietnam, it is common belief that living children should burn hell bank notes and joss paper to offer ancestors. These notes are believed to hold value in the afterlife, which is just a mirror image of this world. These days, the commodities include the latest techs and the most modern devices, from iphone to all types of vehicle and even entire houses. Upon the feast of the Festival, often at the end of the day, it is time for the fire to carry the goods to the other side. Depending on the regions, either at the end of July or right after the Festival, people will also light up lotus-shaped lanterns to guide the ghosts back in the afterlife. These lanterns are floated on rivers in great number, and when their light burns out, it is then that the ghosts have found their way back. These practices vary vastly by regions, for even the dates for the Festival differ greatly among countries. ><

"Perhaps strange to most, the day of the Festival of the hungry ghosts also happens to be Vietnamese (Lunar) Mothers' Day. People pay homage to their parents and ancestors, be them living or deceased. The custom is that one spends some time to think of mother's great heart and be thankful. People whose moms have passed away will wear a white flower on their shirt during the day, while others whose moms are still will have a red one. This very simple custom is largely practiced throughout the country, and bears a very sacred and deeply unique mark of the Vietnamese culture. ><

"As with every other cultures, there are always the ones who wish to bribe away their sins. Since Vietnamese believe that hell only opens its gate once a year, many think that they can pray and pretend to behave and get away with any evil for the rest of the year. These groups often flood temples with the most generous offerings, not only during the Festival, but year round. Unlike their miserable predecessors, monks these days are among the most well-off group of people. It has closed in being recognized as a full profession, and there is the new problem of fake monks praying on the pity and fear of the people. That says a lot about people these days!" ><

Worship of Hung kings in Phu Tho Province

In 2012, the Worship of Hùng kings in Phú Tho was named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. According to UNESCO: "Annually, millions of people converge on the Hùng temple at Nghia Linh mountain in Phú Tho province to commemorate their ancestors and pray for good weather, abundant harvests, good luck and good health. The largest ceremony, the Ancestral Anniversary festival of the Hùng Kings, is celebrated for about one week at the beginning of the third lunar month. People from surrounding villages dress in splendid costumes and compete to provide the best palanquin and most highly valued objects of worship for the key rite in which drums and gongs are conveyed to the main temple site. Communities make offerings of rice-based delicacies such as square cakes and glutinous cakes, and there are verbal and folk arts performances, bronze drum beating, Xoan singing, prayers and petitions. Secondary worship of Hung Kings takes place at sites countrywide throughout the year. The rituals are led and maintained by the Festival Organizing Board – knowledgeable individuals of good conducts, who in turn appoint ritual committees and temple guardians to tend worship sites, instruct devotees in the key ritual acts and offer incense. The tradition embodies spiritual solidarity and provides an occasion to acknowledge national origins and sources of Vietnamese cultural and moral identity. [Source: UNESCO]

The Voice of Vietnam reported: "According to historical researchers, no country in the world has a similar ritual to the worship of the nation’s ancestors in Vietnam. For generations, Vietnamese people have believed the Hung Kings are the founders of the country and the ancestors of the nation. Therefore, the worship of Hung Kings has become a unique cultural ritual in the spiritual life of the nation. It is also a symbol of origin that stimulates solidarity and national pride. Cultural researchers said the worship of the national forefathers in Vietnam is the highest development of ancestral worship. The unique elements look towards origin and community connectivity. [Source: The Voice of Vietnam, December 7, 2012]

According to legend the Hung Kings lived more than 4,000 years ago. The Hung Kings Temple, located on Nghia Linh Mountain, 175 meters above sea level in Viet Trì City, is a complex of majestic architectures encompassing the Ha Temple, the Thien Quang pagoda, the Gieng, Trung and Thuong temples, and King Hung's tomb. The Ha temple was built in the 15th century and is approached from the Dai Mon Gate. There is also a 700-year-old tree in front of this temple. The legend narrated to this temple is that Âu Co gave birth to 100 children. Her husband, Lac Long Quân, led 50 of the children to the coastal region and settled them to propagate his race. Âu Co took 49 children up to the mountainous area. The eldest among these children was Hùng Vuong, who became king and established the country Van Lang and made Phong Châu its capital. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Thuong Temple is approached from Trung Temple over a pathway, which has 102 brick steps. The kings worshipped the Sun God, the Earth God, the Rice God, and Saint Dong, a legendary hero who defeated the ancient Chinese Dynasty. At this temple location, in the 18th King Hung handed the reins of his kingdom to Thu.c Phán, who established a memorial stone pillar and took an oath that he would maintain the temple and also the inheritance of the Hung's family. King Hung's tomb is the tomb of the 6th King Hung. It is claimed the 6th King Hung, after defeating the intruders to his country, removed his dress and hung them on the branch of the kim giao tree. He soon after died right at that location. Gieng Temple is at the foot of the mountain where the 18th Hung King's daughters, Ngoc Hoa and Tien Dung , worshipped. They used their reflection in the water surface of the well to manicure their hair. +

A festival known as the "Hung Temple Festival" is held from 8th to the 11th day of the third lunar month with the main festival being held the 10th day in Nghia Linh Mountain, Hy Cuong Commune, Viet Trì City and Phú Tho. Province. At this festival, 18 generations of Hung Kings are worshipped for establishing the then Van Lang State, predecessor to present-day Vietnam. It is celebrated with lot of pomp and show as a love and pride of their homeland and ancestral land, when all the descendents of the Hung Kings gather for the festivities in which the state officials also take part. A grand procession of 100 young men and women in their traditional costumes, symbolizing children of the "Dragon and Fairy" is held. The procession is followed by a Xoan singing performance (folk songs of Vinh Phúc) in the Thuong Temple; a classical opera known as ca tru is held in the Hà temple. Other festivities include bamboo swings, nem con (throwing a sacred ball through the ring), cham thau (beating bronze drums) and dam duong (pounding rice). +

Dragons, Bats and Other Vietnamese Symbols

A flying dragon is a symbol for royalty; three old men, Phuc, Lac and Tho, represent luck, health and wealth; five old men, Phuc, Lac Tho, Hang and Ninh represent luck, health, wealth, peace and fertility. They are also represented by five bats. A pearl with a flaming tail pursued by a dragon is the symbol of the emperor.

Vietnamese symbolism which appears on everything from commercial products to tombstones. Bats represent happiness; pomegranates, fertility. A bearded sage stands for longevity; a lady bearing fruit, prosperity. A child means many descendants; a deer symbolizes wealth and the best sign of all is a red bat.

Red is a lucky color and a bat is considered a fortunate sign because its name in Chinese is a homonym with the Chinese word for "good luck, "plus bats sleep with their head down and their feet up, which shows how relaxed and worry free they are. Chinese and Vietnamese believe that people can achieve the relaxed, worry-free state of bats by eating red bat meat. Five flying bats symbolize the "Five Blessings": longevity, wealth. health, virtue and a long life span.

According to Vietnamese legend, the People of Vietnam descended from the Dragon King Lac Long Quan and his wife, the Water Fairy Au Co. The most important and Sacred Symbol of Vietnam, the Dragon is a symbol of kingship, sovereignty, wisdom, good luck and health. Endowed with mystical and supernatural powers [Tu Linh] and known in Vietnamese as Con Long, or Con Rong, the Dragon is often the essence of many traditional stories, tales, fables, legends and myths. It is endeared and revered by Vietnamese as a creature of fantasy, imagination and intrigue.

Lotus

Amid the dirty waters of small streams and rivers as well as from the semi-stagnant pools of water throughout the tropical area of Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, etc.) can be seen the bright green floating leaves and the lovely colors of the Lotus. Such is the contrast of the flower to the environment wherein it grows, that long ago, Buddha used it as a symbol of his teachings. Growing out of the impure, the dirty, and the waste products of civilization, where sanitation is practiced quite differently than in America, the Lotus lifts high its stately and lovely blossom in such unsullied and pure form that it is an object lesson. Buddha taught that as the flower achieves its mark in spite of its environment, so may men lose their passions and desires and thereby find release in the spiritual serenity of Nirvana. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The Lotus flower thus became a religious symbol as well as a popular food and a sight that creates aesthetic pleasure. The Lotus bud is perhaps the single most popular offering of the Buddhist as he worships at his temple, or his home altar. It is quite often held in the folded hands of the listener within the temple as sermons are given or meditation is practiced. Often in the early morning hours as the Buddhist monk makes his way through the streets with the "merit bowl" wherein the laity may earn merit by giving cooked rice, there will be a Lotus bud or two within his hand. Likewise, it has come to form a part of Asian architectural and sculptural motifs. ++

Sometimes the Lotus is compared to the feet, the heart, or the life-giving attributes of the Buddhist female. Moreover it has a history that predates Buddhism as its symbolism was also of Hindu heritage. For instance, Brahman legend tells the story of how when Brahman, the god of the universe, was creating this universe, he went to sleep on the job; as he slept, the Lotus bud appeared from his naval and its petals opened, Vishnu emerged and finished the creation. ++

Buddha used its four stages to symbolize the four types of people and their distance from enlightenment. The four stages are: (1) the Lotus bud deeply submerged as it starts its development; (2) the bud about to reach the surface of the pond; (3) after the bud has cleared the surface, but with leaf and bud still folded; and (4) the bud standing tall and straight with its beauty undefiled by the mire from which it grows. Because of this symbolism, it is always proper to use it as a floral offering to monks when ceremonies are performed or as means of earning merit. The Lotus bud signifies in Buddhism that the worshipper is capable of reaching enlightenment because of the opportunities within his grasp. The unopened bud also tends to last longer than other flowers, and it has the capacity to bloom when placed in water and left before the altar. ++

Incidentally, there are at least five varieties of the Lotus with the water lily being included, even if not always accepted as a true Lotus; but the Thai people refer to the two types as "string Lotus" and "stalk Lotus" with several types of "string Lotus" with flowers of purple, white to pale blue, and red. There are also at least five kinds of "stalk Lotus", with each having its own characteristics and charm when closely studied. ++

Apart from its religious symbolism and its aesthetic and, at times, almost ethereal beauty, the Lotus is also a food plant. As food it was known to the Greek Homer and was widely used by the Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asians. Its seed may be eaten fresh or dried and used in sweet soups and deserts. The root may be used in salad, boiled in soup, or preserved in sugar and used as desert. From the root may also be extracted a fine starch used by the inhabitants of that area for certain special foods. Thus, while in many places it might be just a nuisance, the Lotus has been turned into food and given religious values while adding lovely colors in unexpected places. ++

Dragons in Vietnam

Perhaps the figure most used for decorative purposes in Vietnam is the Dragon. It is to be seen in temples, on silverware, and cloth of all kinds, and next to the depiction of bending bamboo is perhaps the most familiar symbol of that land. The dragon is the most important of the four symbolic animals of Vietnamese mythology--to the Vietnamese it symbolizes nobility and power and is believed to be immortal. It can live anywhere--in the air, underground, in water, etc.; it is believed to possess such power that, when provoked, it can spit a deadly vapor which it can turn into either water or fire at will. [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

While in Western mythology the dragon is an evil beast, and best illustrated by the story of St. George and the Dragon, in the East--especially in mainland Asia--it has an opposite significance. The dragon is the totem, the palladium and emblem, of Vietnam. It is the symbol of man in general, just as woman is represented by the phoenix, another of the four mythical animals of the land. When a dragon and a phoenix are shown together either in cloth designs or carvings, a marriage is represented; sometimes this is emphasized by the addition of a Chinese character meaning joy, and greater emphasis is achieved by repeating the character. ++

The dragon may be a fanciful elaboration of the several varieties of common lizards of Vietnam, but its symbolic use seems to be of ancient Chinese origin. According to popular belief, the dragon is a genie that presides over the creation of meteors and other cosmic activity, and belief in cosmic activity is exceedingly strong in Vietnam. In addition, he is often considered to be the god of the waters who lives in the sea and other bodies of water. According to the Chinese tradition, which is still prevalent in Vietnam, the dragon has the horns of a deer, the head of a camel, belly of a crocodile, scales of a fish, and buffalo-like hair. Its hearing ability is in its horns rather than the ears. The neck of a serpent, eyes of a demon, and claws of an eagle complete a figure which is rather strange to the Westerner. ++

According to Vietnam-culture.com: "In Asian myths, no creature is as impressive as the dragon. For Vietnamese peasants, the dragon was a vivid symbol of the fourfold deity-clouds, rain, thunder and lighting. Represented by an S shape, dragons are depicted on artifacts dating back to the Dong Son-Au Lac culture, which existed in northern Vietnam in the first millennium B.C. Later came the cult of Tu Phap, or the Four Miracles. Long ago stargazers identified the Dragon constellation made up of seven stars arranged like an S. The brightest star is the Mind (Tam), also known as the Divine (Than) star. The word Than may also be read as Thin (Dragon), which denotes the third month of the lunar calendar and represents the Yang vital energy. [Source:Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ^*^]

Initially, dragons in Vietnam were associated with water and Yin energy. Dragons were popular among the common people, who believed that rain was created by nine dragons, which took water from the sea to pour down on the rice paddies. The dragon dance, a great favorite among people of all walks of life, was used to invoke rain. Many place names in Vietnam bear the word long (dragon), as in Ha Long Bay (Where the Dragon Descended) or the Cuu Long River (Nine Dragons). Dragons occupied the top position in traditional geomancy, especially for sovereigns. It was said that Le Hoan was able to found the Anterior Le Dynasty (980-1009 A.D.) because his grandfather's tomb was situated on a "vein in the dragon's jaw". The Royal Chronicle of the Restored Le Dynasty contains a story about Prince Lang Lieu, who saw a black dragon perched on his father's tomb. "Golden dragons for emperors, black dragons for kings," states this ancient text. ^*^

Dragon Legends in Vietnam

There are many legends of the dragon with some being used to explain the origin of the Vietnamese people. One of these tells a story of a Vietnamese King named Lac-Long Quang(circa 2,500 B.C.) of the dragon race, who kidnapped the wife of his cousin, a Chinese king De-Lai, and got 100 eggs. From these came a hundred boys: fifty of these, taking after their father, becoming water geni--the other fifty took after their mother and became land dwellers. One of the latter founded the Hung-Vurong dynasty, but its kings were still more at home at the bottom of the rivers than in their palaces. While Vietnam had a dynasty and from time to time the ruler died, the Vietnamese did not say "The King is Dead" but rather "The Dragon has gone up into the upper regions". A second proverb states, "When the Dragon (the ruler) is peaceful and happy, the fish (the people) swim freely". [Source: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division ,1967 ++]

The reddish color of the Sai river is explained by the following legend. When the Chinese invaded Tonkin in ancient times, their general used explosives to break up the rocks blocking the river. This explosion wounded the dragon hidden in its depths and the wound, having never healed, continues to color the water with its blood. This is very similar to the Chinese legend that the dragons are found everywhere underground, and serious difficulties would result if a dragon were accidentally wounded. His fury could result in untold catastrophe. ++

There are numerous other dragon tales which might be told, but they have a similar thought and seem to spring from the animistic concept of the earth having a "spirit" of its own which must be worshipped and appeased. These legendary stories have a present-day effect on the thinking of many common folk. To illustrate: a Chinese legend still current in Vietnam is that a three year old carp can be transformed into a dragon by certain rites. The Vietnamese, therefore, do not wish to eat large carp particularly if they are black as this may have dire consequences. While such concepts are entirely alien to the Western thought, awareness of such beliefs may help to avoid needless hostility. ++

Dragons and the Vietnamese Emperor and Royal Family

According to Vietnam-culture.com: "Like Chinese monarchs, Vietnamese sovereigns chose the dragon as the symbol of their power. But unlike the Chinese dragons, which were shown descending from heaven and spitting fire, the Vietnamese dragons were shown ascending from water. Though imposing and fierce, the Vietnamese dragons were never threatening. That dragons, or long, associated with royalty, are revealed by the names given to the king's personal effects and person, such as long con (royal tunics), long chau (royal boat), long thi (royal person), and long dien (royal countenance). [Source:Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com ^*^]

Dragons were also associated with kingship. Every Vietnamese person knows the legend of Lac Long Quan and Au Co. Lac Long Quan (King Dragon of the Lac Bird Clan) is known as the forefather of the Vietnamese people. He is said to have been the son of a dragon, while his wife, Au Co, was the child of a fairy. Their eldest son, King Hung, taught the people to tattoo their chests, bellies and thighs with dragon images to protect themselves from aquatic monsters.^*^

During the Ly Dynasty (11th to early 13th centuries), the dragon became a common decorative motif in plastic arts. In the royal edict on the transfer of the capital to Thang Long in 1010, it was written: "The Capital is chosen due to the lay of the land, which affects a coiling dragon and a sitting tiger". Legend has it that on the sunny day when the royal barge landed at Dai La, the king saw a golden dragon rise into the sky. Taking this as a good omen, he named the new capital Thang Long, or City of the Soaring Dragon. The modern city of Hanoi stands on this same site. ^*^

The Ly king had a cluster of shops and inns built up to the walls of an ancient temple once dedicated to the dragon deity. One night, the dragon deity revealed himself in the form of a violent northerly wind, which knocked down all of the houses but left the temple intact. Following this event, the king cheerfully proclaimed: "This is the Dragon God, who takes his charge over earthly affairs". ^*^

The Ly dragon was derived from India's mythical Naga, which Southeast Asian peoples influenced by Indian mythology had transformed into a sea god. The Ly depiction of the dragon is both sophisticated and unique. The dragon's elaborate head is raised, flame-coloured crest thrust out, a jewel held in its jaws. Its mane, ears and beard flutter gracefully behind, while its lithe, undulating body soars above the waves. The dragon was usually depicted inside a stone, a piece of wood, a bodhi leaf, or a lotus petal. Dragon images appear on the pedestals of statues of Amitabha Avalokitecvara (Kwan Kin), on cylindrical stone pillars in the hall dedicated to heaven in Thang Long Citadel, and on a five meter-high hexagonal stone pillar in Giam Pagoda in Bac Ninh province. The latter is considered by art historians to be a colossal linga. Lingas symbolize the male Yang element, while dragons symbolize the Yin element. ^*^

During the Tran Dynasty (early 13th to end of 14th centuries), the dragon retained the sophisticated style of the Ly dragon, yet changed to reflect the greater authority of the dynasty which defeated invading Mongol forces three times. The image became more detailed, with a large head, forked horn, four fierce a claws (stone carving in Boi Khe Pagoda), and a massive, rounded body, covered in carp scales (Pho Minh Pagoda).

The dragon took on a whole new appearance under the Le Dynasty (early 15th to end of 18th centuries). With a raised head, forked horn, wide forehead, prominent nose, large, forceful eyes, five claws, and two splayed feet, a dragon crept up the balustrade of Kinh Thien Hall's central staircase. This fierce and imposing dragon was clearly a symbol of royal authority. Examples of Le era dragons may be found carved in stone in Co Loa Temple, carved on wooden doors in Keo Pagoda, and carved in the royal stone bed in Dinh Temple. The Nguyen Dynasty (early 19th to mid 20th centuries) had dragons much like those of the Le. The top ridges of palace roofs were decorated with undulating dragons covered in sparkling porcelain tiles. ^*^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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