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Traditional & Customs of Vietnam

Vietnamese Engagement Ceremony
Vietnamese engagement ceremony is an important ceremony before the wedding which involve both fiancé’s and fiancée’s families. In the past, engagement ceremony was considered very important even than the wedding ceremony because it was an official day to announce the wedding, the relationship between two families. Nowadays, it is less important and varied for each region. In the big city the engagement ceremony could be celebrated 1 day before (and 1 month in the countryside) the wedding ceremony.
Before the engagement day, each family chooses a representative. This person is a member of the family which has a happy life and a high ranking position in the family. Both of representatives do representation, exchange gifts and controlling the flow of the ceremony. Besides choosing the representatives, both families sit together to negotiate the dowry and the good time for the ceremony. The time is chosen very carefully based on the propitious time and day of lunar calendar.

The gifts are prepared by the fiancé family several days before the engagement ceremony. Traditionally the gifts was placed a number of trays. The number must be an odd number 5, 7 or 9… trays depends on the condition of the fiancé family. The gifts are covered by the red color paper or cloth. In Vietnamese beliefs, the odd number and the red color will bring luck to the young couple. The gifts include betel leaves, areca nut fruits (trầu, cau), wine, tea, husband-wife cake (bánh phu thê) and sticky rice… one of the most important gift is the whole roasted pig which placed in a large tray. Both families also choose 5, 7 or 9 people who bring and receive the gifts. These people must be young and not marriage. Boys represent for fiancé bearing the gifts and girls represent for fiancée receiving the gifts.

On the engagement day, the fiancé family brings the gifts to the fiancée family with the warmly welcome. After receiving the gifts, the young couple prays in front of the fiancée’s family altar to ask for approval of fiancée ancestors. When this ritual finishes, the fiancé give the fiancée the engaged ring.

Following the engaged ring giving, the both representatives introduced the member of both families in an order. Then both family enjoy the party which prepared by the fiancée family. It is also expected that some of gifts are returned to the fiancé family for luck before the fiancé family leaves.

The days after the engagement ceremony to the wedding ceremony, the parents of fiancée family bring the wedding cards with gifts to their friends, family members… and neighbors to invite them to the wedding party of their young couple.
Contemporary Vietnamese Traditional Weddings
The pace of change
Modern traditional weddings in Vietnam differ significantly to those in the past. The most obvious change is the cost - the social pressure of ‘face’ leads some families to spend up to the equivalent of ten year’s salary. Another obvious difference is the average age of the couple.
In the past, a groom of 20 with an 18-year-old bride would be considered an ideal couple. Today, education, a degree of female emancipation, and the need to pursue a career have raised the figures by five or even ten years for middle-class city dwellers. Working class couples tend to marry earlier.
Contemporary beliefs
The tradition of matchmaking has largely faded away, but most parents have firm views were they to decide that the prospective spouse was unsuitable, most young people would accept the verdict and break off the relationship.
Some young people seek the services of an astrologer in advance to determine whether their future liaison will be successful. If the result were negative, most would withdraw.
Women a couple of years over 30 are considered to be past their sell-by date - for men, it’s a about 35. The possibility of being left on the shelf is frightening, especially for women. As the deadline draws nearer, individuals’ and families’ criteria become looser - better an unsuitable partner than no partner!
Arranging the marriage
The first stage of marriage is usually when the young man's parents consult a fortune-teller to see whether the couple is destined to live together as husband and wife. If so, he will formally request the young woman's hand.
The actual request is made by a party comprising the young man's parents, or aunt and uncle if he is an orphan, and a go-between who go to meet the young woman's parents. The party takes gifts such as betel leaves and areca nuts, and asks what the family requires for their daughter’s hand. The young woman's parents will usually ask for a sum of money to cover the costs of the marriage preparations.
The engagement
The next stage in the process is the engagement, which, once the consent has been given, usually follows several months after. However, in some circumstances such as university or one partner working abroad, it can be much longer.
Vietnamese people believe that some days are particularly auspicious, so choosing appropriate days for the engagement and the wedding is another task for the fortune-teller.
If the fiancée or her family breaks off the engagement for any reason, all of the gifts must be returned to the young man's family. If the fiancé backs out before the big day, her family keeps them.
The engagement is a solemn ceremony. On the day, the young man will travel with his family to the young woman's house bearing gifts of betel nuts, cake, wine, cigarettes and so on. Young women wear red ao dais and a banquet is held after formal rituals are performed before the ancestral altar. The engagement ceremony is a chance for the young woman's family to meet their future son-in-law.
The wedding day
The final stage is the wedding day. Traditionally, the couple must stay apart on the day before to prevent bad luck. On the night before, the bride's mother will tend her daughter’s hair with several combs. Every comb means something, but the most important is the third comb - at that time she will ask for luck and happiness her new home.
On the big day, the bride’s family and invited guests assemble at her house to await the arrival of the bridegroom. Shortly before the groom’s party is due, the bride slips away to don her wedding dress.
Gifts from the groom's family
The groom’s parents and immediate relatives are preceded by an odd number of young men smartly dressed in shirt and tie, and dark trousers. They each carry a tray covered in a red cloth, or alternatively a large red and gold canister, containing gifts of betel leaves, areca nuts, wine, fruit, cakes, tea and so on.
In the past, they would have walked, but today most wedding parties opt for cars and change to cyclos for the last part of the journey. Red is the dominant colour in a traditional Vietnamese wedding - it’s considered a lucky colour and will lead to a rosy future.
Upon arrival the young men dismount and are met by the same number of young women dressed in red ao dais. The men hand the gifts to the women who take them inside.
Each young woman hands her male counterpart a small amount of money to designate that they are ‘working’ there is a superstition that being an unpaid helper at a wedding will mean that you won’t marry.
Accepting the gifts
The leading couple of the groom’s party enters the bride’s house carrying a tray of small cups of wine and invite the brides parents to take a sip. By accepting the toast, the bride’s parents symbolically agree to admit the groom’s party. A few years ago, this would be accompanied by firecrackers, but many accidents and a subsequent ban put an end to the tradition.
The groom's family introduce themselves and ask permission for their son to marry his bride. A Master of Ceremonies (usually a respected person chosen from the bride's relatives) instructs the bride’s parents to present their daughter. The bride then enters. Traditionally, this will be a red au dai. The groom will wear a dark suit or, more traditionally, a black ao dai.
The ceremony
The wedding ceremony begins in front of the altar. The bride and the groom kneel down and pray, asking their ancestors' permission to be married and their blessing on their family-to-be. The couple then turn around and bow to the bride's parents to thank them for raising and protecting her since birth.
They then bow their heads towards each other to show their gratitude and respect to their soon-to-be husband or wife. The Master of Ceremonies then advises the wedding couple on starting a new family and the two sets of parents take turns to share their experiences and give blessings. The groom and the bride then exchange wedding rings, and the parents give the newly wedded couple gold bracelets, earrings and other valuable gifts.
The wedding banquet
After the marriage, both wedding parties leave to join guests that were not invited to the marriage ceremony at a large banquet. This is usually a large gathering, often in the hundreds and sometimes more. The groom, bride, and their family are once again introduced to the guests and everyone drinks a toast. Dinner or lunch is served at the table.
During the reception, the groom, bride, and their parents visit each table to thank their guests. In return, the guests give envelopes containing wedding cards, money gifts and a blessing to the newly wedded couple.
After the banquet, the groom’s party and the bride leave for the groom’s house, where she will live. Later, the bride’s party follows to inspect the accommodation - particularly the marital
Vietnamese and Western Wedding Ceremonies
All over the world, wedding are governed by an endless list of customs and superstitions. Elka Ray examines some of the intriguing tradition associated with Western and Vietnamese nuptials. Most Vietnamese wedding takes place in the autumn and winter, when the weather is cooler and farmers have less fieldwork. Europeans, meanwhile, tend to marry in the summer. What most Westerners fail to realize is that ancient superstitions influence their wedding dates. According to an old rhyme, couples marrying in June (the most popular month for Western weddings) may look forward to"one long honeymoon". This belief goes back 2000 years, since the sixth month was named after Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage. May, meanwhile, was deemed disastrous for marriage, as the Romans presented offerings to the dead at this time. Many Vietnamese families turn to astrologers to help determine the bride and groom's compatibility and to choose an auspicious wedding day. For a Vietnamese woman, getting married at the age of 22, 23, 26, or 28 is considered unlucky.
In both Vietnam and the West, getting married traditionally involved two steps: the engagement and the wedding. According to tradition, a Western groom was required to ask the bride's father for his daughter's hand in marriage. An engagement ring was then presented to the girl as a symbol of the groom's commitment and as a sign to other potential suitors that her affections were "engaged". While modern romantics might not like the idea, this tradition is rooted in the days when marriages were arranged and a groom's family paid a dowry or "bride-price" for the girl's hand.
In Vietnam, the betrothal ceremony, or an hoi, also involves gift-giving. The groom and his family visit the bride's family bearing round red lacquered boxes full of tea, cakes, fruit, wine and areca leaves and betel nuts. As red is considered a lucky color, the boxes draped in red silk and carried by unmarried girls or boys in red clothes.
While these gifts are symbolic, it was also customary for the boy's family with valuables like livestock or jewelry. The gifts contained in the lacquered boxes are set on the girl's family's ancestral altar, after which the edible gifts are divided into two portions. The smaller portion is returned to the boy's family to show that they have been too generous and that the bride's family is not greedy.
In the past, the an hoi could take place as long as two years before the wedding. Today, it is often staged the day before the main event, or le cuoi. On this day, at a bridegroom's family forms a procession to the bride's home to collect the bride. They are welcomed by bride's family members, who are careful not to step beyond their gate so as to not appear overager to marry off their daughter. A banquet typically follows, after which the bride and groom travel to the boy's family home, where the newlyweds will live.
Todays, both religious and civil marriages in the West are celebrated with a ceremony in which the couple declares their willingness to remain together "for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us apart". Long ago, these sentiments were expressed during the traditional betrothal ceremony. It was only in the 12th century that Europeans began to marry in church.
At both Vietnamese and Western weddings, food is imbued with symbolic meaning. In northern Vietnam, weddings often feature phu the or su se cakes, which made of flour with a green bean, sugar and lotus sedd filling.Always sold in pairs, these soft square cakes are wrapped in green dong leaves that represent eternal lve and tied with a red ribbon, a symbol of the destiny that connects a man and a woman. Western brides and grooms typically cut the first slice out of wedding cake together, the feed each other some bites of cake to express their commitment to provide for each other. AN old superstition claims that if an unmarried woman places a piece of wedding cake beneath her pillow she will dream of her future husband.
Old beliefs also govern wedding clothes. In the West, the bride is advised to wear, "Something old, something new, something borrowed something blue and a silver sixpence in your shoe." Originating in Victorian England, this rhyme expresses much older beliefs.The old item, typically antique lace or jewelry, symbolizes continuity, while the new item signifies future hopes. The borrowed item should come from a happily married friend. Blue is the color of purity, and the coin represents prosperity.
Western tradition deems it unlucky for the bride to make her own wedding dress, and for the groom to see the bride in her wedding dress before the ceremony. Nor should the bride wear her entire outfit before the wedding day. This is clearly not the case in Vietnam, where couples typically don their wedding finery and pose for photographs long before the big day. While most Western brides and growing numbers in Vietnam wear white gowns, this tradition dates back to just the 16th century. Before that, girls wore colorful frocks, although according to an old rhyme some colors were to be avoided, such as, "married in green, ashemed to be seen," or, "married in red, you will wish yourself dead".
In the past, most people in Vietnam could not afford special wedding clothes. Today, puffy Western-style gowns are increasingly popular although these dresses aren't necessarily white. In both Vietnam and the West, guests present the newlyweds with gifts to wish them luck. Vietnamese people tend to give cards with cash, while Westerners typically give household goods. Guests perform certain rituals to grant the newlyweds good luck. Westerners throw rice, flower petals or confetti to ensure fertility, and tie tin cans to the couple's car to scare away evil spirits jealous of their happiness. It is considered lucky for a Western groom to carry his bride over the threshold when they enter their new home. In Vietnam, a healthy baby boy is often placed on the newlywed's bed to improve their chances of having a son.
While modern couples may scoff at many of these superstitions, others are happy to hedge their bets. After all, as an old saying goes: "Marriages are made in heaven. But again, so are thunder, lightning, tornadoes and hail…".
Recording Name on Family Annals Custom
According to the old custom, after checking the family annals, avoiding the profanation of taboo names (name of a child is same as the name of ancestors); the newborn child is officially given a name. In case of the name of the child is similar the name of ancestors, it has to be changed.
The ceremony of announcement name of a child to ancestor is very simple. It is needed only incense, betel and a glass of wine. Normally this ceremony is organized annual in ancestor death anniversary. All children which are born in each year are invited to announce their name at once. The order of each name in family annals is sorted by year. There are number of forms which are used to record the name but all of them contain the following information: name, parent, generations, branch of family, first-born child or not, date of birth and the date of recording this information.
In Vietnamese viewpoint, the daughter is the child of her husband family so her name is not recorded in family annals. But after The August Revolution, some families abolished that injustice, the name daughter is recorded on family annals.
First-Born Baby Custom
Normally in Vietnam especially in the countryside regions, three generations live under the same roof. Based on Confucianism telnet, when a girl gets marriage she has to follow her husband and live in her husband family. It has some difficulties for the wife when she is pregnant and has baby at the first time. The first-born baby custom means the wife come back to her family to have the first-born baby, and from the second child she stays at her husband’s family.
This custom is popular in Binh Tri Thien and some other regions in the north of Vietnam. In Nghe An, Ha Tinh unless the husband lives in his wife’s family in general the wife must not go to her family to have a baby. Why Vietnamese has first-born baby custom. Because in the past the married age is young, (woman from thirteen and man from sixteen can get married), and when a young wife has a baby at the first time, she does not have any experiences during pregnancy. Furthermore, she still hesitates to depend on her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law for help and it would be easier to ask for help from her mother and her sister. Next time having a baby she has experiences, she can deal with difficulties by herself so she can stay at her husband’s family. Some days before confinement, the parent-in-law or the husband goes to the wife’s family to talk with the wife’s parent to take the wife come back her family. After confinement, the baby is strong enough. The husband prepares some presents to pick her wife up and take her to his home. The grandparent-in-law of the baby is very careful to mark a smut on baby’s forehead to drive ghost away on the way coming home.
Contrary to above custom, in Ha Tinh only the daughter-in-laws can have baby at the family. If the wife is staying at her house and cannot come back her husband family, her parent has to pitch a tent temporarily for her to have a baby or she has to go to buffalo’ cage outside the house. In case the wife is motherless, she stays at her husband family to have a baby as normal.
Why a Newborn Baby is not Given a Name ?
There are many reasons why Vietnamese do not name their newborn babies when they were born. The reasons are belief, olden government policy in the old society and family customs.
Normally, a Vietnamese has many names from birth to death. When a baby is born, it is called as “thằng Cu”, “thằng Cò”, “con Hĩm”, “thằng Mực”, ”con Cún”, “thang Chắt em”, “con Chắt ả”… These are general names to call a newborn baby. “thằng” is for male and “con” is for female. In Vietnamese belief, the name of the baby is more ordinary, the baby is easier to nourish. After getting married, he or she is called as “Anh Đồ” for male or “Chi Xã” for female. When he or she has children, we can call him or her the name of her first-born child, When his or her first-born child has first-born, he or she is called by his or her the name of the first-born grandchild. After passing away, he or she has a taboo name for worshiping. If the person has social standing, he is called by his family name like “Cụ đồ”, “Cụ Tam Nguyên Yên Đổ”,”Ông Trạng Trình”,…It is also a way addressing people of Chinese.
In many names like mentioning above, only the taboo name is the main name. This name is recorded in family annals and accepted by government. In the past, each village had a communal council which managed the registering of vital statistics but not strictly. The government only cared about the people which age is from eight-teen because from this age, a person had to pay head-money, to be conscripted or to be recruited coolies by force. The registering the name late is better for this person because he does not have to pay head-money and do other duties maybe in several years in life.
According to some family customs, the name of the child has to be avoided taboo name of his ancestors and follow the recording name on family annals custom. So the baby has a temporary name first, after checking the name of his ancestors, he is given his own taboo name.
Supersitions After Birth of Newborn Baby
In Vietnamese customs, there are a lot of superstitions related to the newborn baby after birth. These are some most common of them: the praise should not be given to the newborn baby; the pillow of the baby should have seven chunks of mulberry with a needle; and there is a one month celebration for the newborn baby on his 30th day.
According to the Vietnamese customs, you should never give the newborn baby a good praise because it could invite the attention of demon and ghosts. The baby’s health will not be good and he/she will cry much. If you want to say the baby is cute or good, you have to say it with the idiom “trộm vía” (steal soul) before you give the baby good appreciation. Mother should not say her baby is cute or He/She is very good at things. If you ask about her newborn baby, she will say it in the opposite ways with the idiom “trộm vía”.
Normally almost newborn baby cry much at night so Vietnamese believe that he/she scared about the new place. In order to avoid this situation, the mother uses seven chunks of mulberry and a needle to make an amulet and put it inside the pillow. After that the baby may not cry and could be very good. In Vietnamese belief, the amulet is to dismiss ghosts and make the baby sleep well.
Based on the Buddhist family, in the morning of the baby’s 30th day, sacrifices are offered to the gods so that the gods will care for the baby in his following life. Furthermore, in the morning of the baby’s 30th day, it is also the time to inform officially to all ancestors that the new member of the family so they will protect the newborn baby.  On that day, several relatives and closed friends of parents are invited to have a small party. The purpose of the party is the chance for relatives and friends have a look at the newborn, pray for him/her a good life and give the newborn baby gifts.
There are some debates on those superstitions above but they still have been passing from generation to generation. Believe it or not, those customs still reflect the unique custom of Vietnamese daily life.
Celebration For Longevity
Each passing year in a person’s life brings esteem and respect to their family and neighborhood. Formerly, at the age of 40 one was honored for being an old man or woman. During the Tran Dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, the 40 year old emperor gave up his throne to his son to become a Buddhist monk.
According to village customs, a man of 50 is to be honored as an old man. Old men stop working and are no longer village officials; however, they are still invited to festivals and to sears in the communal house. Here, they are seated honorably on red-bordered mats.
Showing respect and esteem for the elderly is a tradition that remains today. Nowadays, when grandparents or parents reach the ages of 70, 80 or 90, their children and grandchild organize ceremonies for longevity which are generally held on birthdays or during the spring days during Tet.
Such celebrations are occasions to show devotion and respect to grandparents and parents. Celebrations for longevity, either large or small, manifest the family’s joy in having a relative who has been able to lead a long life.
Today, in almost every village or urban district, there is an association of longevity for the elderly. When reaching the ages of 70 or 80, old women are offered red dresses and other gifts and are invited to be photographed.
Funeral Ceremonies
"The sense of the dead is that of the final", says a Vietnamese proverb, implying that funeral ceremonies must be solemnly organized.
Formerly, funerals went as follow’s the body was washed and dressed, a chopstick was laid between the teeth and then a pinch of rice and three coins were drooped in the mouth.
The body was laid on a grass mat spread on the ground, enveloped with white cloth and put into a coffin. Finally, the funeral ceremony was officially performed. The coffin is buried and covered, but after three days of mourning, the family visits the tomb again and opens the grave for worship. Finally, after 49 days, the family stops bringing rice for the dead to the altar. And then, after 100 days, the family celebrates "tot khoc", or the end of the tears. After one year there is a ceremony for the first anniversary of the relative’s death and after two years in the end of mourning festival.
Nowadays, morning ceremonies follow new rituals which are simplified; they consist of covering and putting the dead body into the coffin, the funeral procession, the burial of the coffin into the grave, and the visits to the tomb. The death’s family members wear a white turban or a black mourning band.
Open New House Celebration
In the past, building a house was considered one of the three most important events in Vietnamese life. These were purchasing a buffalo, looking for a wife, and building a house. So building an own house is very important to Vietnamese. It even shows his position in social structure. Vietnamese who die without ever has his own house is considered poor and disadvantaged.
Open house celebration is a popular customs of Vietnamese. All of friends, relatives and neighbors are invited to a party to share with the house owner happiness. After the party all guests give gifts normally a little money to house owner and also best wishes for health, happiness and a prosperous life.
Vietnamese Village’s Guilds
The Vietnamese culture has evolved from the basis of a wet rice cultivating civilization. Because of this, the lifestyle of the Vietnamese population is closely related to native villages and lands.
In Vietnamese society, people gathered together to form villages in rural areas and guilds in urban areas. These villages and guilds have been forming since the dawn of the nation. The organization gradually developed, steadily becoming more stable and closer together. Each village and guild has its own conventions.
The purpose of the conventions is to promote good customs within populations and organizations. All are different, but of course are always in accordance with state law. There are tens of thousands of such conventions safety kept in the History Museum in Hanoi and other museums throughout the country.
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. When questioned by his incredulous superiors, he explained that, according to his theory, he could depend on the enemy to base his attacks on the positions of the stars. So, he consulted a stargazer himself for intelligence on the enemy's movements. Another story passed down through history is that of the famous Vietnamese generals Le Loi and Nguyen Trai. Several years ago, the pair was leading a war against Chinese invaders. Nguyen Trai decided to turn superstition to his advantage and used grease to write the phrases "Le Loi vi Quan; Nguyen Trai vi Than," (Le Loi for King; Nguyen Trai for Minister of State) on the large leaves of forest trees. Ants later consumed the grease absorbed in the leaf tissue and left the prophecy clearly engraved. People living nearby noticed the perforated leaves and interpreted them as a "divine message." Inspired by this, they wholeheartedly supported the war which eventually led to the defeat of the Chinese and the enthronement of Emperor Le Loi.
Another story is told of a Montagnard tribe that trapped a white elephant in 1961 and offered the rare animal to the late President Ngo Dinh Diem as a gift. Government news agencies, attempting to strengthen the already tottering regime of Diem, spread the word that a "powerful king" had been sent down from Heaven to rule the Vietnamese. The President himself flew to the city of Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands to accept the gift, a symbol of supreme and divine power. The elephant was given to Diem in a much publicized ceremony. Two years later, history proved no "powerful king" had come to the rescue when Diem was assassinated and his regime overthrown in a military coup. Whether by chance or not, superstition scores an occasional point in its favor. One story tells of an old Vietnamese Senator who, learning that the opening ceremony of the first Vietnamese Senate under the new Constitution would be October 10, 1967, voiced his disapproval. It was a bad day, he said, and someone in the Senate would surely suffer for the indiscretion. Four months later, during the Communist Tet offensive of 1968, Senator Tran Dien, a popular and well loved figure, was assassinated, by the Viet Cong in Hue, in Central Vietnam. The old Senator is convinced his prophecy of doom came true.
There are some social reformers in this country who believe that superstition is a problem, which should be eradicated in Vietnam is to become a truly progressive, modern nation. A young whipper-snapper, a graduate from a foreign western university, even proposed legislation to outlaw superstition in this country. How dull life would be if all our soothsayers, fortune tellers, palm-readers and astrologers were to be pensioned off and retired. We promptly took this abominable proposition to our favorite soothsayer who solemnly assured us that this is not in the stars.
Ancestor Worship
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 worshippers.
When do Vietnamese people worship their ancestors ?
Worshipping 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.
Devotees of Buddhism believe in previous existences, and seek to correct previous bad deeds to reach enlightenment. Ancestor worship is fundamentally different. For the Vietnamese, death, and the ritual and practice of ancestor worship, constitutes the transfer of power from the tangible life to the intangible. Existence is a continuum stretching through birth, a life spent in tangible form on Earth, followed by death and a spirit existence in another realm for a further two or three generations.
Who are the heroic ancestors ?
By virtue of their worthy deeds, heroic ancestors, such as Tran Hung Dao and the Trung sisters, continue to exist and be worshipped in temples for many generations beyond the two or three of ordinary folk. Their rectitude is a model to guide the behaviour of the living.
What about ‘bad’ ancestors ?
All ancestors are worthy of respect and reverence, regardless of their behaviour as living beings. However, the misdeeds of a wicked family ancestor will be visited upon his or her children and grandchildren in the form of bad luck. This is a powerful influence upon the behaviour of the living, influencing them to behave well and do good deeds in the present, thereby endowing their living and unborn children with good luck in the future.
How does ancestor worship affect daily life in Vietnam ?
The effect of ancestor worship upon Vietnamese society is profound. There are three main concepts:
- regarding life as a small part of an infinitely greater whole embracing the entire race
- a belief that the past and present exist simultaneously
- a certitude that each individual’s behaviour in life has a direct impact upon the quality of the lives of his or her children and grandchildren.
Taken together, these convictions extend the concept of the family far beyond the sense in which the term is used in the West. A Vietnamese person is never ‘alone’ his or her ‘family’ is always present.
What is the future of ancestor worship in Vietnam ?
Whether ancestor worship will continue to be strong as the influence of scientific rationalism and social change accelerates, is an open question. In the past, the majority of individual family members lived within close geographical proximity. The turmoil in the years before and after the defeat of the US forces led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people.
More recently, economic migration and travel to far countries to study or work have created a growing Diaspora. Only time will determine whether the strength of the beliefs that have sustained the Vietnamese family unit over many centuries and created a unique national community will withstand the pressures of globalisation and expanding modern technology.

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