Lonely But Not Forgotten: Vietnam’s Ghost Month
It may be August on the Gregorian calendar but in Vietnam, the lunar calendar plays a significant role in the culture’s traditions and practises. Besides Tet, the national celebration of a new lunar year, the seventh month of every lunar year is also prominent but for a totally different reason: it’s known as Tháng Cô Hồn, or “the month of lonely spirits”.
The seventh month in this lunar year officially started on August 1st, 2019 and throughout this period many believe that living beings will share our world with spirits of the dead. This belief is taken pretty seriously in East Asia, and that’s also why you may have noticed a higher number of altars and offerings along the already-crowded sidewalks.
So What is the Seventh Month in Vietnam?
Originating from Chinese folk religion, during the seventh month of the lunar calendar the gates of hell open and spirits roam free. This results in a surge of negative energy; in Vietnam, this is known as âm khí.
Therefore, during this period people tend to put off making life decisions such as buying a house, getting married or even relocating.
Things are taken up a notch on the 15th day of the lunar month, because there will be a flurry of activities that day:
Vu Lan Báo Hiếu: or “Mother’s Day”, where people with living mothers bear a red rose and give thanks. Those whose mother has died will choose to wear a white rose and attend prayer vigil services for the deceased.
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Cúng Cô Hồn: the day of the full moon, when a ghost ceremony is held, food is “offered” to the deceased and items are burnt to satisfy the spirits’ needs. These items are large-scale paper models of material possessions such as cars, houses, hell currency notes, and it’s believed that when burnt, they will manifest in the afterlife for the deceased relatives to use. So yes, that will be the only day you get to see a paper model of a Mercedes Benz on fire, and now you’ll understand why.
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Giựt Cô Hồn: Shortly after the ceremony is over, things get crazier when someone starts throwing money down the street. Literally. In this ceremony, it’s tradition for people to physically “steal” the items on offer with the belief that the more items “stolen”, the better the luck for the household. Unsurprisingly, this usually ends up causing a frenzy.
The Vietnamese Focus
Although this festival is common across East Asia, Vietnam’s version has a few elements that make it unique.
Unlike Singapore or Malaysia, which refer to the period as “hungry ghost month”, in Vietnam it’s known as “lonely spirit month”, which actually sounds less scary. The focus of the month in Vietnam is not just to avoid wandering spirits, but also a time for families to honour their deceased loved ones and ancestors.
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Customs in Vietnam
There are many things to do in memory of someone who died during the ghost festival, a series of customs that have been passed down through generations, and there are some taboos to be avoided.
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- Avoid staying out late
As spirits are usually nocturnal, a wandering spirit might just follow you home while you’re in a post-clubbing drunken stupor.
- Avoid wearing red, black or white during the witching hour (3 a.m. to 4 a.m.)
Red and black are colours that generally signify evil, and in this case, if you were to wear either of these colours and happen to be out during that hour, you might attract evil spirits. White is a general colour for ghosts, and although nothing will happen to you, you might end up scaring people, which leads to the next point.
- Do not play pranks
Especially the types where you creep up behind someone and go “boo”. Some locals believe that when someone is frightened, that person’s spirit gets temporarily displaced, and this leaves them prone to “invasion” from a wandering spirit.
- Do not call out your friend’s name in public
You’ll never know if there’s a spirit eavesdropping, and it will remember the person’s name for future reference.
- Avoid swimming
Spirits are also known to lurk in waters, and they might grab you by the ankles to make you join them.
- Do not pick up money
Unless it’s on the 15th day. Otherwise it’s no longer “stealing” but actually stealing, and you might make a spirit mad.
- Do not leave your footwear facing the bed
This might sound a little strange, but if your footwear is pointed towards your bed, you’re unintentionally inviting spirits into bed with you.
- Avoid taking photos at night
Unless you’re planning to start a new Vietnamese version of the TV series Ghost Hunters. In other words, you might see things that are not supposed to be in the picture.
- Avoid making your chopsticks stand in bowls.
This is general etiquette in all Asian cultures, but it’s especially applicable during this month simply because chopsticks only stand in bowls during ceremonies for the dead.
The seventh lunar month is a unique tradition across most Asian countries, including Vietnam, and it’s something that has been practiced for centuries. If you’re interested to know more about the festival and the rituals, feel free to approach a local for a deeper understanding, and remember not to disturb any offerings or altars that you may come across in public. If you’ve accidentally stepped on or kicked something off an altar, do apologise to it like you would to a real person.
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