by hiMe, Vietnamese-Australian refugee
For our fifth Holidays All Year Round post, welcome Vietnamese-Australian refugee under the pseudonym hiMe. hiMe was born in Vietnam in the 60s and is of mixed ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese heritage; her father was a former Signal Corps Lieutenant Colonel of the old Saigon regime before the Saigon Fall, while her mother was a children’s wear wholesaler. hiMe survived a sea journey from Vietnam to Malaysia after many failed attempts to escape Vietnam, then arrived in Australia in 1984. Today she will share activities of her native Vietnam, The Ghost Festival. Intertwined in Buddhist faith, the celebration invites offerings, prayers, and ancestral worship.
There is something similar between the Lunar New Year period and the Ghost Month in the level of spread-out activities around the area where I lived in Vietnam.
If Lunar New Year is an occasion that makes the area alive with crowds of people gathering in front of each house where lion dances were performed and firecrackers were lit during this time span, then there are also crowds of children gathering in front of each house during the Ghost Month where offerings to the forsaken spirits were made.
In front of houses and stores, the lion dances are performed to bring prosperity and good luck for the upcoming year while the loud noises of the firecrackers will scare away the evil spirits. Similarly, the offerings placed at the front of the houses and stores and later given away will help guard the household or commercial stores from hungry, wandering ghosts that can trouble or mess up with them or their businesses.
According to the Vietnamese beliefs, after a person died, their body decays but their soul still lingers in the afterlife. Those who died unjustly, without proper burial, or without living relatives, their souls will roam the earth and they can haunt or harm the living.
Mum was a successful business woman before the fall of Saigon in 1975. She designed children’s wear, distributed materials for the workers to sew them then sell them in large quantities at Saigon’s main market – Bến Thành. These clothes would then be resold in other cities and rural areas in Vietnam.
Every year, in a random afternoon of the Ghost month, joining other businesses around our house which was next to An Đông market, Mum also made offerings to the forsaken, lonely souls during the Vietnam Ghost month. The month is the seventh month of the lunar calendar and that usually is at the end of August.
My job as the eldest was to guard the offerings during the ceremony from the homeless children who lived in the market. It wasn’t unusual that some ceremonies couldn’t even begin as all the offerings were already snatched by the children. With my arms akimbo, I gave the street children a fierce glare. It must be this ready-to-fight-back expression in my body and on my face that had the small crowd of children under control for the ceremony to last till the end.
Mum lit the two candles on the worship table then the incense. In a whispering voice, she prayed to Buddha and the piteous, lonesome spirits then burned the gold and silver paper money offerings for the dead to use in the next world. Around 15 minutes later, as soon as the incense burned out, Mum threw the salt, rice, coins and money notes to the ground and gave all the savoury and sweet food as well as fruits on the worship table to the children circled around. It’s considered bad luck if the children of the house take the offerings after the ceremony as that would mean they had invited the spirits into the house.
On the full moon day of the Ghost month, at noon, Mum also made offerings to our ancestors’ spirits. It usually is a bigger feast of food,fruits and paper money offerings than what was made to the homeless souls. Some wealthy people on this occasion even burn paper apartments, paper cars, paper watches, paper mobile phones … for their ancestors to use in the afterworld.
About the Author
hiMe writes about her life in Vietnam during and after the Vietnam war, as well as in Australia as a refugee and a migrant. hiMe includes a small poem of various styles to each of her 500-word writing piece. There are related political, social, geographical and cultural facts, pictures and videos that accompanied each of hiMe’s writings. Check out her blog.