An altar in a medium-sized business. Altars are
definitely status symbols – hierarchy is hugely important
in virtually every facet of Vietnamese life and culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the most unifying traditional practices in this country is Vietnamese ancestor worship.

Through centuries of various foreign influences, from the fundamental (Vietnam’s latin-character alphabet) to the superficial (Western influence on wedding style, or the celebration of birthdays), Vietnam has been largely successful in maintaining ancient traditions and incorporating them into modern life, even as the pace of change continues to accelerate. That is no mean feat!

Virtually no Vietnamese house or business, no matter the size or socio-economic status, is without an altar to venerate the dead of their family. Regardless of faith, it is a uniting practice in the country to thank those ancestors that have come before and paved the way for the successes that you and your family have experienced (or not, in which case, more incense and fruit to bring peace to the dead, and therefore success to the living).

This concept is so utterly foreign to me that I can’t help but be fascinated. What follows is my personal exploration of this very private celebration of family, continuity, and identity.

Click through for an idea of what this tradition consists of and how it forms the foundation for many, many other aspects of Vietnamese culture!

The Altar

Altars have some standard properties and hold certain items, give or take a few:

  • Incense and flowers displayed on death anniversaries, Lunar New Year (Tet), and 5-6 other major annual occasions.
  • 3 small pots of incense
  • 2 flower vases
  • Photos of the deceased
  • 2 beautiful plates holding favorite dishes as offerings
  • 1 bottle of wine (I don’t see this very often, but traditions vary a bit from region to region)
  • Set of tea pot and cups
  • High, clean, respectful place (the “up high” part seems sort of optional to my eyes)

The Traditions

One of several altars in a wealthy family’s home.

Many Vietnamese believe that physical death is only a transformation, rather than a definitive end: the immortal soul continues to be a real presence in the daily life of the family, and that these souls are capable of blessing the living. Heads of household will present major familial issues before the ancestors for guidance and ultimately blessings.

There are several major holidays a year that are generally observed by Vietnamese regarding the dead. These occasions are broadly understood to be private family ceremonies, sometimes involving close family friends. They are often spent in the kitchen, preparing a large meal to honor the deceased, with dinner and the ceremony being a place for families to come together and share successes, sorrows, and hopes for the future together.

A few of these holidays are:

  • Lễ Tảo Mộ (Grave Visiting Day): Lunar March
  • Tết Đoan Ngọ (Killing Gem Festival, or, Double Fifth): 5th day of the 5th Month of the lunar calendar – Lunar May 5th
  • Rằm Tháng Bảy xá tội vong nhân (Sins Forgiving – similar to Halloween): Middle of Lunar July
  • Tết Trùng Cửu (Accident Day): Lunar September 9th
  • Tết Táo quân (Kitchen Ghosts): Lunar December 23rd
  • Tết Nguyên Đán (Lunar New Year’s Day): First Day of the Lunar New Year, falling within January/February of the solar calendar

Funerals are social and conspicuous occasions in Vietnam. It is a tradition to mourn the death for three days, with music, food, and well-wishers hanging out from early morning to late evening, and featuring traditional instruments and singing. They are honored again at 49 days, and then again at the one year mark, and every year after on the anniversary of the death.

 

The Practical Purposes

So whether your altar has bananas on the 15th of the lunar month is not going to be appreciated by the people that are, you know, dead.

However! I think it’s pretty clear that this tradition serves several practical functions that are fundamentally tied to Vietnamese culture and identity, and which I suspect has helped it survive intact from ancient times as well as it has.

Ancestor worship inherently recognizes the achievements of the deceased, as well as the job they did parenting the younger generations. These roots provide a touchpoint for pride, identity, and success.. Forgetting the deeds of ones ancestors could result in being set adrift from your identity for centuries – truly an unsettling prospect, when you think about it, and a disconnect that I suspect is widespread among many younger Americans [which isn’t really a good comparison, as American culture values creating your own Self, while the family unit in Vietnam is much more important]. Ironically, those younger, unmoored Americans probably have no idea what their missing – I know I didn’t until my mom started really digging into our family history in the last decades.

Entrance to a graveyard on the NW side of HCMC.

It also helps educate children of their social responsibilities: gratitude, national and family values, and the importance of survival and hard work are all aspects that help younger generations connect to the past – and much of that past is rooted in poverty, sacrifice, and struggle.

It provides economic opportunities by tying families more closely together through the sharing of common ancestors – extended family relationships often bring work and needed support into the picture that might otherwise be lacking. Like most places in the world, the social network is often the distinguishing difference.

It emphasizes recognizing kindness, empathy, usefulness in society, responsible citizenry, and the importance of the individual to maintaining the culture and integrity of the state of Vietnam (and also the State [the Party], especially in more conservative regions). Honoring your deceased relatives also includes an implicit promise not to dishonor the values of the dead, or squander the material gains that they’ve provided for the younger generations.

My American POV

This is a pretty fascinating subject for this foreigner. While there are genealogy clubs in America, I’ve never had any particular interest in my history for the majority of my 32 years – in a land with virtually no extended shared history or culture, what seems important is just what we’re building together.

I also came from a largely homogenous community and state (Evansville, Wisconsin, population ~4,000). As I learned more about this aspect of motivating Vietnamese behavior (which is difficult, because it’s very private, and very, very Vietnamese – there’s an assumption that you don’t care because you’re a foreigner, and, even if you did care, you could never understand… which could all be true), I found myself being drawn to the idea that you can gain practical life lessons from the ever-present dead, especially if you encounter them repeatedly as a child. I hope to dig into the work that my mom has put together more in the coming years and see what I can glean from my own ancestors.

I’m sure they have much to say, if I only take the time to listen.

Did I miss something? Make a wildly inaccurate statement masquerading as observed fact? I’m pretty ignorant – leave me a note in the comments on more about this fascinating subject, whether you’re a Viet or not! 

How do you and your family celebrate the dead?