of the dead, the behaviour of the living, and an influence
on the future - the many generations of the Vietnamese family
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.