Ancestor Worship In Vietnam

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Ancestor worship ceremony is one popular custom which commemorates the deceased in Eastern countries such as Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam. The procedure of the ceremony can be varied from country to country, but the purpose remains the same which is described in the motto When you eat a fruit, think of the man who planted the tree.

The place of worship is usually an altar in private residence (if your family is settled far away from your original hometown), or a spacious worship hall built in a house’s area (normally that house is the one where your clan initially settled down). To understand thoroughly this meaningful custom, instead of researching boring documentary books; you can watch well-known films with Asian background (the most famous one is Walt Disney’s ‘Mulan’) or simply check out this article published by Vietnam Track.

A typical Vietnamese altar (Photo: Wikipedia)
Ancestor workship house of the comedian Hoai Linh (Photo: Zing)

The Origin of the Ceremony:

The worship ceremony originates from the belief that the souls of the dead still wander in this world and have an influence on the lives of their offspring. Vietnamese people assume that death is not the end, although the body diminishes but the immortal soul often remain staying on the altar to be near their relatives, watch over and assist them when they have difficulties and be delighted when they get lucky, encourage them to do good deeds as well as punish them when committing sinful acts. Therefore, they would avoid committing sinful acts because of the fear that it would bother their ancestors’ souls. Sometimes the living would ask themselves what would the deceased do if they were in this situation.

Besides, Vietnamese people believe that what the deceased needed in real world is also what they would need in another world. Because of the connection between the visible and invisible world, the worship ceremony is a mutual ground for these two worlds to entwine.  That’s why Vietnamese burn paper objects (like money, house, car, clothes, shoes, etc.) for the deceased to use in their other world. 

Paper objects for the dead for the afterlife (Photo: Dan Tri)
Burn paper money for the dead (Photo: muabanvangma.com)

The Procedure of the Ceremony:

A typical aspect of worshipping ancestors is the Memorial Day, or ‘Lễ Húy Kỵ’ to remember the late family members. It is held annually exactly on the day the person passed away based on lunar calendar. On this day, families will place a proper meal with joss paper on the altar, ignite 3 joss-sticks and pray silently; after the joss-sticks burn out completely, the families pray again and then burn the joss paper and take the meal out of the altar to eat, which is called “taking the blessings of the deceased.”

Simultaneously, the deceased’s family also invite their friends and the deceased’s close friends to pray for the dead and after that have a meal with the family. The meal can be small or big depending on the financial situation of the host, or based on the dead’s inquiries. In the Northern part of Vietnam, this ceremony is prepared more sophisticatedly and ritualistically than the Southern Vietnamese because of its historical ancient nature.

The meal with family members and guests in the ceremony, also called as ‘Đám giỗ’ (Photo: ongbachau.vn)

In the North, on memorial day everyone will gather together and talk about the dead’s memories. The duration of the gathering is not over 2 hours; everyone will go back to his/her home after the meal is finished. As for the South, the topics of the discussion would extend to career, family, culture and even politics; therefore, the time of gathering would be all day.

In addition, there are some differences between metropolitan and countryside areas, farmers in countryside have flexible and easygoing schedule so the Memorial Day is held exactly on the day which the person passed away; in contrast with the metropolitan area, due to the nature of industrial and service occupations, the host will invite all the guests for the ceremony at late afternoons on weekends so that it would not affect the guests’ working schedules and transportation.

***Additional info:

  • The biggest memorial day is Hung Kings Temple Festival held on March 10th annually in lunar calendar. 
  • Besides worshipping ancestors, we also worship the Gods (the God of Land, the God of Wealth, the God of Kitchen, etc.) and sacred creatures (Dragon, Southern Lion, Tortoise, Phoenix) on other altars in our residences.      

If you have any problem travelling in Vietnam, please don’t hesitate to contact us for more assistance. We would be thrilled to help.

Writer: Long Bui
Translators: Diem Nguyen, Nhat Nguyen.


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