Whether you’ve come to know it as Mother’s Day or the Ghost Festival, the 15th day of the seventh month in the Vietnamese Lunar Calendar (mid-August for the Western world) is one of particular significance to the Vietnamese region. In fact, the day has a double meaning for the locals: as Le Vu Lan, the celebration is in honor of the mother of the family; as Trung Nguyen, it is the day the lost souls of the dead wander among the living in search for food, mercy and affection. Whatever the case, or name, the celebration is all about paying tribute to one’s ancestral roots and a demonstration of respect for one’s family (especially the mother).
Vu Lan – How it came about
Vu Lan is a celebrated custom deeply influenced by Buddhist belief. In Vietnamese culture, it’s an age old tradition that has emerged as the country’s second major traditional celebration. It is held annually in what has come to be known as the Ghost Month in Asian culture and lasts the entire duration of the month, with festivities culminating on the fifteenth day.
According to legend, during this month, the gates of hell open, and the desperate souls of the dead return back to the plane of the living. However, rather than simply being associated with scary haunting and spooky-looking jack-o’-lanterns (reminiscent of the similar celebration of Halloween) – the Ghost Festival in Vietnam is an opportunity to travel back to one’s hometown or parents’ birthplace, meet with family and pay his or her respects to all the deceased loved ones. It is a practice that truly shows the Vietnamese people’s love for all things, both dead and living.
Most of the rituals and festivities of the celebration are personal and religious in nature. Families come together for traditional meals and release birds, animals or fish. They often burn incense as a means of reaching out to their deceased loved ones and crowd the pagodas to hear the monk’s lecture on filial responsibility.
It’s also customary to make offerings of a variety of dishes to appease the visiting spirit, so expect to see food trays, as well as clothes or other such items, set up even outdoors. As for the living parents, they typically receive presents and flowers from their children as a token of the latter’s gratitude and appreciation.
A notable highlight of the festival is the so-called “offering snatching.” Locals will flock around outdoor offerings tables, and, once the incense has burned down, they’ll quickly scramble to grab whatever snacks, fruit or spare cash they can.
However, the climax of the festival is the lighting of the lanterns at night. Young and old alike, wearing white or red roses on their chest or buttonholes (red if their parents are alive, white if they’ve passed on), release hundreds of lanterns on the river, symbolic of their wishes and blessings. Tourists and foreigners are more than welcome to join in.
Visiting Vietnam in August? Things to keep in mind:
- Vu Lan is not currently listed as a public holiday in Vietnam. This means that, although people may be primarily preoccupied with their familial duties, daily transportation options should run as normal, with no disruptions expected.
- In fact, the festival takes on a more peaceful, reflective tone, which should be evident throughout the region.
- Be sure to visit the pagodas, which are likely to be especially beautiful and busy during that time.
- Musical events staged in honor of motherly love are worth checking out.
- Vietnam offers a huge variety of accommodation options, ranging from budget hostels to luxury hotels. Prices during the Vu Lan festival are not expected to be any higher than usual.
- Homestay options could give visitors an even more intimate look of the rituals.
- It’s a good idea to make all necessary accommodation arrangements before arriving. After all, Ghost Month in Asian tradition is thought to be somewhat unlucky.
A final note…
Maybe leave a light on in your hotel room during the night. Keeping some handy snacks in your pocket could be a good idea too. You never know; you might end up with some unexpected otherworldly company…