Saturday, 03 January 2009 06:16


Written by Gemma Price
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Beliefs play a major role in the daily lives of the Vietnamese

Every culture has beliefs that are passed down from one generation to the next, many of which have no apparent basis in reality, whatsoever.


From saluting lone magpies to not walking under ladders, even the most level-headed of us observe silly sayings and old wives’ tales from time to time, but for many Vietnamese these beliefs and practises are a guide to life. Here are 13 of the most popular beliefs.


01) Live Your Dreams


It’s commonly held that if you dream of losing your teeth, something terrible is about to happen. Dreams of death are embraced as it means success in work, possibly because the Vietnamese word for coffin is quan tai, and the form of address quan is often used to denote somebody with high-ranking social status, such as a minister or president (tenuous, but true). Dreams of water mean money is about run into your life, as do night time encounters with fire or even feces. So roll up your sleeves and dive right in.


02) Step in a Positive Direction


Always put your right foot down first on the ground to start your day. Your date of birth will also reveal which is the most auspicious point of the compass for you, and setting off that way when you leave the house in the morning – even if you have no business that way – will help bring you luck during the day.


03) The Power of One


Firsts always count. The first person you encounter in the morning sets the tone for the whole day, and spotting a woman or a black dog off the bat is considered unlucky. Shopkeepers place great importance on the day's first sale (note that women with fistfuls of cash are acceptable in this instance), believing that profitable days begin with generous customers and the transaction itself should be easygoing. If the customer doesn’t buy, then the shopkeeper will dot via – pass a burning piece of paper through their legs or over the merchandise to chase away bad luck.


04) Colours


Red will bring happiness, wealth, fame and good luck. Black is associated with evil, disaster and bad fortune. White symbolises moderation, purity, honesty and life, and balances red and black.


05) Lucky Money


Although gambling is illegal in Vietnam, when it comes to keeping Lady Luck on side everybody has a few tricks up their sleeve. When you gamble, wearing something red won’t hurt, and the golden rule is basically to avoid contact with everyone else at the table. This includes not lighting a cigarette for someone – this will give them your fire – not touching anyone else’s shoulder, as if they start to lose, they’ll blame you, and not lending any of your money to another player.


06) Lunar Luck


Similar to the Chinese, many Vietnamese live their work lives by the western calendar, but their spiritual lives according to the cycles of the moon. According to their birth date, many Vietnamese believe certain days of the lunar month are inherently unlucky, and they might choose not to leave the house for fear of something unfortunate befalling them (and are later reassured that their logic is sound when they get fired for not coming into work). A self-fulfilling prophecy?


07) Star-Crossed Lovers

It’s common practice for Vietnamese to seek the advice of a fortune teller to see whether their prospective partner is a good match. In the city, couples will usually ignore a bad forecast and get married anyway, but in more rural areas where the tides of the calendar hold more sway, if a young man born in the Year of the Tiger wants to marry his beloved from the Year of the Horse, he risks a family feud.


08) Pregnancy


Unlike Chinese culture, where people will rub prenatal bellies for good luck, many Vietnamese men consider pregnant women extremely unlucky and try to avoid them at all costs. Taxi drivers often do not stop for pregnant women and stores need to close their first sale of the day before they allow one to cross the premises. Pregnant women should also avoid attending funerals (possibly in case there’s some spiritual confusion between people coming and going) and should avoid going to weddings or having their picture taken – it’s believed that the baby will be vo duyen, an ungraceful person, because their mother had too much fun.


09) Animal Magic


Koi carp are good for the home and business, but if any of them die, the tank has to go too or it will bring bad luck. You should never cross the path of a black cat, even if you’re driving and have to make a U-turn (and risk a head-on collision with a bus). Pet turtles are thought to slow down business and the hoot of an owl is regarded as a bad omen announcing death or illness.


10) Karma


Altruism is all well and good, but the real upside of performing benevolent acts of goodwill is to accumulate good karma. Some locals take this to the next level (and maybe miss the point) by setting up a situation in which they can perform what is considered a good act, such as phong sanh (a release), where people can buy and release captured birds and fish from tiny cages.


11) Births


Most families give their children ugly nicknames – names of animals or of girls (because gods deem girls less desirable), or strange sounding names to make the child seem less appealing to bad spirits. For the same reason, you should never praise a newborn baby because it will attract unwanted supernatural attention, but telling new parents that their baby looks like a freshly-plucked piglet will be a source of delight. Babes with a concave navel (an ‘inny’), or wide and thick ears are set for a prosperous life, while youngsters with more than one hair crown will be mischievous and disobedient.


12) Marriages


Whereas seeing a funeral procession is considered lucky, spotting a newly wedded couple is just the opposite. A bride shouldn’t make her own bridal gown, as this signifies she will have to do everything herself in her married life, and bridesmaids should never be single (maybe because of a certain wedding custom practised by randy groomsmen…).


Couples with the same surname cannot marry, even if they are unrelated, as they still belong to the same ancestry and you can never marry someone who is older or younger by three or six years. Wedding clothes should be red, yellow or white – wearing black, blue or grey will bring bad luck to the marriage. Inviting a boy, preferably born in the Year of the Dragon, to roll over the newlywed's matrimonial bed is thought to ensure good luck and a baby boy.


13) Deaths


There’s a Vietnamese saying Sinh du, tu lanh (Birth is bad. Death is good), and a plethora of beliefs to boot. An improperly conducted funeral will bring ill fortune and disaster. Statues of deities must be covered with red cloth or paper and a white cloth must be hung across the doorway of the house. Mirrors must be hidden – a person who sees the reflection of the coffin will then suffer a death in their family, and the deceased's children and grandchildren should not cut their hair for 49 days afterwards – the time it takes souls to leave the earth and return to the underworld. (When leaving a wake, it’s important not to go straight home lest the ghost of the dead decides to follow you).


Seven Sundays after a death (49 days), a celebration is held to commemorate the corpse's spiritual passage to the underworld. Family members mark the anniversary of a relative's death by burning objects – fake money, paper cars, motorbikes and even dolls – so that the spirits have funds, wheels and company in the afterworld.
More in this category: « Soul Heaven Lucky Numbers »

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