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Ghosts and Other Myths: How Vietnam Celebrates the 7th Lunar Month

In Vietnamese customs, the lunar month of July contains many special days of worship and celebration, with various traditions.

This includes That Tich (Qixi Festival) on July 7; Vu Lan, a filial piety ceremony also known as the Yulan Festival on July 15; and Tet Trung Nguyen (Ghost festival) on July 15. These dates, however, are all according to the lunar calendar.

That Tich

Popularly known as Chinese or Asian Valentine's Day, there are many variations of the legend of Qixi Festival across Asia, with the original story coming from Chinese mythology and dating back as far as the Han Dynasty. Equivalents of this celebration in other countries include the Tanabata Festival in Japan, the Chilseok Festival in South Korea, and Thất Tịch in Vietnam.

Chức Nữ being taken away as Ngưu Lang runs towards her. Image via Jade Turtle Records.

The tale of the Vietnamese That Tich festival stems from a moving love story between Chức Nữ, a fairy weaver girl, and Ngưu Lang, the god of cowherding. The lovers were infatuated with each other and neglected their heavenly duties, which angered Ngọc Hoàng (the Jade Emperor), the supreme ruler of Heaven. Ngưu Lang and Chức Nữ were thus banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way and are only allowed to meet each other once a year, on the day of That Tich, when a flock of magpies would form a bridge across the galaxy to reunite the lovers. Each year, as they must part again, Ngưu Lang and Chức Nữ would cry incessantly. Their tears then fall to the earth and turn into rainwater.

The Vietnamese language calls this mưa ngâu, a type of summertime shower with continuous bouts of intermittent rain. The pair of star-crossed lovers is also known as ông Ngâu and bà Ngâu (Mr. and Mrs. Ngâu).

In Chinese mythology, Chức Nữ (Zhinü) symbolizes Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra; and Ngưu Lang (Niulang) symbolizes Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila. The two were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River, which symbolizes the Milky Way.

According to Vietnamese historical records, during the reign of King Lý Thánh Tông (1054–1072), the king, childless at the age of 42, entered a temple to pray on the seventh day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar. Later, the royal couple managed to conceive Prince Càn Đức. Therefore, on this day every year, a festival is held at Hà Temple in Hanoi, where local couples convene to pray for love, a happy family, and abundant children.

Food shippers queue at a dessert shop in Saigon to collect orders of red bean soup on That Tich Day. Many young Vietnamese believe that eating red bean on this occasion will bring them luck in finding a romantic interest. Photo by Phan Trần via Tuoi Tre.

It is believed that, on the day of That Tich, if two people fall in love with each other looking at the Ngưu Lang-Chức Nữ stars, they will be together forever. In recent years, a rumor began circling amongst Vietnamese youth that eating red beans on this day will help couples remain together, while single people who consume it will soon meet their fated one.

Vu Lan

The story of the modern filial piety ceremony originated from ancient India, deriving from the Mahayana scripture known as the Yulanpen or Ullambana Sutra. Vu Lan (also known as Vu Lan Bồn) is the Vietnamese transliteration for Ullambana.

The sutra records the time when Maudgalyayana (Mục Kiền Liên), one of the two great disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, achieves abhijñā, or higher knowledge, and uses his newfound powers to search for his deceased parents. When Mục Kiền Liên discovers that his mother, Thanh Đề, was reborn as a preta, or hungry ghost, he brought a bowl of rice all the way to hell to feed her. Having been hungry for so long, his mother would use one hand to cover the rice bowl as she eats so that the other ghosts could not steal her food. Therefore, by the time the food touches her lips, it is already a burning hot piece of coal.

Worshipers at Phổ Quang Temple in Saigon are given either a red of white rose before joining festivities. The red one is for those who have a mother, and the white one is for those without. Photo via Cong An.

Mục Kiền Liên then asks the Buddha to help him; whereupon Buddha explains that one is able to help one's parents in both the current and past lives by offering food and other sacrifices to the monastic community during Pravarana (the end of the monsoon season, or vassa). This usually occurs on the 15th day of the seventh month, whereby the monastic community transfers the merits to the deceased parents.

Following the Buddha's teachings, Mục Kiền Liên's mother was freed. The Buddha also teaches that others who want to honor their parents can follow Mục Kiền Liên’s lead. From here, the Vu Lan celebration was born.

In modern times, Vu Lan is also seen as Mother's Day in Vietnam. Pagodas will often have a "rose on the shirt" ritual for visitors: whoever still has a mother wears a red rose, while those without would bear a white rose to remind others of filial piety and human love. This day has become an annual holiday to commemorate the merits of one's parents and ancestors in general, reminding each person to appreciate what they have and reminding children to always be grateful to their forefathers.

Tet Trung Nguyen

According to folk belief, lunar July is called "tháng cô hồn" (month of the lonely ghost) and the full moon day of that month is Tet Trung Nguyen. Lunar July is believed to be an extremely unlucky month due to the opening of the gates of hell, which allows free spirits to visit those on Earth. During this time, strong believers of the tale will abstain from almost any important matter: from signing contracts and doing business to going to the hospital, out of the fear that ghosts might trap them and bring them to hell.

This holiday originated from Chinese Taoism, which states that every year, on the second day of lunar July, the King of Hell will open the Demon Gate for every hungry spirit and imprisoned sinner to return to the mortal world. This door will then close on the night of lunar July 14. In order to prevent hungry ghosts from disturbing their lives, at the midpoint of the month (July 15), those in the mortal realm prepare ritualistic meals and burn incense and joss paper. Aside from sending offerings to the hungry ghosts in one's own family, mortals must also place food and paper sacrifices in their front yard so as to appease the passing lonely spirits, who have no family left to take care of them. This ceremony is called lễ xá tội vong nhân — a ritual to appease angry and hungry spirits.

Votive papers are used, as well as real Vietnam dong bills. Here, workers of a guesthouse in Saigon prepare for the ritual by folding VND5,000 bills so that they don't fly off when given away. Votive papers are burned while small bills, food and candies are given to neighbors and kids. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Before the end of the ceremony, we often see the head of houses bringing out a platter of spare change, popcorn, boiled sweet potato, cakes and candies, among other confectionery, out onto the street. The neighboring children will then snatch as much as they can from this platter. These are the foods that were offered to the hungry souls, and this custom is called giựt cô hồn. It is believed that the more people share the food, the more luck will be bestowed on the host, and the snacks are perfectly safe to eat.

There is, however, one thing to keep in mind: when someone has already gotten their hand on something, you cannot take it. And if your stuff is snatched by someone else, you should not resist, since it is most likely a hungry spirit reclaiming its food.

In Buddhism, there is also the concept of the hungry spirit. There is a legend that a day honoring them originates from the story between Ānanda, a primary attendant and principle of the Buddha; and diệm khẩu, a demon whose mouth is on fire.

Lighting incense sticks to begin the offering ritual. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

The tale goes: one evening, Ānanda was sitting in his room when he saw an emaciated demon with a small but long neck, and a fire-emitting mouth. The devil said that three days later, Ananda would die and be reincarnated in the fiery realm of the fire-mouth demons like itself. Ānanda was terrified, so he asked the devil to tell him how to avoid this fate.

The devil said: "Tomorrow, give us demons each a pot of food, and carry out the donation ceremony for the Three Jewels. By doing so you will increase your lifespan, and I will also be born into the upper realm."

Ānanda brought this story to the Buddha, who gave him a mantra to recite so that he could be blessed. Based on this story, folks often give offerings to hungry demons on the full moon of the seventh lunar month.

The more offerings are taken, the luckier a business will get, many Vietnamese believe. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

However, according to Monk Thích Bảo Nghiêm, there is no month dedicated entirely to the hungry spirits in the Buddhist sutras. Buddhists practice to repay the “four favors”: the debt we owe to our parents, teachers, sovereign, and the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Particularly in the seventh lunar month, Buddhism places the heaviest importance on the debt to one's parents, which prompts the saying: "Cúng cả năm không bằng Rằm tháng 7," which can be loosely translated to "offerings from a whole year still cannot equal offerings on the full moon of lunar July."

When Buddhism was introduced to Vietnam, the people combined this notion with the celebration of filial piety, to form a holiday to announce filial piety to one's parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Thích Bảo Nghiêm believes that, because Buddhism believes that all species must be loved, including spirits, that when Buddhists prepare offerings on the full moon in lunar July to show gratitude and filial piety, they often make extra offerings to the lonely spirits with no graves and no descendants.

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