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10 Things To Avoid During The Month Of Spirits

Today marks the ceremonial day of the “ghost month”, one of Vietnam's lesser known annual traditions. Often joked about, this is actually an important time in the Vietnamese year and influences much of what people do.


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A common custom in Southeast Asia, the observance of the ghost month stems from Chinese folk religions. Whether you believe in spirits or not, the annual event is a significant part of Vietnamese culture.

According to legend, during the lunar month of July (usually around August) the gates of hell are opened and spirits are free to roam. Along with more crowded sidewalks, the spirits also bring many customs to the people of Vietnam.

This is a month linked with bad fortune; there’s too much âm khí, or negative energy, in the air. People typically avoid important life decisions during this time, such as getting married, building a house or going somewhere far away, and choose a “better” date for their activities in the future.

On the 15th of the month, during the full moon, a ghost ceremony will be held. Food is “offered” to the deceased and votive items burned to satisfy the spirits’ material needs. In Vietnam, this ceremony is called cúng cô hồn and it's tradition for people to physically “steal” the items on offer to the spirits, leading to a frenzy of mutual looting. The more items are stolen, the better for the household.

Although the tradition is shared by many Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam's own version of the ghost month has a few unique elements. For one, the focus of the month is not simply to avoid wandering spirits. Instead, it is also a time for families to honor their deceased loved ones and ancestors. Offerings are not only to calm down angry spirits seeking to wreak havoc but also to help them out and temporarily alleviate their suffering.

A series of customs have been passed down through generations, including several things to avoid during the month. Here are some of the more common taboos to avoid when navigating the month of spirits:

Avoid staying out late

As spirits are drawn to the dark, this is when they are most active. Staying out late can lead to a spirit following you home, so party goers best turn off the music and drink milk instead of beer.

Avoid calling out your name or the name of those close to you at night

This is in line with the above point. There is a fear that ghosts will remember the names you call out and track down those people, bringing them bad luck.

Do not eat “offered” items before the ceremony

This is considered stealing from the dead and doing so will bring you great misfortune. Everything after the ceremony, however, is fair game.

Avoid swimming

According to tradition, water spirits will twist your ankles.

Do not scare others

There’s an expression that Vietnamese use when they’re frightened: hết cả hồn. The translation is something to the effect of: “I was so scared I lost my spirit.” The belief is that scaring someone leads to the displacement of their spirit, leaving them prone to invaders.

Avoid staying up late

Being a night owl will deplete you of your health and dương khí, or positive energy, making you more prone to disturbances by the supernatural.

Do not pick up money

During this month, as many offering ceremonies are going on, it is possible money found on the street is an offering. Therefore, picking up the money would mean stealing from the dead, who do not take kindly to thieves.

Do not point footwear towards the bed

There’s a belief that if you point your footwear towards your bed, you are welcoming spirits into bed with you.

Do not let chopsticks stand in bowls

This is a general etiquette at the Vietnamese dinner table at any time of year. Always leave your chopsticks laying down on or beside your bowl. Chopsticks are only stood in bowls during ceremonies.

Do not take photos at night

Bad news for photographers: it's believed that you'll get more than noise in your nighttime photos during the ghost month.

Superstitions aside, the ghost month is a unique part of life in Vietnam and now, armed with the knowledge of this unique tradition you, too, can participate in honoring the dead. So the next time you see a banquet on your neighbor’s front porch, go steal yourself a chicken leg for good luck.

Shing Chan is a young writer and photographer with a passion for exploring the culture of Vietnam. For more of his work, visit his blog at www.visualishing.tumblr.com.

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