If you’re a modern-day traveler who goes out of your way to not feel like a tourist, Vietnam is an exciting destination to consider. But those do not speak the language or understand the customs and traditions that still prevail, encountering with them are often unsettling.
Traditional Vietnamese customs and traditions have been formed time to time for thousands of years. This creates a long-lasting culture. Despite of the domination of Chinese and other powers, Vietnamese people still remains their unique cultural identity.
In the course of development, customs and traditions are indispensable spiritual field in Vietnamese culture. It is the original cultural values of the country strongly that define the identity and the long-lastingness of culture in Vietnam. In the entire history of Vietnam, Vietnamese culture is the combination of native culture, cultural exchange with China, Asian region and western countries.
However, with a firm native culture, Vietnamese people keep their culture away from being assimilation, and “Vietnamizing” those cultural features instead. Vietnam culture is characterized by a series of unique customs and traditions such as worshiping ancestors, chewing betel, and other customs in traditional ceremonies like funeral ceremony, long-life ceremony, etc.
These customs and traditions are associated with community of villages, communes. Vietnam is a country of festivals, especially in spring. There are several famous festivals featuring Vietnamese culture like Tet Nguyen Dan, Tet Nguyen Tieu, Tet Han Thuc, Tet Doan Ngo, Mid-Autumn Festival, etc. Yet, customs and traditions of Vietnamese people vary from region to region, and ethnic group to ethnic group.
Some information that you won’t find in lonely planet and that will help you to gain some insight into our culture. Make sure you read it before visiting Vietnam so that you can easier blend in with the locals and have a memorable trip by discovering other ways of thinking!
1. Ancestor Worship
Since thousands of years ago, Vietnamese people have the custom of worshiping ancestors to commemorate their origin. The custom came into being based on the belief of the soul’s immortality after the death. Worshiping ancestors becomes one of traditional Vietnamese customs, ethical norms, and principles.
Vietnamese believe that the soul of a dead person, even if dead for many generations, still rests along with their descendants on earth. The dead and living persons still have spiritual communion; in everyday life, people must not forget that what they enjoy and how they feel is the same for their dead relatives.
It plays an important role in the religious spiritual life of Vietnamese, especially in the countryside. In each family, there is an ancestor altar situated at the most respectful position. In special occasions, here is the place where family members worship to pray for best wishes. Traditionally, ancestor altar is located in the biggest room of a house with the display of specialized offerings.
On the last day of every lunar year, an announcing cult, cung tien thuong, is performed to invite the dead forefathers to return home to celebrate Tet holidays with their families. During the last days before Tet, all family members visit their ancestors’ graves; they clean and decorate the graves, in the same manner that the livings clean and decorate their houses to welcome the New Year.
On the anniversary of an ancestor’s death, descendants and relatives unite and prepare a feast to worship the dead people and to ask for health and happiness for themselves. From generation to generation, ancestor worshipping customs have been religiously preserved. There are some small variations between those customs among the many Vietnamese ethnic groups, but the common theme of fidelity and gratitude towards the ancestors
Nowadays, owing to the influence of modern life, few houses have ancient ancestor altars. These altars might be placed on a panel attached to the wall, even on top of cabinet. Over the time, there is a change in ways of worshiping, but the Vietnamese custom remains its meaning.
A very popular belief among Vietnamese is the custom of the ancestor cult. In every household, an ancestor altar is installed in the most solemn location.
2. Burning votive paper
When visiting Vietnam, many are our travellers and friends who wonder “Why Vietnamese people burn colored papers?” This papers are known as “votive papers”, which can be houses, clothes, fake money, cars, motorbikes… made of paper. They represent gifts for the ancestors.
After being burnt, a little wine is sprinkled upon the ashes so that the spirits can ascend to heaven and bring the gifts for the ancestors to use them. This ritual takes place regularly on particular days such as festivals, new and full moon days, yearly ancestors’ death anniversaries or the Lunar New Year.
Burning votive papers in Vietnam is a tradition without being able to determine the origin despite the different explanations. Anyway, when people are dead, family members want the dead to have a better life in another world.
Vietnamese people believe in general that the dead have a life in the Source of Gold. So that the objects in form of paper that the livings offer to the dead are burned. Over time, at the present time, burning the votive paper in Vietnam is gradually becoming a tradition.
This practice originates from the idea that in Vietnam, death is not the end of someone’s life, but just another state. Burnt votive offerings are meant to be sent for the dead to use in the afterlife. Usually, votive items represent valuable objects (money, clothes, houses, cars…). It’s as if the deceased could still enjoy material life in his new state of being. Votive papers actually symbolise the link between life and death.
Votive papers can also be used and burned for the sake of living people or for daily matters like better results to your exams, better revenues for your business, to get rid of some disease or more generally to bring safety, happiness and good luck to your loved ones.
Marriage is one of three most important event in one’s life in Vietnam. Wedding custom in Vietnam is quite complicated. Before an official wedding of a couple, a ceremony of engagement must be held first. In accordance with Vietnamese tradition, engagement ceremony is an official occasion for families of fiancé and fiancée to mark their relationship and to arrange the wedding.
Each family need to prepare a representative who is a family member having a happy life and high-ranking position in the family. In the day of engagement, the representatives of two families will have some announcement about the wedding and exchange gifts.
The time of wedding is chosen suitably based on lunar calendar. Gifts which are put in trays are prepared by the family of fiancé a few days before the engagement ceremony. The number of trays must be an odd number (5, 7, 9, etc.) which is suitable to the condition of the fiancé’s family. In Vietnamese habits, odd numbers are thought to bring luck to the couple. In the trays, there are betel leaves, areca nut fruits, wine, tea, husband-wife and sticky rice. These trays are covered by papers or cloths in red.
Visiting a Vietnamese wedding? Get ready for the rendition of English-language pop songs. It’s both sad and hilarious that traditional Vietnamese songs are rarely played at this occasion. A wedding party will feature songs from Boney M, Modern Talking, Westlife, Backstreet Boys and Michael Learns to Rock songs.
In the wedding day, the couple has to stay apart to avoid unlucky things. The family of bride and guests will wait for the arrival of the bridegroom. Before the groom party is due, the bride slips away to don her wedding dress.
The wedding ceremony starts in front of the ancestor altar. The bride and groom pray and ask for permission of their ancestor to get married, and receive best wishes in their future family. Next, they bow to the bride’s parents to express great thank for raising and protecting her. Then, they bow to each other to show their gratitude and respect.
The master of the wedding ceremony will declare the couple becomes a new family, they take turn to exchange wedding rings, and parents give gifts to the couple. After the marriage, the wedding banquet will be held to introduce the groom and bride to guests who are not invited to the marriage ceremony. Then, the bride will leave for the groom’s house where she will live.
4. Funeral ceremony
“The sense of the dead is that of the final,” says a Vietnamese proverb, meaning that funeral ceremonies must be solemnly organized.
Traditionally, Vietnamese people believe that death is one of the most solemn ceremonies as “The sense of the dead is that of the final”. The funeral ceremony in Vietnam undergoes several steps.
– First, the body will be washed and dressed; then, a pinch of rice and three coins are put in the mouth of the body, then lay chopstick between his teeth. After that, the body is put on the ground with the meaning that “being born from the earth, one must return back to the earth.”
– Next, he is enveloped with white cloth, and put in to the coffin.
– Finally, the master of the funeral officially performs the funeral ceremony. During these days, all family members have to wear coarse gauze turbans and tunics, and hats made of straw, or dry banana fiber.
The deceased person’s sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law had to wear coarse gauze turbans and tunics, and hats made of straw or of dry banana fiber. The deceased person’s grandchildren and relatives also had to wear mourning turbans. During the days when the dead were still laid out at home, the mourning went on with worshipping meals and mourning music. Relatives, neighbors, and friends came to offer their condolences.
The date and time for the funeral procession, le dua tang, must be carefully selected. Relatives, friends, and descendants take part in the funeral procession to accompany the dead along the way to the burial ground. Votive papers were dropped along the way.
Worshiping meals and music are offered to the dead during these days. All relatives, neighbors and friends come to offer their condolences. The funeral procession is conducted. All relatives, friends, and family members join the procession to accompany the dead to the burial ground.
After three days, the there is a ritual of opening the grave. After 49 days, the family stops offering meals for the dead to the altar. 100 days later, the ritual of “the end of the tears” is celebrated. The mourning will end after three years. Nowadays, although mourning ceremonies follow simple rituals, they keep traditional meaning and solemn ceremonies to express their respect to the dead.
These above traditional customs and traditions of Vietnamese people are among the most common ones in all part of the country. Besides, such customs and traditions as chewing betel, celebrating long-live ceremony, and other customs in daily life are expressed colorfully and excitingly. All of them contribute to the unique cultural identities of Vietnamese people.
Nowadays, mourning ceremonies follow new rituals which are simplified; they consist of covering and putting the dead body into the coffin, the funeral procession, the burial of the coffin into the grave, and the visits to the tomb. The deceased person’s family members wear a white turban or a black mourning band.
5. Tet Holiday
The Vietnamese New Year (Tet) takes place from the first day of the first month of the Lunar calendar (around late January or early February) for at least three days. It is a joyful family reunion full of smiles and blessings to express the filial piety, the family bonds and the desire for an coming year full of happiness, prosperity and goodness.
As you can see, Vietnam is not only a country with beautiful beaches, majestic mountains and delicious gastronomy. Throughout Vietnam’s rich and long history, what features prominently is the entire country’s effort to preserve the national identity and the fascinating cultural heritage which has been passed down from generation to generation, obtaining as a result, a sublime fusion between traditional and contemporary values.
Nevertheless, although Vietnam is very proud of its traditions, its people have at the same time one of the most liberal mindsets in Asia. But this is another topic that we will broach soon!
6. Celebrating a baby’s first month
Celebrating a one-month-old baby is like commemorating a president’s first 100 days in office. Additionally, many Vietnamese mothers are expected to rest indoors (and even take no shower) for a month after giving birth. At the celebration, friends and family present mother and child with luck money.
The Vietnamese day thang (full month) party is a tradition that has much in common with the Chinese custom of ‘manyue’. Both celebrate a newborn completing its first full lunar month in the world. This means 28 days for a girl and 29 for a boy. Why the difference? Maybe because baby boys are weaker than baby girls.
I asked some Vietnamese people this question but nobody could give me an answer any more than they could answer why baby girls wear pink and baby boys blue. Anyhow, the point is with infant mortality rates high in the past actually surviving the first month was something to celebrate.
A month also gives a baby some time to build up immunity to germs before being exposed to a lot of people fussing and breathing over them. It is only at the full month party, under Vietnamese tradition, that a baby is given a name, which is announced to the world.
7. God of Wealth Worship in business
According to Vietnamese conception, Than Tai ( God of Wealth) is a sort of “benefactor” to bring fortune into business. In principle, the altar should be placed in a well ventilated position, in a corner of the house or in front of the entrance. That is why you will find a small altar like this one in almost every shop, boutique, restaurant, hotel in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese think that God of Wealth used to be in heaven. Once due to drinking too much, he fell into this world and lost his memory. He started to go begging for daily survival.
Accidentally, he met a nice owner of an eatery and was invited to come and have a hearty meal. The shop was having a very few customers, but when the old man entered, suddenly the visitors came in and out crowdedly. Noticing that, this owner kept the begging man to stay so that the business can be enhanced.
After a while, the old beggar began to remember everything and returned to heaven. The day he flew back to the sky was the 10th day. So that Vietnamese ancestors considered the 10th day each month as the day of the God of Wealth. Moreover, on the 10th day of the first lunar month, people will do the first God of Wealth worship of the year. On this day, the families of business pray for a new year full of fortune and money.
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