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Vietnamese Spiritual Life


Spiritual life is a complex and varied category about all the things and events that have not been able to be explained by science. Strongly influenced by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, many Vietnamese hold a solid belief of the existence of things that humans cannot control such as destiny, time, life after death, karma, reincarnation, and more. There is a Vietnamese saying that goes: “Có thờ có thiêng, có kiêng có lành”, which means that as long as you worship, there would be sacredness, as long as you avoid the taboos, you could stay away from bad luck.

Related: Religions in Vietnam

Although there are some misconceptions which might be superstitious and unreasonable, Vietnamese spiritual life, like many other Asian countries, has rooted in locals' subconscious so much that it would, in one way or another, considerably affect their decision when it comes to the important milestones of their lives. The number of Gods and Ghosts and spiritual ceremonies (nearly 8,000 ceremonies every year) is also evidence of how Vietnamese respect the supernatural.

Gods and Ghosts in Vietnamese Spiritual Life

Vietnamese worship certain Gods with a hope that they would be blessed and protected from the ghosts, devils. These gods do not have a fancy name; instead, their name is closely connected with the blessing they give: God of Wealth (Than Tai), Blessing - Prosperity - Longevity gods (Phuc - Loc - Tho gods), Land Spirit (Ong Dia), and God of Kitchen (Tao Quan).

In fact, rather than majestic gods, what almost all Vietnamese families send prayers to is the spirits of their ancestors. Each family has an altar to perform the tradition of worshipping their forebears. Our credence is that our forefathers would guide and help us to overcome the hardships in our life, or support us to achieve our wishes.

There are also gods who are known for their legendary lives or their important status in Vietnam history. These include Au Co and Lac Long Quan who gave birth to the first generation of Vietnamese, Thanh Giong who saved the country from a big invasion war, and Tran Hung Dao, or Saint Tran, who commanded Vietnamese troops to win the unstoppable Mongols. They are real people who made great contributions to the development of the country. After their death, to remember and commemorate their merits, people exalt and worship them in temples and pagodas.

Find out more about these Vietnamese gods.

The ubiquity of temples in Vietnam which welcome thousands of visitors every year also indicates another group of gods in Vietnam, “citizen gods”. These are normal people whose life underwent a major trauma and ended up with an unhappy ending, usually a death. Due to the unfairness they received in their life, their spirit (after their physical death) has a superpower to give blessings or curses to others. Chua Ba Den (Black Virgin Temple) in southern Vietnam is such a case. The Black Virgin god (Ba Den) is believed to be very powerful in making wishes come true and thus the temple worshipping her welcomes countless visitors every year who come to pray for luck, peace or wealth in their life.

There is also a theory about the Four Immortal Gods in Vietnam, including:

  • Tan Vien Son Thanh (or Son Tinh) the God of the mountains, represents the determination of conquering nature
  • Phu Dong Thien Vuong (or Thanh Giong) is the God of fighting against invaders and the power of youth
  • Chu Dong Tu,  the God of love, marriage and wealth
  • Lieu Hanh Princess, or the Goddess of the Sky, the only female in this group, represents the spiritual world, luck, and literature

vietnamese spiritual life the four immortal gods

The Four Immortals of Vietnam

In addition to gods, Vietnamese believe ghosts are another force that can decide a misfortune. According to common conceptions in Vietnam, ghosts and devils are also not unknown forces but usually the spirits of the dead that cannot reincarnate and keep harassing in the living world. The stories about these ghosts are not recorded in any written form, but they still live on thanks to oral transmission and rumors. Some types of ghosts that frequently appear in Vietnamese horror folks are Ma Doi (Hungry ghost), Ma Men (Alcoholic ghost), Ma Da (Drowning ghost), which, respectively, are the spirits of people who died because of hunger, alcohol-drinking, and drowning.

Laws of Karma in Vietnamese Spiritual Life

Karma is a notion about the relationship between cause and effect. The saying that relatively describes this term is: There is no smoke without fire. It means that every action, sooner or later, would lead to a certain reaction, and with any consequence, there must be a cause.

Laws of Karma is passed down through generations to deter human from doing harm to others and encourage them to live genuinely, rather than just scare people with the punishments of crossing the border of the good and the bad. It has been a crucial part of Vietnamese spiritual life for ages. You may know about the saying “What goes around, comes around”, Karma has a similar concept. However, oriental people believe that the result of your actions might take quite a long time until it has some impact on your life. In some cases, it can become the debt that you have to pay in your next life after reincarnation. In other cases, your children would have to be responsible to bear with it. Of course, if your whole life is about being honest and helpful, your next generations can enjoy a better life.

vietnamese spiritual life law of karma

“Karma has no menu, you get served what you deserve”

Throughout your life, you may find yourself (or your acquaintances) in not-so-comfortable situations, and you wonder why you have to suffer so much, considering your guiltlessness. It is explained that Karma is also about how you value this world and judge all the events around you. For example, if you were always negatively thirsty for power, fame or money, for sure your life would be full of jealousy, demotivation, and despair. The universe is the mirror that reflects your actions. Therefore, if you wish to receive true love, honest friendship, or good vibes, you need to learn how to give and express them first. When there are hardships, it is not the changes in circumambient conditions that you should look for, but the changes in yourself. “God gives the hardest battles to his toughest soldiers”, and according to Law of Karma, all of your hard work will pay off.

Destiny in Vietnamese Spiritual Life

Oriental countries also have a similar method to figure out people’s future like the horoscope in Western countries, which is called Zi Wei Dou Shu (Tử Vi Đấu Số). However, while many people still doubt the accuracy of the horoscope, Zi Wei has been recognized and widely applied in lots of aspects of life. It is based on Yi Jing (Kinh Dịch), or Book of Changes, which is believed to be a system including natural rules of every change in the universe. Yi Jing was first created in China thousands of years ago and has been studied by generations after generations. With such strong fundamentals, it is hard to convince that Zi Wei is meaningless.

vietnamese spiritual life zi wei

A sample sheet of Zi Wei

Each person has a separate sheet of Zi Wei which would give a detailed overview of his or her life from marriage, children, parents to prosperity, health. However, when talking about a person’s destiny, it is crucial to also consider his or her close relatives’ Zi Wei, physiognomy, the law of karma and reincarnation (which has been mentioned in the previous sections). It might be inconvincible to some people since it seems that your life cannot be decided by your will. Actually, it is believed that if you always try to be kind and honest, there is a high probability that everything can turn out to better than how it is supposed to be.

Related article:  Vietnamese Zodiac

A primary factor of Yi Jing that is also shown in Zi Wei is the Five Elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Each person is born under a different element. Since each element is advised not to go with a corresponding element, the people that respectively have those elements on their Zi Wei are recommended not to be parents/children/spouses/business partners to each other. For example, a Fire person should not be in partnership with a Water person as it might cost his or her health or property. Nowadays, young people have placed less consideration on this rule when it comes to marriage, but many Vietnamese minorities still use Zi Wei as a prerequisite. Small businessmen, however, is the group that seems to believe most in Yi Jing in general, which significantly affect their decisions on timings and business plan.

vietnamese spiritual life the five elements

The Five Elements and their relationships

Time - Good dates and Bad dates in Vietnamese Spiritual Life

Like other countries that share the same credence about Yi Jing, Vietnamese believe that in a year, there are good dates and bad dates. On good, or lucky, dates, you can marry, open your company, start to build your house or anything else that would bring long-term effects. And on unlucky ones, of course, you should not. These dates are all determined on the Lunar calendar, and depending on each person’s age or element, their effect can be quite stronger compared to other people.

Throughout a person’s life, it is believed that there are some years that are worse and more unlucky in comparison with the others. You may have heard about 27 Club, a list of celebrities who died at the age of 27. According to the Yi Jing, around that age, some of the moving bad-luck “stars” would make you more prone to making serious mistakes and without prudence, you might have to face mishaps related to your money, health or even one that costs your life.

Vietnamese Ghost Month (lunar 7th month) is another example of a period that you are recommended to be careful. In the Ghost Month, the Gates of Hell are opened and the spirits can freely enter the living world. People are said to be easily triggered, even against their usual temper, which is why we have fascinating dos and don'ts during these days. 

The Life after Death in Vietnamese Spiritual Life

Oriental people believe that human beings have two parts: the body and the spirit. They first unite when we were born, and separate when we die. The body is just a temporary shelter for the spirit, and while the former would soon decompose after our death, the latter would continue to exist.

vietnamese spiritual life heibai wuchang

The Black and White Impermanence are two deities that are in charge of taking all the spirits to hell

After leaving the body, all spirits have to come to hell and go through the evaluation of the King of Hell and judges. The whole process lasts for 49 days, which is said to be enough for the death to finish their uncompleted wishes and for their relatives to perform all the rituals. The judges would measure the number of good things and bad things that you have done in your life to decide your following fate, whether you are blessed to enter heaven, reincarnate, or endure the punishments in 18 levels of hell for thousands of years. Among those three decisions, reincarnation is the one that has raised the most questions for mankind for centuries, since it is said to happen to the majority of us. Except for ones that can enjoy the eternal life in the celestial world, even the punished ones would have a chance to have the next life after paying back his trespass.

See also:

- Vietnamese Funeral Rituals

- Death Anniversaries in Vietnam

Reincarnation in Vietnamese Spiritual Life

This is one of the most concerning parts of Vietnamese spiritual life. After considering and measuring all your contributions and guilt, if you did not commit any serious crime, the King of Hell would allow you to reincarnate. Some would become plants, some live their next life as an animal, the others continue to be human.

Before that, you need to cross a bridge named Nai Ha which overpasses Vong Xuyen River, the river of oblivion. You would meet Manh Ba and she would give you a bowl of soup. To reincarnate, it is a must to drink that bowl. The soup inside is cooked from all the tears that you have cried in your whole life, and by drinking it, you would lose all of your memories, either the joyful or the painful ones, that you have gained in this life. Thanks to it, you can be reborn as innocent as a baby.

Although most people wish to have another life, we believe that some of them still hesitate to enter the cycle of rebirth. Such is the case of people who do not want to forget about their lover. To meet their lover in the next life, they have to soak themselves in Vong Xuyen River for a thousand years. Watching their beloved one walking across the bridge above to be reborn again and again, they cannot say a word, no matter how deep their nostalgia is. After all those desperate waitings, if their love remains unchanged, they can keep their memories, come back to the living world to look for the one they love.

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Summary of Vietnamese Spiritual Life

Vietnamese spiritual life mainly focuses on encouraging people to have a rightly inclined life. Despite things that might sound superstitious, there are many aspects that have been studied by the Asian philosophers for thousands of years. Read here about Vietnamese Superstitions, Festivals and Public Holidays in Vietnam and check out our private tours to learn more about Vietnam culture!

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Guest - Maria Florence on Saturday, 09 May 2020 19:38

I went to the temple with you guys and learned so much about the Vietnamese culture, then I came across this article. It was a pleasant surprise to know that you guys also have very well structured and informative blogs. Keep up the great work!

I went to the temple with you guys and learned so much about the Vietnamese culture, then I came across this article. It was a pleasant surprise to know that you guys also have very well structured and informative blogs. Keep up the great work!
Guest - Joey Lawson on Saturday, 26 October 2019 15:19

Nice research and clear information

Nice research and clear information
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