Vietnam features some of the Asian traditions that sometimes confuse visitors, especially people from Western countries. In this article, we will decode one of the most popular rituals for you - ghost money or joss paper burning.
Joss paper symbolizes valuables such as gold and money
Joss papers now also mimicks jewelry, watches, and even iPad
Joss papers are papers made with specific patterns, colors, and symbols to imitate valuables such as money, gold, or even houses, and cars. The act of burning them is believed to create a link to the afterlife, sending all of the offerings to the deceased family members.
Joss paper burning has evolved into a common ritual in Vietnam, which can be found in just about every household. Vietnamese firmly believe that the after-world resembles the world of the living. So people burn joss paper in hopes that their ascendants would have a better life. This presents filial piety: to pay respect and take care of family members, even in their afterlife.
Joss paper burning is a ritual adopted from China
The practice of joss paper burning dates back to the Qin Dynasty in China, or maybe before that. The imitated treasures were first buried with the dead, then converted to burning for worshipping, but the belief remained. Vietnam adopted it during the 1000-year colonization, along with other Chinese cultural traditions such as calligraphy arts.
Locals burning joss papers and paying offerings at Phu Tay Ho in Hanoi
Joss paper is burned in funerals, on death anniversaries, on special occasions such as Tet holiday, the Day of the Dead (March 3rd in the Lunar Calendar) and the full moon days (usually the 15th, 16th, and 17th day) of the Lunar July (month of forsaken spirits). If you want to witness the ritual, visit temples and pagodas in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh during the mentioned days. In case you know a local, ask them whether you can join his family for a closer look.
A typical joss paper stall in Vietnam
Joss paper burning is such a common practice in Vietnam that you can easily find vendors selling ghost money throughout the country. Just head to local wet markets, you should find at least one joss paper stall there. Each basic set, consisting of gold, silver, and money, only costs about VND 15,000 - VND 20,000.
If you want to see the process of making joss paper, go to Nguyen Duy and Ba Dinh streets in District 8 in Ho Chi Minh. Here concentrates a large number of family businesses producing ghost money for the whole city. For those in Hanoi, you can visit Phuc Am Village, a traditional craft village known for joss-paper making, that locates only 30 kilometers away from the city center.
Joss paper burning occurs after paying worship, meaning that there should be a tray containing food (usually savory dishes and sometimes sweets) and drinks (water, wine, and tea) first. Then you burn incenses. Afterward comes this ritual. The joss papers used in each kind of worshipping are different, but the sellers will provide pre-selected sets based on your purpose.
Joss paper burning isn’t about speed, it’s about keeping the ghost money intact so that your ancestors can receive them in one piece. Start by building a fire with small sheets, then add bigger ones as the fire grows. Pray while you watch the paper burns. To avoid scattering the ashes everywhere, get the help of an enclosed burner.
Burn joss paper only after you've paid worship
Joss paper burning is more than a ritual to Vietnamese, it creates a spiritual connection between the living and the dead, and expresses our respect and love to the ancestors. However, recently the act has been criticized for emitting harmful substances into the air. Though we still don't know what's next for joss paper burning but for now, it's still a meaningful ritual to Vietnamese.
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© Written by Dung Tran for itourvn.com