It was the Chinese who introduced ancestor worship into Vietnam over 2,000 years ago. They moved south and had a profound effect on the development of the region in the subsequent centuries. The Chinese have long gone but some of their influences remain, and ancestor worship is one of them. The family and respect for elders, and ancestors, is central to Vietnamese life. Around 80% of Vietnamese still live in villages and have had little contact with the outside world other than members who have moved to the cities but return for special occasions. They return precisely because they understand the importance of the family, living and departed. Why should their city lives change that?
It may be difficult for tourists enjoying Vietnam travel packages to understand this. However, if their travelling in Vietnam is during a festival they are likely to see it for themselves during their time in rural areas. Some say there is a subtle difference between Vietnam and the western world for example; the western world believes in death but the Vietnamese in the dead!
What form does Ancestor worship take?
Houses, offices and businesses will all have a small altar where incense sticks are burnt and offerings of fruit, sweet and gifts are placed. The gifts are burnt so they can ascend to heaven for ancestors. Custom demands that the eldest son arranges ceremonies and inherits the home when parents have died.
When are ancestors worshipped?
This is a regular event. It will not only happen during the festivals that happen right round the year but at full and new moons as well as the anniversary of their death. Anyone needing guidance, starting a business, celebrating a birth or buying a new house will ‘’consult’’ ancestors. Overseas visitors on a Vietnam tour package that sees small fires of burning paper in the streets will actually be watching part of a festival or ‘’celebration’’ of a moon day.
Why are ancestors worshipped?
They believe that ancestors still live elsewhere and they should be thanked because without them the living family would not exist. Buddhism believes in past life but that differs from ancestor worship; ancestors have a spiritual existence elsewhere for up to three generations. Heroes of the nation ‘’survive’’ to be worshipped for much more than three generations.
What about bad ancestors?
They will be worshipped but their bad behaviour may bring bad luck to the family and future generations. It is a great incentive to everyone to live a good life so that future generations will not suffer in any way. It is not a matter of evading punishment in life and thereby avoiding the consequences of bad behaviour.
There is social change with cities offering new opportunities. Time will tell whether that will ultimately erode some of Vietnam’s traditions and customs. There is increasing contact with the modern world but it is to be hoped that does not result in Vietnam losing some of its natural charm and culture.