Superstition Has High Place in Vietnam


College professor Nguyen Ngoc Hung had spent nearly three decades searching for the remains of his brother, who died at age 20 fighting U.S. troops. Hung had scoured battlefields in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and talked to military commanders and pored through archival records, always coming up empty-handed.

Finally, in desperation, he went to a psychic here and explained his grief. “This is easy,” Pham Thi Hang said. “I can help.”

She sketched a map of a hilly region about 400 miles south of Hanoi and drew an “x” to indicate an unmarked grave. “Before you dig,” she said, “stick a chopstick in the earth. If an egg balances on it, your brother will be below.”


And there, beneath a chopstick in Kontum province, is where Hung’s quest ended two months later and Nguyen Ngoc Cuong was exhumed for a proper Buddhist burial.

“My other brother is an engineer,” Hung said, “and without scientific evidence, he has doubts about anything. He can’t quite believe a psychic found Cuong. But if people feel hopeless, they will reach out, like I did, to superstition; and whether you’re a Communist or not, if you’re Vietnamese, you’re a very superstitious person.”

Like many Southeast Asians, the Vietnamese would not consider making a major decision, whether it involved marriage or building a house, without considering the lunar calendar and consulting an astrologer, psychic or fortuneteller. This is pragmatism to them, not superstition: Abiding by these forces of nature is how one finds harmony with surroundings and is in turn rewarded with good luck and a happy life.

Vietnam’s folkloric beliefs--three people, for instance, will never pose together in a photograph because the one in the middle will be struck by ill fortune--are a mixture of Buddhism, Confucian ideology, local tradition, paganism and ancestor worship. Out of this nourishment for the soul comes the belief that one’s destiny is determined by the time, day and year of birth.

On Hung Ma Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, shop after shop sells paper cutouts--some near life-size when unfolded--that people burn to pass the object on to their relatives in the afterlife. There are paper cars, cellular phones, refrigerators, stacks of imitation $100 U.S. bills, TV sets, electric fans--all made in the village of Ba Binh, where most of the population spends its days snipping and folding.

“Our most difficult order was for a sewing machine,” said Lan Van Binh, who owns one of the shops. “But what the living have, the dead also need. This really isn’t superstitious. It’s about faithfulness and showing serious feelings to your ancestors.”

The Communist government has long frowned on superstition, mysticism and religion. In the dark postwar years of the 1970s and ‘80s, it banned fortunetelling.

But as the government began loosening up in the ‘90s, the ban on fortunetellers was lifted and psychics are back in strength.

The Vietnamese are by no means alone in respecting superstition. So many stewardesses for Thai Airways have given birth in 2000--the year of the dragon is an auspicious time--that the airline has had to recruit new attendants. In Vietnam, the birthrate jumped 8% in the first half of the year.

In Indonesia, then-President Suharto consulted astrologers and made policy on their recommendations. President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines keeps a cracked mirror in his home to ward off bad spirits.

Filipinos will slit the throat of a white chicken and sprinkle its blood over the construction site of a new home for good luck.

Vietnamese believe that the first visitor of a new year sets the tone for the next 12 months and make arrangements for a healthy, successful, happily married friend to knock on their door at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1.

“I do not know exactly how I got the wisdom to find the graves of missing soldiers,” said one psychic, Nguyen Van Lien, 37, whose living room was crammed with 25 people seeking clues to the fate of MIA relatives. “But I had two serious fevers as a young man, and when I survived, I found I had the ability of a fortuneteller. My fame soon spread.”