Ancestor Worship custom in Vietnam


Due to the long history, Vietnam is a country with the very interesting and distinctive culture, customs and believes. One of the most popular and important customs of Vietnamese people is the ancestors worshiping. If you have the chance to travel to Vietnam, do not miss to learn more about this custom.

An overview about ancestor worshiping

Ancestors worshiping has become a traditional custom which plays a very special role in the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people, and is one of the elements that make up the cultural identity of Vietnam. The ancestor worshiping is very simple: they believe that their ancestors are sacred, they went to eternity but live next to their descendants; rejoice when your children are unlucky, encouraging your children and grandchildren to meet good and rebuke their offspring when doing evil deeds.

Ancestor worship was introduced into Vietnam by the Chinese during their long occupation of the country that began 200 years before the birth of Christ. Since then, it has been fully absorbed into the Vietnamese consciousness and, with Confucianism, underpins the country’s religion and social fabric.

Ancestral Altar

Ancestral altars are usually in the most formal place in the house. In the middle of the altar is a bowl of incense symbolizing the universe, on the incense stick with a tree to burn incense; At the two outer corners of the altar, there are two lamps (or candles) representing the Sun on the left and the Moon on the right. Whenever worshiping, the owner will light the candle. Right after the incense stick, there is a three-legged apex, with a cap topped with a conical shape with a sense of superiority controlling the spirit of descendants standing in front of the altar.

Ancestor worship is not only the adhesive that binds the Vietnamese together, but also one of the most difficult concepts for people from Anglo-Saxon or European origins to understand. It has been said that the Vietnamese believe in the dead, while the Occidentals believe only in death.

How do Vietnamese people worship their ancestors?

The practice of ancestor worship is relatively straightforward. Nearly every house, office, and business in Vietnam has a small altar which is used to commune with ancestors. Incense sticks are burned frequently. Offerings are made – fruit, sweets, and gifts. The latter items are paper replicas of dollar notes (‘ghost money’), motorbikes, cars, houses and so on. After worship, the paper gifts are burnt so that the spirits of the gifts can ascend to heaven for the ancestors to use.

In the past, the income from a plot of land was used to maintain the altar and arrange the rituals, but this tradition has now faded away. However, the custom that the eldest son will arrange the ceremonial and inherit the family house upon the death of his parents is still generally observed.

Another traditional element is the placing of wooden tablets on the altar for each of the ancestors over recent generations. This is less rigorously observed today, and tablets are often replaced by photographs. Some pagodas house commemorative tablets for ancestors on behalf of regular worshipers.

When do Vietnamese people worship their ancestors?

Worshiping takes place regularly on particular days, such as festivals, new and full moon days, the death day of the ancestor, and so on. On important occasions, such as moving house, starting a new business or the birth of a child, and whenever a member of the family needs guidance or a favour, the ancestors are consulted.

A proliferation of small fires of burning paper in the streets of towns and cities means that it is a festival or moon day. One paper fire is likely to be an event affecting a single family.

Ancestor worship in Vietnam

Why do Vietnamese people worship their ancestors?

For the Vietnamese, ancestor worship is not related to ghosts, spiritualism or even the supernatural in the Western sense. It is not even a ‘belief’ in the sense that it is open to question by the ‘believers’. The Vietnamese accept as a fact that their ancestors continue to live in another realm, and that it is the duty of the living to meet their needs. In return, the ancestors give advice and bring good fortune.

Devotees of Buddhism believe in previous existences, and seek to correct previous bad deeds to reach enlightenment. Ancestor worship is fundamentally different. For the Vietnamese, death, and the ritual and practice of ancestor worship, constitutes the transfer of power from the tangible life to the intangible. Existence is a continuum stretching through birth, a life spent in tangible form on Earth, followed by death and a spirit existence in another realm for a further two or three generations.

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