A beginner’s guide to Vietnamese ghosts

By Violet Kupersmith, Huffington Post

Vietnamese ghosts aren’t that scary as long as you know what it is that they want. If it isn’t staying dead then there’s probably a reason, and all you have to do is give the ghost the thing that it’s seeking –revenge, redemption, a resolution.


Three ghosts tells where their bodies were when they died. Photo from Huffington Post.

Back in Vietnam, my grandmother and great-grandmother were often paid unexpected visits by inhabitants of the spirit world. My favorite of their stories is the one about three men from their small coastal village who were lost at sea during a particularly bad storm. For days everyone scoured the shoreline looking for the bodies and wreckage from their boat, but found no sign of it. And then, late one night, my great-grandmother was woken by a clanging, howling ruckus from the kitchen. When she crept down to investigate, she discovered that the three ghosts of the missing men had taken out all her pots and pans and were there banging away on them like a spectral percussion ensemble. Over the clatter they called out to her the name of the place where their bodies had washed ashore. The next day my great-grandmother and some of the other villagers ventured out to the location that the ghosts had named and lo and behold, the remains of the three bodies were there. The men were given all the proper funerary rites, and their spirits were finally laid to rest.

Apart from a few missing narrative points that were lost either over time or through translation, (like what happened after the ghosts had successfully conveyed their message? Did they just vanish? Did they clean up the kitchen before they left?) it’s a tidy little tale, where in the end, everyone got what it was that they needed. I on the other hand, am left wondering about plot holes, but I assume my great-grandmother’s spirit has more important things to do than clear these up for me.

It’s the ghost without a clear purpose that frightens me, and those are the ones who tend to populate the stories that I encountered during my solo travels around Vietnam after college. I realized that these were not the kind of ghosts that my great-grandmother knew, in the same way that the country I was discovering bore little resemblance to the war-torn place she and her family had fled in 1975. The post-war ghosts don’t seem to follow the logical behavior of those ghosts of the old tales, and what’s even more unsettling about the stories is the nonchalance with which they are usually told. For example:

“I finally got rid of the little ghost girl in my room,” one of my Viet friends announced to me over coffee some time ago, in the casual way that a person might say, ‘I finally got rid of the squirrels in my attic.’ My response to hearing this (spilled drink, dropped jaw, subdued shriek) must have seemed like an overreaction to him, but in my defense, I was still new to the land and to the idea that here ghosts weren’t a superstition, they were a fact. I begged him for a full account. My friend complied, prefacing the story with the disclaimer that his ghost was not terribly exciting, just your everyday, pedestrian phantom. Nevertheless, it is the only one that still gives me nightmares regularly.

Read the full article by Violet Kupersmith from Huffington Post.

Báo Người Việt hoan nghênh quý vị độc giả đóng góp và trao đổi ý kiến. Chúng tôi xin quý vị theo một số quy tắc sau đây:

Tôn trọng sự thật.
Tôn trọng các quan điểm bất đồng.
Dùng ngôn ngữ lễ độ, tương kính.
Không cổ võ độc tài phản dân chủ.
Không cổ động bạo lực và óc kỳ thị.
Không vi phạm đời tư, không mạ lỵ cá nhân cũng như tập thể.

Tòa soạn sẽ từ chối đăng tải các ý kiến không theo những quy tắc trên.

Xin quý vị dùng chữ Việt có đánh dấu đầy đủ. Những thư viết không dấu có thể bị từ chối vì dễ gây hiểu lầm cho người đọc. Tòa soạn có thể hiệu đính lời văn nhưng không thay đổi ý kiến của độc giả, và sẽ không đăng các bức thư chỉ lập lại ý kiến đã nhiều người viết. Việc đăng tải các bức thư không có nghĩa báo Người Việt đồng ý với tác giả.

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