Wandering Souls Day is celebrated during the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. Equivalent to the All Souls’ Day celebrated in Christian cultures, this festival, however, is observed by both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
Hon and Via
According to the country’s traditionally held belief, a human being possesses two souls: a spiritual soul called Hon and a material soul referred to as Via. The Vietnamese believe that during death, the soul is lead to hell and so must face a ten-judge tribunal.
A judgment is then rendered based on how a person lived on earth and the soul could either be punished by being sent to hell or rewarded by being sent to heaven. Souls who are heavy in sin have the opportunity to be absolved of their transgressions via prayers uttered by the living during the first and fifteenth of each month.
On Wandering Souls’ Day, also called Trang Nguyen or Vu Lan, priests and family members of those who died can request for the sins of their loved ones to be forgiven. On the day of the festival, hell’s gates are said to be open, allowing imprisoned souls freedom to wander.
There hungry souls go back to their villages and homes to feed on a slew of food prepared by their families placed on altars.
Souls who no longer have families or any loved ones are perennially doomed to wander over rivers, trees, and on black clouds. These souls need earnest prayers and food which is the reason why numerous offerings can be found in public places and pagodas.
Locals believe the festival is where the living and the dead meet in thought. Those who have lost their parents often ask for forgiveness for their sins as well as show their parents some gratitude. Locals send lights afloat on the river with the intent that these will help guide souls to heaven.
Events held on this day are usually in the open air, if weather permits, or large rooms inside houses where there is space for wandering souls to rest.
Tables covered with a slew of offerings can be seen on festival day, which include boiled chicken, crabs, roast pork, and five different kinds of fruits. Sticky rice cakes, meat rolls, vermicelli soup, boiled cassava, sugarcane, and sweet potatoes are similarly served. Meanwhile, paper-made clothes, money, and votive papers are burned due to the belief that these can be used by the dead in the spirit world.
Interestingly enough, butcher shops also observe this festival cautiously as the locals’ belief in reincarnation compels butchers to halt their operation due to the fear of killing a soul who reincarnated in the body of an animal.
Where to Celebrate
The festival is observed in any and every place in Vietnam be it businesses, homes, government offices, factories, or Armed Forces units. According to locals, the best place to celebrate Wandering Souls Day is in Hue due to the many Buddhist shrines and pagodas in the area. Monks, who are more than ready to perform ceremonies and offer prayers, are also present in Hue.