Saigon – What is the best way to keep a child healthy? An old Vietnamese grandfather believes the charm of a certain necklace wards off evil spirits and he may give it to his grandson to protect the boy. An employee fails to show up for work on the third day of the lunar month because he believes that particular date brings him bad luck. A student tries to borrow money to buy lottery tickets because he dreamed of fire the night before. These are some examples of superstition which may baffle the foreign visitor to this country. But, in Vietnam, it is part of tradition and customs passed down from one generation to the next. Ignorance, of course, plays some role in the traditional acceptance of superstition. Not having sufficient knowledge, faith or trust in scientific methods, a Vietnamese often relies on his prejudices, emotions and the word of his forefathers to guide his daily life.
Superstition, sometimes, plays more than a passing role in Vietnamese society. By the time a boy is old enough to marry, for example, he may not be able to wed the girl he loves because she was born in the wrong year. On the 12-year lunar calendar commonly used throughout Asia, many of the years are considered incompatible. Such years are thought to bring misfortune if they are improperly matched with other years. Thus a young man born in “the Year of the Tiger,” cannot marry his beloved from “the Year of the Horse” unless he wants to risk a break in family ties with his parents and elder relatives. To the conservative relatives, the Tiger and Horse are incompatible and sure to bring bad luck to such a marriage. The hoot of an owl is regarded as a bad omen announcing death or illness. According to ancient tradition the bird must be chased away and those who heard his cry should be extremely cautious about their personal safety.
A large number of fortune-tellers, astrologers and palm-readers owe their living to Vietnamese superstition and often made a small fortune from their clients. Even the poor save money for occasional visits to well-known soothsayers. Superstition has been known to determine the conduct of the war in this ravaged country. A friendly or enemy commander may refuse to attack or may alter his strategy if the stars are not in his favor. One story has it that an American commander always consulted a Vietnamese astrologer before planning the deployment of his troops. When questioned by his incredulous superiors, he explained that, according to his theory, he could depend on the enemy to base his attacks on the positions of the stars. So, he consulted a stargazer himself for intelligence on the enemy’s movements. Another story passed down through history is that of the famous Vietnamese generals Le Loi and Nguyen Trai. Several years ago, the pair was leading a war against Chinese invaders. Nguyen Trai decided to turn superstition to his advantage and used grease to write the phrases “Le Loi vi Quan; Nguyen Trai vi Than,” (Le Loi for King; Nguyen Trai for Minister of State) on the large leaves of forest trees. Ants later consumed the grease absorbed in the leaf tissue and left the prophecy clearly engraved. People living nearby noticed the perforated leaves and interpreted them as a “divine message.” Inspired by this, they wholeheartedly supported the war which eventually led to the defeat of the Chinese and the enthronement of Emperor Le Loi.
Another story is told of a Montagnard tribe that trapped a white elephant in 1961 and offered the rare animal to the late President Ngo Dinh Diem as a gift. Government news agencies, attempting to strengthen the already tottering regime of Diem, spread the word that a “powerful king” had been sent down from Heaven to rule the Vietnamese. The President himself flew to the city of Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands to accept the gift, a symbol of supreme and divine power. The elephant was given to Diem in a much publicized ceremony. Two years later, history proved no “powerful king” had come to the rescue when Diem was assassinated and his regime overthrown in a military coup. Whether by chance or not, superstition scores an occasional point in its favor. One story tells of an old Vietnamese Senator who, learning that the opening ceremony of the first Vietnamese Senate under the new Constitution would be October 10, 1967, voiced his disapproval. It was a bad day, he said, and someone in the Senate would surely suffer for the indiscretion. Four months later, during the Communist Tet offensive of 1968, Senator Tran Dien, a popular and well loved figure, was assassinated, by the Viet Cong in Hue, in Central Vietnam. The old Senator is convinced his prophecy of doom came true .
There are some social reformers in this country who believe that superstition is a problem, which should be eradicated in Vietnam is to become a truly progressive, modern nation. A young whipper-snapper, a graduate from a foreign western university, even proposed legislation to outlaw superstition in this country. How dull life would be if all our soothsayers, fortune tellers, palm-readers and astrologers were to be pensioned off and retired. We promptly took this abominable proposition to our favorite soothsayer who solemnly assured us that this is not in the stars.
By Van Ngan