Vietnamese Praying Ritual and Burning Vietnamese Money

Informant Data: The informant is a Health Promotion and Disease Prevention major here at the University of Southern California. She is Vietnamese and is exposed to Vietnamese culture and traditions through her parents; she describes herself as more passive than active in regards to Vietnamese traditions.

Item: The informant describes a Vietnamese prayer ritual below. The following quotations are direct transcriptions of my dialogue with the informant, while the additional information provided is paraphrased.

Contextual Data: The informant has been participating in this ritual several times a year since she was a child. She explains the ritual: “So there’s this annual Vietnamese book that comes out, and depending on your zodiac sign it tells you your fortune for the year and it contains the dates that you should prey. My mom reads this, I do not. So several times a year, usually pretty late at night, I would hear my mom call “It’s time! Hurry!” and I would go outside and face a certain direction—the direction changes every year according to my mom. She will have had a tray of fruit—oranges, bananas, grapes—and a bunch of candles. You light all the candles and you have one of those incense sticks that you light as well. You hold the incense in your hands and you lightly bob up and down, praying silently. What you pray for is often for your dead ancestors to watch over you and bring you luck; it’s more of a prayer to wish good things for yourself. During this, my mom reads a chant that always begins “On this day…” and goes on to bless us. When you have finished praying you stick your incense into the rind of one of the fruits, I like the oranges, and you leave it outside. Then we sometimes, not every time, burn fake Vietnamese money. The fake money you can get at a lot of Asian supermarkets. We burn some for our dead ancestors and then it’s over, and we go inside.” When asked about the significance of this ritual, the informant replied “It is not something that I do for me; I do it for my mother. I don’t feel very connected to the ritual, like I don’t understand the significance of the fruit or why we do it in this fashion, but I don’t ask questions.” The informant relays her isolated sentiment of feeling almost like an outsider when practicing this, due to her “solely superficial understanding of it.” She goes on to explain: “I think it’s an interesting ritual and I enjoy partaking; however, its significance and true enjoyment has not been transferred to me from my mother yet.” This is a clear example of how the purpose of traditions can be easily diluted over generations, the original meaning lost to a focus on the behavior aspects. When asked to further describe the burning of fake money, she details: “The concept behind it is that if you burn this money, your ancestors will receive it on the other side and be rich in the afterlife. Now we obviously use fake money, but the sentiment is still there that the act of burning it will transfer it to them.” This concept is more tangible to the informant, with the innate mesmerizing quality of fire serving as an understandable relation to the afterlife. To wish your deceased relatives good fortune, even in death, as well is a very relatable practice.