Full Moon July in Vietnam: Wandering Soul’s Day and “Vu Lan” Day

The offerings for ghosts © Hoang The Phuc

Over thousands of years, the Vietnamese have held a deep belief in the lunar calendar. Although most of today’s activities are scheduled in the Gregorian calendar, they still keep track of dates in the old way—many traditional cultural activities are organized based on the lunar calendar.

The fifteenth day of lunar July is known as Wandering Soul’s Day or “Vu Lan” Day (Parents’ Day) in Vietnam. This is Vietnam’s second largest annual traditional festival after Lunar New Year, and it is celebrated by participation in various religious rituals and humanitarian activities.

Celebrations aside, lunar July brings a few fears to Vietnamese hearts too—it is also known as “Ghost Month.” Vietnamese people are very superstitious, and almost everyone believes in ghosts and spirits. Therefore, with all the hauntings, Ghost Month is thought of as an unlucky time and, it is considered a bad idea to do anything important during this period. This concept comes from folk beliefs related to Buddhism that during the first half of the month, the gates of the underworld are opened, allowing ghosts to roam freely on Earth and make trouble for the living. On the full moon, they have to return, and the gates are closed again.

In Vietnam, Wandering Soul’s Day is taken very seriously. All through Ghost Month, deceased relatives will find their way back to visit with the living. Offerings and prayers bring them back, and they will then bless their relatives. Meanwhile, “lost ghosts” that have no home, no offerings, and no prayers will wander around, lost and lonely. They may be ones without relatives, forgotten by descendants or dead without having been buried carefully. These things will make them cruel and place curses of bad luck on strangers. For that reason, the Vietnamese practice activities related to their beliefs in order to appease the ghosts, and not to upset or make them angry.

Vietnamese families will prepare two feasts during the fifteenth day of Lunar July. The first is offered early, usually at noon, to ancestors. The second, often offered sometime after sunset, is dedicated to the “lost ghosts.” This is the only day of the year that they can feast. Because they cannot eat proper food, the living often give the ghosts white porridge. Many people also visit temples to pray, some bring offerings and donations to feed these ghosts.

It may seem strange to most, but Wandering Soul’s Day also happens to be Vu Lan Day (Parents’ Day). Vu Lan Day began with the legend of Maudgalyayana (Buddha’s leading disciple), known as Muc Kien Lien in Vietnam. After his mother died, Muc Kien Lien, by means of his supernatural power, saw that she had been reborn as a hungry ghost in the realm of hell as a result of her evil actions in her past life. He pleaded with the Buddha to save his mother. Buddha instructed his disciple that only a combined effort by all Buddhist monks could soothe the suffering of the tormented soul. He then directed Muc Kien Lien to organize an assembly of monks so that Muc Kien Lien could make offerings for the benefit of his mother’s soul. Thus, the accumulated spiritual merits resulting from the prayers of all monks helped his mother awaken; consequently, she obtained liberation. Hence, the fifteenth day of Lunar July is when people pray for forgiveness for their parents’ misdeeds.

Wearing roses in the Vu Lan Day ⓒ Hoang The Phuc

People pay homage to their parents and ancestors, whether they are alive or dead. The custom is that you spend time thinking of your mother’s great heart and are thankful. People whose mothers have passed away will wear a white rose on their shirt during the day while others will have a red one. In addition, they will try to avoid killing animals and will eat only vegetarian food. They will also offer food and other items for the poor. This very simple custom is practiced widely throughout the country and is a very sacred and deeply unique mark of the Vietnamese culture.