Vietnamese people call the 7th full moon festival “Vu Lan bao hieu” (Parents' Day) or “Xa toi vong nhan” (Wandering Soul’s Day). The festival is the second largest annual traditional festival of Vietnam after the lunar New Year (Tet) festival, and it is celebrated by Vietnamese people participating in various religious rituals and humanitarian activities.
From traditional customs
The seventh lunar month is believed to be the time wandering souls are returning to their former homes.
Ancient legend has it that a Buddha's disciple named Muc Kien Lien saw his mother suffering from hell’s tortures. Following Buddha’s advice, on the seventh full moon of the year, Muc Kien Lien gathered monks and devotees to pray for his mother’s relief. Hence, such gathering has become an annual festival to express gratitude towards parents and ancestors.
During the festival, people visit pagodas and temples to worship, burn incense and offer votives to their ancestors and wandering souls. They prepare offerings of food, clothes and votive papers, and release animals like birds or fish. They also buy presents and flowers to show their deep love and gratitude towards their parents.
Many people go to pagoda on this occasion, wearing either a red rose if their parents are alive or a white rose if their parents have passed away. The rose is a symbol of love and gratitude shown by every family towards their ancestors.
Nguyen Thi Sen, 64, a resident of Hanoi, says her family holds a religious ritual to worship ancestors and pray for wandering souls who are not taken care of.
“We offer votive papers, flowers, fruit, salt, sticky rice cakes, boiled cassava, sweet potatoes and many other things to our ancestors as well as to other lost souls in the hope that they can enjoy a comfortable afterlife in the same way as the living do,” she elaborates.
Le Hoang Anh, 38, another resident of Hanoi, says he often attends ceremonies held at the pagoda or martyrs’ cemetery to pray for the fallen combatants who laid down their lives during the past struggle against foreign invaders.
For Alex, a French visitor to Hanoi, the Vu Lan festival is an excited experience. He is very impressed by the way Vietnamese citizens prepare votives, which look exactly like real things in daily life such as high-tech Iphone and Ipad, high-rise building, TV set, washing machine and air conditioner.
Alex says he is very curious at first about the meaning of the festival. “It is interesting to know the festival is dedicated to both parents who are alive and those who have passed away,” he adds.
To modern life
“The 7th full-moon festival is not only a chance for guilty homeless spirits to be pardoned but also an opportunity for children to express their gratitude towards their parents, and those people who have performed glorious deeds,” says Thuy Hang, a university student from Can Tho city in the Mekong Delta.
“I go to pagoda on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month every year to pray for my mum living very far from me in my native Can Tho city,” Hang says.
Duc Thanh, a businessman in Haiphong, says the festival is not just for Buddhists but for everyone to express their love for their parents and do charity work. “My company is organizing a trip to some northern provinces to visit and present gifts to heroic Vietnamese mothers, whose husbands and children sacrificed their lives during the past war,” he says.
“Burning votives and preparing offerings for the dead should not be wasteful as we still have many disadvantaged people to take care of,” says Minh Ly, a teacher from central Nghe An province.
Ly often goes to pagoda with a white rose on her shirt as her mum is no longer alive. “I always follow my mum’s advice to give a helping hand to those who are suffering from increasing difficulty and financial hardship. For example, I have joined some friends of mine to do voluntary work at a remote hamlet in central Vietnam,” she confides.
According to Venerable Thich Thanh Nhieu, Deputy Head of the Vietnam Buddhist Shangha, Buddhist followers should not waste their time and money on burning votive papers. They'd be better taking care of their parents and help underprivileged people in society.