The seventh lunar month, which this year began on August 14, is believed to be the time when ghosts and spirits come out from the lower realm and visit the living.
Through the month, which ends September 12, Vietnamese offer food, fruits and votive papers to hungry ghosts, who are supposed to wander around the streets and drop into any house they feel like.
The "Hungry Ghost Month" is also usually associated with bad luck, and historically a lot of calamities and tragedies have occurred during this period. Therefore, weddings, important business transactions, groundbreaking and opening ceremonies are postponed to the next month.
Business owners make lots of offerings to the hungry ghosts wandering around. Some big ones even hire lion dance troupes to perform at their offerings to lure hungry ghosts to the party.
Many families offer trays with offerings to the ghosts to appease the transient ones and sate their appetite.
It is said that on the 15th night of Ghost Month, which falls on August 28 this year, the gates to heaven and hell are left open, allowing ghosts and dead people into the world to seek out delicious meals.
An offerings tray must be placed in the front yard, outside the house, to make sure no spirits enter the house and trouble the family.
No matter how big a tray is, it must include some water, (uncooked) rice, salt, and rice porridge, the main course for the hungry ghosts. According to a traditional belief, there are some ghosts whose throats are so small they can eat only thin porridge, and so every offering tray must include a large bowl of porridge.
Other vegetarian dishes and boiled sweet potatoes or cassava, are also recommended for the main course.
Then come the snacks, usually popcorn and packed ones.
Unlike other occasions like Tet or the Full Moon Festival when large, juicy and warm-colored fruits are offered to pray for abundant crops and luck, the main fruits offered to the hungry ghosts are ambarella, guava and sugarcane. The green, solid fruits are probably selected so that it could stay intact during a battle later after the offering is finished, when many outsiders will scramble for the leftovers.
Some milk, sweet desserts, candies, cakes, and cookies are also offered. These are for the ghosts of people who died young.
Meat dishes are not encouraged during the occasion since the slaughter will give rise to many more wandering spirits.
The faithful start their offering with a prayer for the salvation of all spirits and wishing them a better life next time they are born. Then they pray for the food and water to multiply so that all the hungry ghosts gathered can be sated.
After the incenses is half burned, votive paper and objects placed beside the food are burnt so that the ghosts could have some and feel pleased so that they leave the earth and return to their underworld.
Votive objects like paper cars and motorbikes, which help speed their way home, are recommended.
Models of cars made of paper are displayed for sale in front of a shop selling votive paper items, made for "Hungry Ghost Festival" which will be observed later this month. Photo: AFP
After the offering is finished, people scramble for the snacks, sweet and fruits as well as some cash that is thrown out.
None of the offerings should be brought back into the worshipper’s house. The porridge should be poured either into a nearby pond for the fish or into the drain for the rats.
If some impatient people try to snatch either the offerings or the cash before the prayer is finished, let them run away since it is a good sign showing that your offerings are enjoyable and valuable.
People catch cash thrown from above following an offering to hungry ghosts in Vietnam. File photo
A pinch of salt and rice is scattered around the yard at the end to make sure none of the spirits go hungry and all of them are satisfied and peacefully leave earth.
Beside offerings to the ghosts, many also donate food and money to beggars in the spirit of the Hungry Ghost Festival, which is about giving.