Blast from the future

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Fortune telling is big business in Vietnam.

It's also illegal. In 2006, the government issued a decree establishing fines of between US$15 and $50 for those caught soothsaying, voo-dooing or spreading superstition.

Those whose predictions cause harm are subject to punishment under the penal code.

And yet everyone, from high-ranking government officials to rice farmers, seeks out the services of fortune tellers before getting married or opening a business. Many go to find out which direction suits them, if and when they will be rich, what day to get married on and more.

However, faith in the practice is waning among the young. They are starting to question the dark art where their forbearers did not.

Twenty-six-year-old graphic designer Huynh Quang Hau sums up the sentiment of this new crop of skeptics.

"I think it's a pile of rubbish," he proclaims. "Nothing they say is true. I've never been to one because I don't believe in it."

Twenty-five-year-old Nguyen Thi Lan also doubts whether accurate fortune tellers exist. She still consults them, however, and admits that finding a good one is a difficult task.

As is tradition, Lan sought the advice of a fortune teller before marrying her fiancé to see if they were a good match, settle on a wedding date and find out about any possible children. The fortune teller said she wouldn't have a child until 2011. She had a baby nine months ago. She said it would be a boy. It's a girl.

Stories still abound, however, of fortune tellers who have hit the mark. What's more, many Vietnamese still hold a great deal of respect for those with a "˜gift'. The Vietnamese address fortune tellers as thay, a moniker reserved for teachers, monks and people with knowledge. Although attitudes are changing, many will trust what fortune tellers say and change aspects of their lives accordingly.

Le Thi Thao Nguyen, a recent graduate from the University of Foreign Trade is too scared to go and see a fortune teller. She has never had her fortune read but members of her family have.

Some years ago, her uncle went fishing. A local fortune teller approached him and announced, just by looking at him, that he would die two years from the day. Nguyen's uncle returned home and said nothing to his family. He told the neighbors instead. When he died, the neighbors told Nguyen's family about the chilling prediction.

It had been exactly two years.

That's not where her family's experience with fortune tellers ends.

Nguyen's aunt was planning to build a family home. In Vietnam, it is customary to consult a fortune teller about when to lay the foundations. Her aunt already had a date in mind. The fortune teller warned her she had chosen ngay sat chu (literally "˜owner-killing day'). She went ahead anyway. Fifteen days after moving in, her husband died in a motorbike accident.

"We feel safe when we do what the fortune teller advises," says Nguyen. "We just want to protect each member of our family."

Having heard such stories, I wanted to see what a fortune teller had to say about me. One Sunday morning, I went to visit one, accompanied by a translator.

A middle-aged woman out in Tan Phu District makes a living channeling the spirit of her dead grandmother, which she claims enables her to see into the future. She works from home.

I was told to pray with incense before heading upstairs to a small room. I sat down facing a thin woman with long hair tied back into a ponytail. She prayed. As she opened her eyes, she seemed to transform. Her posture changed and her eyes seemed to roll up in her head before gazing into space. Her voice was softer and my translator told me afterwards that she used old Vietnamese words.

"You either had a near fatal accident at 21 or will have one when you're 31," she said.

"At the moment, you make enough money to make ends meet. You will be rich at 32."

"How rich?" I wondered.

"I see you working with figures, accounting."

I hate Maths. And, I am certainly no accountant.

"Your father has made your mother suffer a lot."

If providing for my mother, giving her a good life and never raising his voice makes her suffer, then OK.

"I see you writing, a lot."

Spot on.

"You'll get divorced. Your first husband will be very bad. In fact you're unlucky in love."

Divorce. Bad husband. Rubbish love life. Ouch.

"You're outwardly a very nice person but you've got a horrible temper. This is what breaks you and your husband up. You should try and control it."

My mother has compared me to the Devil when angry.

"You will always live far away from your parents. Even if you go back to your country, you won't live near them."

I'm an English girl living in Vietnam. I don't think that one was too hard to figure out.

"You have a lot of boys after you."

Definitely not true. I've been asked out on one date in my whole life. Sad, I know.

Later, I ask about my sister. Afterwards, the fortune teller asked me why I didn't ask about my brother.

"What brother?"

"I see three children in your family."

Wrong!

As we part, she tells me to be careful on the roads in July. She sees me having a motorbike accident.

July's come and gone. Not even a bump.

I came away from the reading worried. Divorce? Really? A near fatal accident? I'm not looking forward to that. And just how rich am I going to be?

Most of my Vietnamese friends advised me to believe the good stuff and ignore the bad.

Others think fortune tellers don't have the right to tell someone about how or when they, or family members, will die.

Meanwhile, Le Minh Tri, a 24- year-old translator, thinks you should only believe parts of what they say.

"If they tell you to be careful when driving, that's ok. But when they say you cannot marry the one you love, it's absurd."

Tri admits that many parents and grandparents heed the advice of fortune tellers and try to influence their children accordingly. He also believes that if you're told something bad will happen, you should do your best to avoid it.

As for me, I remain skeptical. My reading was suspect at best. Nevertheless, it didn't stop me from worrying about what the future holds in store. I'll wait to see if I get divorced or almost die in an accident to really make up my mind, though.

Reported by Sarah Johnson

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