Wandering Souls Day, Hungry Ghost Festival, Vietnamese Parents Day are some of the different names for the Vu Lan, a spiritual festival in Vietnam and other Buddhist societies. The festival falls every year on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (August 15 this year).
According to East Asian beliefs, the seventh lunar month, starting on August 1 this year, is the only time of the year when unquiet spirits and wandering ghosts, including those of deceased ancestors, are temporarily released from the Buddhist equivalent of purgatory and allowed to return to their former homes or visit the living. People prepare ritual offerings to the deceased, set animals free, do charity, and abstain from meat.
Vu Lan is not only a time to pay homage to lost spirits but also to honor parents, family and relatives, living and dead.
The 15th century Quan Su Pagoda is a place of pilgrimage for many Buddhists during festivals, including Vu Lan Festival. The pagoda, also the headquarters of the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, is at 73 Quan Su Street, Hoan Kiem District.
On the morning of August 12 (12th of the seventh lunar month), the main hall of Quan Su Pagoda fills up with devotees. The place echoes with the sound of chanting as monks perform the ceremony.
A plate of joss paper is passed among the worshippers and finally placed on the main altar.
The ceremonies are divided into two phases. The first phase from August 4 to 13 (July 4-13 on the lunar calendar) includes prayer sessions and offerings to the hungry souls. The second begins at 7:30 am on August 18, 28 and 29 (the 18th, 28th and 29th of the seventh lunar month) when rituals are performed to pay homage to the wandering souls and commemorate ancestors.
A woman prays in the yard of Quan Su Pagoda on August 12.
Tran Thi Tam of Ha Dong District said: “I pray for health and peace for everyone and for the lost souls to end their sufferings. I visit many pagodas year round, but for the seventh lunar month every year I always come to Quan Su Pagoda since it is one of the biggest in Hanoi.”
These days Tran Quoc Pagoda is crowded with hundreds of Buddhist faithful. The ceremony to commemorate ancestors was performed on August 8. On August 15, full moon day of the seventh lunar month, the pagoda will organize sermons and prayer sessions.
Tran Quoc is located on a small island near the southeastern shore of Hanoi’s West Lake.
On August 12 worshippers recite Buddhist sutras to show repentance and gratitude to parents and the teaching of the Buddha.
Besides worshippers coming to the ceremonies, Tran Quoc Pagoda also receives many tourists as a popular sightseeing place in Hanoi. Visitors are advised to not enter the main hall while the chanting takes place though they can stand outside and take photos.
Sebastien, a German tourist, said: “This is my first time in Asia. I do not understand the meaning of these songs but I feel so peaceful.”
A woman prays at the Guanyin bodhisattva altar in the yard of Phuc Khanh Pagoda. People coming to the pagoda on this occasion bring many kinds of joss papers and set free birds, fish and snails.
Tran Thi Mai Phuong of Hoai Duc District said she came to pray for her ancestors and every deceased soul to find their way to heaven. “My grandchild turns eight tomorrow. I also pray that she will be kind, respectful and compassionate.”
On the early morning of lunar July 15 (August 15), hundreds of people come to Phuc Khanh Pagoda at 382 Tay Son Street to attend the ceremony. Phuc Khanh Pagoda or So pagoda is believed to be among the most sacred in Hanoi. It is packed with worshipers every full moon day and the first of the lunar month, especially the first and seventh.
The pagoda, built in traditional northern architecture, has dozens of idols and bells that are 300 years old.
On this occasion people tend to buy joss papers with the themes of happiness, wealth and longevity and offerings to wandering souls, according to a local vendor. The joss papers cost VND2,000-5,000 (9-21 cents).