Vietnam's venerated ancestors
SPIRIT CALLERS HELP DECEASED GUIDE THE LIVING
Since war's end, Vietnamese emigres have spread across U.S.

BY ELSA C. ARNETT
Mercury News

HANOI -- They all have unfinished business.

So they cram together in a sweltering, incense-fogged room on the outskirts of Hanoi, waiting for answers.

From the dead.

There's the elderly woman, cradling a sack of ripe persimmons, who wants to ask her brother where his remains are because he has been missing in action for 52 years.

There's the young woman, with two toddlers romping at her feet, who wants to ask her firstborn why she had to die when she was just 3 days old.

And there's the middle-aged couple huddled in the corner who want to ask their long deceased grandfather why their family has been beset by so many hardships.

If any answers come, they will come through people who claim to navigate the mystical nexus between life on Earth and the afterlife in a practice known as ``calling the spirits,'' or goi hon.

The popularity and longevity of this custom makes clear that in Vietnam the dead exert a profound hold over the living. And it reveals how many Vietnamese will go to great lengths to try to commune with those who have passed into another realm.

``Ancestor worship is a cornerstone of Vietnamese philosophy,'' said Le thi Quy, a sociologist at the National Center for Social Science and Humanities in Hanoi. ``Some Vietnamese believe a hint of advice from the dead is worth more than everything the living have to say.''

The majority of Vietnamese revere and fear the dead. They believe the dead are all-knowing, and perhaps even, all-powerful. In almost every house in Vietnam, and most businesses, the deceased stare from framed portraits perched atop altars positioned in a prime location.

Bowls jabbed with dozens of singed incense sticks surround the photographs. Fresh fruit or flowers brought into the house are cleaned and placed on a platter as a prayer offering.

Practical matters

For all this, the ancestors have work to do. They are called upon to bless a new house or motorcycle, to help a child pass an important exam, to send a disease into remission, to revive a struggling marriage, to bring good fortune to a family and to intercede in whatever crisis may arise.

If those prayers aren't enough, some people are tempted to go a step further and actually try to communicate with the dead.

No one knows when or how this tradition began, but it is believed to go back hundreds of years. Then, when the communists took control, spiritual searching, along with much of religion in general, was officially banned. During those decades, the practice continued quietly, underground.

After the communists opened up the economy in 1986, many social restrictions were loosened as well, including the prohibition on calling the spirits.

These days, the practice is flourishing as it was before the crackdown. However, it still isn't advertised, it still is run out of peoples' houses and those who claim to have these ``talents'' are still reluctant to talk about them because they don't want to jinx their gift.

People usually learn of a convincing spirit caller through word-of-mouth. Someone discovers that a new spirit caller seems to have a consistent ability to make credible comments. Word gets out and others make pilgrimages. This usually lasts a few years, at best. Then, the person's skills seem to dissipate just as mysteriously as they appeared. A new name surfaces and the cycle begins again.

Of course, even with the most reputable spirit callers, not everyone gets what they came for. At best, only a handful out of dozens, or even hundreds of people waiting will get any word from the beyond. So some people return, again and again, hoping for their turn.

Usually, the ceremonies are carried out in a place such as this stuffy second-floor room in a private home deep in the suburbs of Hanoi. The tangle of motor scooters and bicycles piled at the front gate give the first clue to the size of the crowd assembled upstairs.

Offerings for ancestors

Up two narrow, spiraling flights of stairs, an enormous gold-trimmed altar stretches across one entire side of the room and up to the ceiling. Statues of Buddha are engulfed by vases of roses in full bloom. Cartons of soybean milk, packages of vanilla wafers, mangoes and small amounts of Vietnamese currency are strewed around as offerings.

People are jammed up against the wall, perspiring, waiting for their turn. They scribble the name of their deceased loved one, date of birth and place of burial, if known, on slips of paper stacked in front of the person who calls the spirits. And they wait.

Many Americans have been enraptured by movies such as ``Ghost'' and ``The Sixth Sense,'' flirting with the idea of talking with the dead. There are plenty of psychics listed in the Yellow Pages. But most Americans believe it's hokum.

So do a lot of people in Vietnam who dismiss spirit calling with a wave of their hand. Yet, every so often, another person has an inexplicable encounter.

``I have a skeptical, scientific mind,'' said Nha Luong, 75, a retired researcher at Hanoi's Institute of Medicine and Natural Science. ``I never believed in ghosts or devils,'' added Luong, a stout woman who has worn her graying hair pinned and coiffed in the same style for the past half century.

After her husband died from a heart attack in 1994, friends urged Luong to visit a spirit caller who was getting rave reviews.

She was doubtful, but agreed to think it over. When her husband was alive, there were so many decisions he made, so many things she is left to decide on her own now. Should she bring her 3-year-old granddaughter on a trip to the United States? Should a 20-year-old granddaughter going to school in Canada take out student loans?

If she could get a little guidance, she thought, why not give it a try?

A warning

In her first visit with the spirit caller, she asked to talk with any family member who had passed away. The first voice she said she heard was that of her father-in-law. He warned Luong that her eldest granddaughter must be careful on the 25th of the next month; she could have a big problem.

Luong relayed the message to her granddaughter. On the 25th of the following month, the granddaughter decided to stay home and someone else took her place on a drive to the countryside. The car crashed, she said, and the person who took her place was paralyzed.

Shaken, Luong made another visit. This time, she said, she heard from her daughter-in-law who was crushed by a truck while riding her bicycle 10 years ago. The young woman wailed and told Luong to urge her son to stop mourning for her and remarry.

Luong was chilled. She went again. Finally, this time, her husband's voice spoke to her. He told her he was sorry he left her, but he assured her that their son was devoted to her. He mentioned people they both knew, things they had done together over the years.

``I felt like he was talking to me,'' Luong said as her tear-filled eyes flashed to a photograph hanging on the wall in her living room of them together in younger days. ``I felt like we were just sitting on the couch together.''

It was a fleeting reunion. Though she didn't understand how such a thing was possible, she didn't care; she was grateful for any link to her late husband.

Having access to this kind of counsel, she said in a hushed voice, is a remarkable blessing. So, Luong said, she will not to abuse the supernatural gift. She does not want to put a strain on her deceased family members who are supposed to be resting in peace. She only plans to seek their advice when there is urgent family business.

But, with two granddaughters making their way into the world, she knows there are bound to be many more questions in future.