Vu Lan Festival: How to Celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival in Vietnam

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Huan Phu

Last Updated: December 8, 2023

Vu Lan, Yulanpen, Hungry Ghost, Trung Nguyen, Parents’ Day, or Vietnamese Mother’s Day – there are many names for this festival that takes place on the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar in Vietnam.

No matter what you call it, this ancient festival centres around the themes of compassion, gratitude, duty, kindness, and filial piety. It is the second-largest annual traditional festival celebrated in Vietnam after Tet (the lunar new year celebration). 

What is the Seventh Full Moon Ghost Festival? 

It is a Taoist and Buddhist festival observed by many across East and Southeast Asia, including in China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and of course in Vietnam. Legend has it that on Vu Lan Day, the gates of hell open for a lunar month (or 24 hours depending on the variation of the tale), and the tormented souls roam the mortal world and visit their former homes. 

Each culture, and even families, have different rituals and rites for Vu Lan Festival, but ultimately it all focuses on family gatherings to honour the departed and to express love and gratitude. Families in Vietnam invite their ancestors to visit, they offer incense, prayers, food, and more. Food and thoughts are given for the wandering souls that no longer have family. The health and happiness of the living are also prayed for. 

Where did Vu Lan Festival come from?

‘Vu Lan’ is a Sanskrit-Han transliteration of the Ullambana Sutra, or the Sutra of Filial Piety. Ullambana, the original Sanskrit term, meant to hang upside down, signifying the extreme suffering souls are enduring in hell to atone for the evil actions of their previous life on earth. 

The Ullambana Sutra records the legend of Maudgalyayana (or Muc Kien Lien in Vietnamese). Muc Kien Lien was one of the great disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha who achieved higher knowledge. One day, during his meditations, he discovers that his mother suffering the tortures of hell – she was reborn as a hungry ghost for the evil deeds she had committed. 

Struck by her hunger and suffering, the thoughtful son Muc Kien Lien travels to the netherworld with a bowl of rice for his mother. However, before she could eat, the rice had already turned to ash. Back in the mortal world, Maudgalyayana asks the Buddha to help him fulfil his filial duty, as it is a core pillar in Buddhism. Buddha advised Maudgalyayana to organise an assembly of monks, the combined spiritual merits of their prayers and offerings were transferred to the departed parents. The power of their combined efforts proved so powerful that Muc Kien Lien’s mother, and countless other souls, were liberated. This day also happened to fall on the seventh lunar month.

Following Buddha’s teachings, others who want to honour their parents, particularly their mothers, and alleviate their suffering can follow Maudgalyayana’s lead. From this, Vu Lan Festival has been celebrated by Buddhists all over the world and in Vietnam on the seven month of the lunar calendar. 

How Vu Lan Festival is Celebrated in Vietnam and Things To Do

Whether you are Buddhist or not, Vu Lan Festival in modern Vietnam has become a day to celebrate your parents and ancestors, and a reason to gather as a family and enjoy time together. 

For the Vietnamese people who practice more traditional forms of celebration, there are different rituals to be done at home, at the pagodas, at the cemeteries of their forebears, and during nighttime. 

At Home

On the morning of the seventh lunar month festival, a tray filled lavishly with fruits, snacks and dishes is placed on the family’s ancestral alter at home. Incense is burned to welcome ancestors back home to celebrate the festival with family. The living family will gather to pray and have lunch together, often vegetarian food. 

At the Pagodas 

On Vu Lan Festival, pagodas all over the country are filled with activity as Buddhist monks, nuns and devotees gather to pray. Popular places of worship to visit in Ho Chi Minh City include Dieu Phap, Hoang Phap, and Vinh Nghiem.

The temples often have a ‘rose on the shirt’ ceremony for visitors. A red rose is worn if their mother is alive, whereas a white rose is worn for deceased mothers. The rose flower has become a symbol of love and connection among the community. 

Apart from prayers, the Vietnamese people also express gratitude by offering flowers, fruits, joss paper, sticky rice cakes, snacks, to their ancestors. Many also offer fake banknotes and paper models of luxury items, including clothing, bags, air conditioners, and even villas and cars, in the hope that their relatives will be able to enjoy these items in the afterlife. 

The monks also often offer a lecture to visitors, advising attendees on the responsibilities as children to their parents, and how to respect them whether they are living or have passed away. 

Foreigners are also welcomed to visit the temples during Vu Lan Festival and take part in the celebrations. 

Visiting Cemeteries 

Some people will also take the time during Vu Lan Festival to visit the graves of their ancestors. As part of the ceremony, the graves will be cleaned and maintained, people will pray and give gifts to the departed.

At Night

At some places across the country, and particularly known in Hoi An, a lantern releasing festival takes place along the rivers. These lanterns are beautifully shaped like lotus flowers.

Once lit, the Vietnamese make wishes for their parents and released the lanterns on the river, and it is believed that the flow of the river steam will bring the wishes made along with it. It is a wonderful bright sight to behold. 

During COVID-19 Lockdowns 

During the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, some mass celebrations for the Vu Lan Festival were put on hold. Some cemeteries and pagodas offered online ceremonial packages so that the families could celebrate without being there in person. People virtually visited the places of worship, and the staff would make the offerings or clean the graves while being captured on film.

Seeing that it is likely that many parts of the country would still be affected by lockdowns, many people will also opt for online services this year for Vu Lan Day. 

Although celebrations may look different this year, the spirit of Vu Lan Festival stays alive. People across the country will use Vu Lan in remembrance of their parents and ancestors, honouring them and showing gratitude. Lost souls will also be prayed for as the festival is all about showing compassion and kindness. Non-Buddhist and foreigners are welcomed to celebrate Vu Lan Festival too, by showing appreciation for their own ancestors and the elderly, and by being respectful of the offerings laid out during this period. A festival about appreciation and compassion should be widely celebrated! 

Be sure to keep updated about festivals and what’s ongoing in Ho Chi Minh city here

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Huan Phu
Editor at Vietnam Is Awesome
Unearthing untold stories in the heart of Vietnam. Your eyes to the unseen, your voice to the unheard. Exploring the rich tapestry of this nation, one headline at a time. Join me on this journalistic journey!

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