Everyone loves a good ghost story, and with the Halloween celebration of all that is ghoulish at the end of this month, it seems like as good a time as any to recount some of the more enduring legends of Saigon’s haunted places, and why the belief in ghosts and spirits is pervasive in Vietnam. By Brett Davis. Photos by Vinh Dao and Jonny Edbrooke.
It is a sort of universal pleasure in pain, this need of human beings to put the frighteners into our selves. It is why we go to scary movies, and why we tell each other ghost stories as kids.
Even the skeptic wandering, in the dim evening, the halls of a building they have been told is haunted will pause to peer into the deeper shadows, listen more closely to each small sound, but then feel the rush of returning to the light of the outside world and less ectoplasmic company.
Saigon has its share of such places, and the belief in other-worldly beings is fairly common. Conversation with a random sample of local people will confirm this, particularly in rural areas. These beliefs, as well as countless other superstitions are rooted in the varied and eclectic belief systems that compose local religion.
Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist traditions have all influenced local belief systems, with the latter, in particular, contributing to an acceptance of more supernatural elements.
Academic Te Huynh Dinh, in his book Introduction to Vietnamese Culture, explains Taoism was originally a philosophy of attaining harmony with nature. However, over the centuries, “it [transformed] into a religion with church and a clergy involved in the communication with deities, spirits, and the dead. Taoist clergymen claimed they could cure illness, alleviate misfortune, and predict the future.”
The Mogul’s Daughter
Probably the best-known ghost story in Saigon is that of the specter said to roam the corridors of what is now the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Art on Pho Duc Chinh street in District 1. Completed in 1934, this trio of buildings housed the family and business of real estate magnate Hui Bi Hua, who was reputed at one time to own 20,000 properties in the city.
The main building, which was the family mansion, is said to be haunted by the ghost of Hui’s daughter. The story goes that she contracted the leprosy when an epidemic of the disease swept through the city, and she was confined to a bedroom on the upper floor. For reasons unknown, perhaps shame or fear of social ostracism, it was announced that she had died suddenly of a mysterious illness and a public burial was conducted. However, the girl languished for years locked away in the room, with her meals slid through a slot at the bottom of the door. Eventually her confinement drove her mad and she took her own life, either by hanging or self-immolation, depending on the version of the tale you hear.
Nevertheless, many people over the decades have reported seeing the ghostly figure of a woman roaming the halls of the stately mansion, or hearing anguished cries in the night.
The theory of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ death also plays into the commonly held belief in ghosts and spirits. Journalist, tour guide and former AsiaLIFE columnist Walter Pearson had the opportunity to observe this at close hand living in rural Binh Long with his Vietnamese family.
“A good death involves having a lot of surviving children, dying quickly and painlessly and having one’s body whole,” he says.
“These things are important because they help the soul make its way to the otherworld. When a person dies his soul hangs around the corpse for a while, unaware that the body is dead. If it has died peacefully and is in a familiar place then it stays quietly there until the family begins the rituals necessary to assist the soul through to the other world.
“A bad death is just the opposite. Apartfrom all the souls left wandering the face of the earth after the war, many people die violently and away from home. It is imperative that the body is repatriated to the family home as soon as possible so the rituals can begin. If not, the soul wanders around and if it feels like it, enters the body of some unsuspecting person.”
One of the most enduring ‘bad death’ stories centres around Tao Dan park in central Saigon, behind the Reunification Palace. It is said a young couple were having a tryst in the park one night when they were set upon by a group of attackers, the young man was killed and the woman brutally assaulted.
The ghost of the young man is said to have been seen at night, roaming the park looking for his love who was tragically torn from him. In truth, there has only been one recorded murder in the park, when a man went there to meet an acquaintance to sell a motorbike. He was double crossed, murdered and his bike stolen.
He might still just be looking for that Honda Cub (as am I, incidentally, although that has more to do with not remembering what bar I parked it at last Saturday night).
Another ghostly couple are said to wander the halls of a building at 727 Tran Hung Dao street in District 5. Formerly known as The President’s Building, it housed GIs during the war. However, as the years passed and local families took up residence, there were recurring reports of strange noises, wails, the sound of a military parade and, most spookily of all, the ghost of a soldier walking hand-in-hand with a young Vietnamese woman.
Houses of The Damned
Remember the Overlook Lodge? It was the fictional hotel where Jack Nicholson goes on a murderous rampage in The Shining. Nothing quite like that in these parts, but the ‘cursed building’ narrative is a compelling one.
The afore mentioned President’s Building is such, with deadly accidents beginning to occur when construction reached the 13th floor. The owners, on the advice of local priests (and in what has to be the most extreme case of a renovation rescue ever), are said to have purchased the bodies of four dead virgins and buried them at each corner of the structure to ward off evil spirits.
None of the retellings of this particular legend delve into how it was ascertained the bodies were indeed virginal. Given the ultimate fate of the building it would seem only good was being said of the deceased.
Yet the saga of Thuan Kieu Plaza must be Saigon’s most notable cursed building story. Also located in District 5 (apparently a prime spot for architects of The Damned), it is made up of three towers sitting atop a three-story mall. It is now, and pretty much always has been, completely deserted.
Walking its empty halls and galleries, as I have done, is a truly eerie experience. Poor feng shui and a mysterious fire during construction are said to be among the building’s problems. The fire may be at the heart of it, with legend having it that after a series of fatal accidents and shortcuts by management, workers put an evil spell on the place. The ultimate cursed building.
The feng shui was also a problem from the beginning. The three towers of the plaza are a design nod to a grand sailing ship, yet from certain angles a nearby street appears to bisect the building. A torpedo to grand ambitions.
Perhaps the souls of forlorn real estate developers and investors will be spotted moaning and wandering the halls next.
Day of The Dead
As October draws to a close, you will no doubt see the decoration and costume shops along Nguyen Thi Minh Kai and Hai Ba Trung streets, as well in countless other locations around the city, start to hang out there Halloween paraphernalia.
Not long after, these same shops with replace pumpkins for Christmas trees and Santa Clause outfits. It can sometimes seem puzzling to the outsider how these so-called Western holidays came to be embraced here.
Halloween, after all, grew out of the pagan and early Christian tradition of observing a special day to remember the dead.
It is not so different from the seventh month of the lunar calendar here in Vietnam and other parts of Asia, also known as ‘Wandering Ghost Month’. People burn paper votive to send gifts to their ancestors, and follow age-old superstitions to ward off beings possessed by said wandering ghosts.
See, it is a human thing, this need to put the frighteners into ourselves. And to remember those who have had good and bad deaths.