Walter Pearson takes a look at the ghosts and ghoulies that have long haunted Vietnamese life.

Our 16-year-old will not sleep with the window open. Sheepishly, she admits it is because she is afraid of ghosts — con ma. This is a girl who is studying science at high school, is a member of the Communist Youth League and laughed at the idea of the world ending in December 2012.

Vietnamese life seems to be full of ghosts or spirits. This stems from the idea of the wandering soul, the idea of a good or bad death. A good death involves having a lot of surviving children, dying quickly and painlessly and having one’s body whole. 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. If the rites are done correctly and the circumstances are right, the soul will enter the other world and become a beneficent ancestor. He will look after the family, provided the family looks after him by doing the yearly ritual of “dam gio”, the feast on the anniversary of the death.

A bad death is just the opposite. And in Vietnam there are plenty of bad deaths. Apart from 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.

In the past 12 months or so I have seen at least three people who have been taken over by the spirits of dead people. Or, at least, that is the way people have characterised it. The subject moans and cries and wails. He or she leaps up and says incomprehensible things. Naturally, friends and relatives are very concerned. The question is what to do.

One treatment is a leaf that grows in the jungle and can be made into a tea. One relative at Loc Ninh had been possessed for some time and this was the treatment tried, without success. The Catholics resort to prayer and intercession by the Holy Mother. Groups of believers gather in the lounge room before the family altar and pray and repeat the Rosary. Again without much success.

What does succeed is rest. In cases where the possessed are taken over for just a couple of days or so, I have come to the conclusion, they are suffering some type of psychotic event brought on by too much work. It is mostly women who suffer these events. And from what I can see they succumb after periods of intense work over long hours. They are simply exhausted.

When the family gathers around and comforts them and forces them to lie still and relax, they initially have disturbed sleep, which slowly gets more and more relaxed, and eventually they sleep normally for a period and wake up sane and sensible. Another miracle of holy intervention.

I have tried to explain to my friends and relatives that these events are psychological or psychiatric in nature but to little avail. I feel quite disturbed that one or two have been “possessed” for some months. I have argued they should be sent to the psychiatric hospital in Bien Hoa or Ho Chi Minh City where their symptoms would be treated very quickly. But no one believes me. Not even My Vietnamese Wife, who has seen the effects of medical treatment on a friend who was “possessed” for a long time, is willing to take a stand. Sadly, I think sometimes the fear of the cost of medical treatment deters people.

I often ask young people if they believe in ghosts and they invariably reply that they do. I then ask if they have ever seen a ghost and they recount stories of all sorts of red eyes in the dark night and strange sounds their friends have seen and heard — but no, they personally have never seen a ghost.


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