With so many aspects of country life influenced by the ‘supernatural’, Walter Pearson tries to make sense of local superstitions and religious beliefs.
I am not allowed to whistle at night in our house, or anywhere else for that matter. Apparently this brings the snakes into the house. I have whistled but no snakes ever turned up. A metre-long brownish-green snake did appear in the middle of the day once, but it just rushed off into Sister Eight’s house and that was the last we saw of it, even though I whistled like fury that night.
This is just one of the many superstitions that still exist here in the country, along with the ubiquitous belief that three in a picture is bad luck and that if an owl flies into the house, death will follow.
It seems to me that for many Vietnamese, life is a series of events that confront them but have no connection to anything one does. The idea of cause and consequence does not always seem to be that high in the Vietnamese perception of the world. Maybe that explains why Vietnamese fatalistically rush through intersections. It also may explain their religious practices.
Buddhists, contrary to the popular belief that they stoically accept karma, seem always to be going to pagodas to seek something from the universe. There is a so-called Monkey Pagoda near the village of Long Hai in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province where it is said cancer can be cured. Patients travel from as far away as Australia. Other pagodas promise success in examinations. Praying at the Shrine to Confucius at the Van Mieu in Hanoi achieves similar results. The One Pillar Pagoda, also in Hanoi, has the appearance of a lotus flower, which symbolises fertility, so mothers can be seen there praying for their daughters to beget.
But this idea of life being mere luck is not confined to Buddhists. My Vietnamese wife is Catholic. She and her cohorts all seem to see their religion as a bulwark against the vagaries of chance in life. The way they practise their religion is somewhat akin to believers who flock to a travelling born-again Christian evangelist.
Right now my wife has a pact with God. She will not eat red meat or pork on a Friday if God will make sure the family does not get ill. So far God seems to be keeping his end of the bargain and I know my wife is — except early on when she forgot it was Friday, which is easy to do in the bucolic bliss. She forgave herself by saying she had sinned but had not meant to.
How much of the kids’ health, especially the little one, is due to God and how much is due to the government’s really good immunisation program and the fact that my wife is very careful about hygiene and cleanliness? We have yet to debate this.
I have had a talk with my wife about personal salvation and the place of holy communion in her life. She thought I was talking rubbish. That may be so. My Vietnamese, when it comes to religion and philosophy, is not as strong as it should be.
For some months last year, the family hired a 16-seater van every Thursday to go to a church in Chi Hoa in Ho Chi Minh City. Each time they came back with stories of people who had had miraculous cures — cancer, mental illness, kidney failure and many more — all because they had gone to that church and prayed for 12 weeks or said 36 Rosaries at the church each day for a fortnight. I have seen a DVD of these gatherings where the priest encourages people to “share” their experiences. And they do. Just before the offerings are taken up.
The Chi Hoa Church pilgrimage hit its zenith on the last day the priest, who seems to be connected with these miracles, left for overseas. The family attended along with what the priest said was about 40,000 other people. He said they had printed 40,000 orders of service and they’d all gone, so at least 40,000 people were there. That may have been so because my family complained about the crush and said streets had to be blocked off by local police.
There also have been pilgrimages to Soc Trang, Ca Mau and Phan Thiet, all in pursuit of a stable life free from hassles, worries and illness. These all have been organised by the local parish as they encourage fear and a sense of helplessness in the face of an unpredictable and uncontrollable destiny.