Sharing a meal with the dearly departed can be less troubling than you might imagine, as Katie Jacobs discovers.
“The gates of hell have been opened and now the spirits are arriving,” whispers my guide as the Buddhist monk in front of me spins and chants. I glance around the room anxiously. Spirits from hell, where am I? Draped in flowing robes, the monk lights a fistful of incense over a burning candle and waves the sticks over the display of flowers, food and images of Buddha. Gathering the incense in one hand and his red-and-gold robes in the other, he sweeps from the room and crosses through the carved wooden doors leading into the courtyard. I watch as the last of the aromatic incense smoke, a link between the human and spirit worlds, spirals and curls towards the ceiling. The ceremony is over. The ghosts have arrived and everyone is feeling a little more superstitious.
With the arrival of the annual Vu Lan Festival, Hanoi’s streets are once again filled with people burning offerings in the name of ancestor worship. Making my way along streets lined with paper goods ready to be burned into the next life, I see families crowding their local pagodas to pray for the souls of their ancestors who have not yet made it to heaven. “Everyone goes to hell when they die because everyone does something bad during their life,” explains Co Chung, my Vietnamese teacher and guide for the day, “but this month the doors are opened and we pray that our ancestors will be received in heaven.”
It is a hot, humid morning when I join Co Chung at Cau Dong Pagoda on Hang Duong, or Sugar Street, in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Following her down a small hallway, we enter the main room of the pagoda where a crowd is already assembling around two men drumming softly on the floor. Flashing coloured lights throw red and green streaks across their faces.
Purple and yellow flowers overflow from the central display. Cardboard images of Buddha sit nestled between towers of boxed orange juice, Coca-Cola, Custas biscuits and La Vie water. There are five elements that make up a temple display: candles with incense, fruit, flowers, sweets and drinks. Co Chung explains that the food and drink are chosen for the colour of the packaging rather than their contents. Of course, the pyramids of red Coca-Cola cans fit perfectly amongst the colourful display.
Sitting cross-legged on the pagoda floor, my legs begin to go numb just as the head monk arrives. Taking his place on the floor in front of us, he glances in my direction before speaking with Co Chung. Feeling self-conscious with my camera and notebook, I ask if it is OK for me to take photos. Co Chung nods and smiles. “Vietnamese people want foreigners to learn about our pagodas and why they are important to us,” she reassures me.
Then the chanting begins. This is not my first experience with pagoda chanting, but it is the first time I’ve had the best seat in the house and the first time I’ve heard a monk with such a beautiful voice. The sound of the monk calling the souls echoes around the room. First he calls the parents and children, then the husbands and wives. Some people begin praying and others whispering; a few women in the corner pull out their smartphones to snap pictures. When the monk calls the souls of the mothers, however, a strange stillness washes over the crowd. Melancholy hangs in the air. The shoulders of the old woman beside me begin to shake and tears stream down her face. Co Chung explains that this is a scary time for mothers, when special prayers and readings are dedicated in their honour.
All of a sudden it’s over and the spirits are among us. Retrieving his iPhone, on which he was following the traditional Chinese character script, the monk briskly makes his way out of the room. It’s time for lunch. Under the watchful eye of Tran Hung Dao, one of the Vietnamese heroes worshipped at the pagoda, we feast on rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves and sweet rice che. The monk appears in a long window behind us, talking and joking with Co Chung and her family. The rain that has been threatening all morning finally starts to fall and from his post at the window, the laughing monk begins to sing softly to the damp garden. Lunching with ghosts is more peaceful than I imagined.