Many expats now join with local people to pray and pay their respects at temples and pagodas throughout Vietnam.
During and after Tet (the Lunar New Year) until the end of lunar January, popular places of worship around Vietnam are full of both Buddhists and the non-religious. Visiting pagodas and temples at the beginning of the new year has been customary among Vietnamese people for thousands of years, where they go to pray for peace and good fortune, regardless of how busy they may be. Interestingly, over recent years it seems that many expats have begun to do likewise.
Every year during Tet, Mr. Huy Hung, a government official, gives his wife and children a “tour” of the most popular pagodas and temples in Ho Chi Minh City, where they live. At each, he places the usual offerings of incense, flowers, fruit, and sticky rice and together with his family prays for health, wealth and luck. “When spring comes it’s a time of new beginnings, hopes and expectations,” he said. “With belief and prayer, I feel that I have something to trust in and to expect for the new year. For me, it’s a great thing to do.”
Visiting places of worship doesn’t always mean presenting offerings. Many people just simply go to pray. “I believe with all my heart that deities will see me praying and support me,” one said. And not all people go to pagodas and temples to pray for something. Sometimes it’s just to seek peace of mind. Like Ms. Nhu Quynh, an accountant, who said the peace and quiet at pagodas and temples helps her to relieve the stress of life and feel more tranquil and fresher in mind.
Visiting famous temples and pagodas during the spring is not just for offerings and prayers but can also be viewed as an excursion. It’s a chance for people to enjoy their spiritual culture while travelling to beautiful areas.
At the beginning of every lunar year, with her family or friends, Ms. Nguyet Huong visits Huong Pagoda, one of the most popular for spring pilgrimages, about 70 km from Hanoi. As a small child she followed her parents to visit and pray there almost every new year. After she married she continued to go there at the beginning of the year with her husband and son. “The journey to Huong Pagoda is always nice, with a rowboat trip along scenic waterways and a walk up steep mountain paths to reach pagodas and temples that were built over the centuries,” she said, “I was impressed the first time I went as a child and always enjoy the view and the sacred atmosphere of the journey. This is why I take my young son with me, to show him the beauty of our country’s landscape and culture.”
At religious sites of worship in Vietnam it’s no longer so rare to catch a foreigner among the throng. In recent years, as more and more foreigners come to live in the country, many have become interested in the spiritual culture of Vietnamese people.
After carefully checking her offerings, Ms Catherine Jones, an English teacher from the UK, bought some incense at Hanoi’s Quan Su Pagoda. This is the second spring she has visited the pagoda, after following a local friend the first time, where she heard about the worshipping culture and rites. She was impressed. “I think the religious culture of Vietnamese people is very interesting,” she said. “They have a belief and it helps them be optimistic and expect good things in life. I guess that’s why I see they usually smile a lot.”
Among local people at Hanoi’s Tay Ho Pagoda, a white man stands out with his height. His eyes are closed and his hands clasped as he whispers in prayer, just like everyone else. His name is James Winston, a businessman from the US, who married a Vietnamese woman. In recent years, every Tet, he follows his wife to temples and pagodas to pray for good luck and health for his family. He said that at first it felt a bit weird asking for something from saints, but he also found it interesting. “After I tried to do it I felt calmer, as all the stress and worry disappeared,” he said. “My wife once said to me that, as I don’t speak Vietnamese and only pray in English, how can the saints understand? But I think that, as saints, they can speak all languages. The most important thing is that I’m sincere.”
Ms. Thuy Hoa, who sells flowers and incense in front of Tay Ho Pagoda, said that over recent years she’s noticed that the pagoda welcomes more and more foreigners, not only at the beginning of the year but also on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month. “Both men and women come, usually in groups with local people or other foreigners,” she said. “They buy stuff at my stall as offerings and follow all the rituals.” Some are happy to take a written prayer translated from Vietnamese into English. “My son, who is studying English at Hanoi University, helped me to translate it for my foreign customers. When they see it and buy it they usually say ‘cam on!’.”
Not only visiting pagodas in the cities, many expats also flock to well-known places of worship in other areas. Just back from Yen Tu Mountain, another sacred place, in northern Quang Ninh province, Mr. Winston said he will take another trip to Ba Den Mountain in southern Tay Ninh province to attend a spring spiritual festival. “With many beautiful landscapes, spring in Vietnam is a very good time for amazing sightseeing and the atmosphere is lively with spring spiritual and cultural festivals in many places,” he said.
As spring has come, both local people and foreigners are eager to visit sacred places to refresh their minds, enjoy the beauty of the season, and hope for a prosperous and healthy new year.