Summon ghosts with risky games from Vietnamese culture and history
The 7th month of the lunar calendar has arrived, meaning that we’ve entered the hungry ghost season. Just like any Asian society, Vietnamese people are well aware of taboo practices that can invoke supernatural misfortune and ghostly apparitions.
Truth be told, not all of us shy away from seeing ghosts. Living in this day and age where The Conjuring Universe films reign supreme and videos about paranormal activities are aplenty on YouTube, the spiritual world is but an idle fantasy for some people.
If you’re one of them, check out these traditional Vietnamese ways to summon ghosts and make your own judgement call.
Disclaimer: these are practices widely rumored to be done in Vietnam. We do not encourage or promote them and this information is for entertainment purposes only.
1. Using a sedge mat previously covering someone who died
Image adapted from: Nguoi Lao Dong
Among the many types of ghosts in Vietnam is ma cuốn chiếu, roughly translated as the ghost of a sedge mat. Of course, not every sedge mat is haunted by a ghost, especially newly woven ones.
Haunted sedge mats are said to be ones that have already been used to cover someone who just died.
Roadside accidents or people dying of suicide are not uncommon in Vietnam. When a person is found dead in a public area, it’s a common practice that strangers will come and cover their bodies with woven sedge mats. Normally, these sedge mats are removed once the ambulance or police vans come and take the bodies away.
Sedge mats for bedspread are very popular in Vietnam
Image credit: Bach Hoa Xanh
However, have you ever wondered where these sedge mats end up once the dead people are taken away for burial?
People who have basic knowledge of ghost control usually make time to burn these sedge mats because they have been used to cover dead people. This is also to prevent these sedge mats from being collected, washed, and sold to other people who don’t know the taboo history of these objects.
Nonetheless, that’s not always the case. Some people just toss these sedge mats away into the nearest trash can or leave them at the nearest cemetery. From time to time, these sedge mats are just left alone, and blown around by the wind.
If you go to any cemetery in Vietnam, chances are one’ll find numerous sedge mats lying around. Or, if you’re driving on the road and see a random sedge mat lying there or on the roadside, chances are it might have been used to cover a dead body.
There’s a widespread belief that these sedge mats contain the spirits of the deceased persons who were last covered with them. If these spirits are successfully summoned, these sedge mats will stand up.
How the ritual is prepared
Image credit: Bach Hoa Xanh
In order to carry out this ritual, one will need to find a sedge mat that’s been used to cover the body of someone who died on the road.
At the same time, bring a toy-sized straw effigy or doll, a bowl of salt, a bowl of rice, and a bowl of wine to the ritual location.
Prepare three pieces of long red thread which will be used to tie up the sedge mat, three incense sticks, and 2 candles.
Last but not least, find 2 paper amulets that are used to summon spirits and 2 paper amulets that are used to disarm and secure spirits.
For illustration only
Image credit: Phong Thuy Yen Minh
To purchase paper amulets, the ritual-holder will need to go to renowned ghost masters or monks. Some research on the Internet will help one find amulets from reliable sources in their area. Please take note that religious items that are related to summoning spirits or promoting superstition are not publicly sold in Vietnam.
If the ritual-holder has the nerve, they may carry out this ritual inside a cemetery or in a dark, quiet place where nobody passes by.
How the ritual is performed
First, the ritual-holder will light the candles and burn the incense sticks.
Next, they will burn 1 spirit-summoning amulet and hover it over the straw effigy until the amulet is reduced to ashes. Then they may sprinkle the wine, the salt, and the rice over the straw effigy.
After that, they will place the straw effigy on the sedge mat, roll up the sedge mat with the effigy in it, and tie it neatly with the red threads into three parts.
This is also how dead bodies were handled in the old days. For families who couldn’t afford caskets, the deceased were wrapped in sedge mats which were then bound with threads for burial.
If nothing happens after thirty minutes, the ritual-holder can burn an extra amulet and hover it over the sedge mat.
After that, they can continue waiting for another thirty minutes.
If the three incense sticks have burned out and nothing happens, they should end the ritual, kindly burn the sedge mat, and go home.
The sedge mat standing up by itself
Image adapted from: Ghosthub TV
The ritual is said to work if the sedge mat stands erect and even moves around. Some have reported seeing a hand come out from the sedge mat as well.
To make it stop, one can slide a spirit-securing amulet into the sedge mat, put out the candles and the burning incense sticks. Once the sedge mat falls, the ritual-holder can roll it over, and burn the effigy and the sedge mat at the same time because they are now dangerous to humans.
Image adapted from: Ghosthub TV
If the sedge mat is still standing, the ritual-holder should call the master who sold them amulets for help. In the worst case scenario, they should just run away and return the next morning.
2. Whistling at midnight can summon ghosts as well as snakes
Picture for illustration purpose.
Image adapted from: LS Khoa Nam
Many Vietnamese grandparents and parents tell their kids to never whistle at midnight.
It’s believed that the sound of whistling invites snakes, evil spirits, as well as misfortunes into one’s home.
Those who wish to see spooky sights without trying too hard usually try whistling after 12AM.
To enhance their supernatural experience and summon ghosts faster, some people are said to carry out a ritual before whistling.
Prepare the ritual
Picture for illustration only
Image credit: Tam Linh
One can prepare a plate filled with biscuits, a candle, some incense sticks, a bag of salt, a thread, a small bell, and some joss paper.
A paper amulet. Picture for illustration only.
Image credit: Lang Viet
For one’s own safety, get a couple of blessed paper amulets from a reputable spiritual master.
The ritual-holder then should sprinkle salt around themselves to create a circle of divine protection. It’s said that salt can deter evil spirits.
They then slide the bell into the thread and hang it in a doorway or in the windows in a room. If there’s no wind and the bell rings, it means that someone has just entered the area.
Next, they pour out the biscuits and joss papers onto a plate as an offering to the spirits and light a candle.
Begin the ritual
To get the game begin, the ritual-holder burns an incense stick, which also serves as a timer.
After that, they start whistling.
When the bell ring, it means that the ritual has worked.
In case one spots a poltergeist and is too terrified to continue, they should burn an amulet and call off the game.
Ritual-holders should remain in the circle of salt at all times.
3. Singing the Bắc Kim Thang song at midnight
Image credit: Tạp Chí Doanh Nghiệp Và Thương Hiệu
Bắc Kim Thang, a folk song, used to be taught in kindergartens and was enormously popular among Vietnamese children. Many of us Vietnamese grew up singing this song for fun, but hardly any of us understood the horror hidden behind the lyrics.
In fact, it’s one of the very few Vietnamese songs that most people have sung without understanding its meaning at all.
Here go the lyrics:
Bắc kim thang cà lang bí rợ
Cột qua kèo là kèo qua cột
Chú bán dầu qua cầu mà té
Chú bán ếch ở lại làm chi
Con le le đánh trống thổi kèn
Con bìm bịp thổi tò tí te tò te
Set up a ladder for eggplants, potatoes, and pumpkins to grow on.
Place one raft upon another.
The oil seller stumbles as he walks on it.
Why would the frog seller remain?
The whistling duck plays the drums and the trumpet.
The moorhen blows the bugle.
This is a popular song among Vietnamese children. Not many people know that it was originally used to summon ghosts.
Image credit: Tạp Chí Doanh Nghiệp Và Thương Hiệu
As ridiculously meaningless as the lyrics sound, they summarize a harrowing horror story.
Once upon a time, there were two close friends in a Vietnamese village. One of them sold frogs and usually searched for them late at night, while the other sold oil and went about doing his job at dawn.
Their houses sat on the riverside, completely isolated from their neighbors. In order to travel to the nearest market, they had to walk past a shaky hanging bridge.
A bridge in rural southern Vietnam
Image credit: VNC Garden
Once, as he went about working, the frog seller heard cries for help coming from a trap on the field. He approached and freed a whistling duck and moorhen from the trap. They promised him that they’d repay his kindness.
A few days later, the duck and the moorhen flew to the frog seller’s home to notify him of an upcoming misfortune. In particular, they had overheard two river ghosts (ma da) conspiring to pull his legs to drown him at dawn so that they could get reincarnated early. They advised the frog seller to not use the bridge for the next seven days.
Image credit: Tuoi Tre Doi Song
The frog seller told the oil seller this story and advised him to stay home for at least a week. However, the oil seller refused to believe his friend, thinking that this was but a causeless superstitious story. Nonetheless, the frog seller was determined to save his friend from future accidents by inviting the oil seller over for daily parties and getting him drunk so he couldn’t go to work.
On the seventh day, the frog seller fell asleep and the oil seller woke up. Realizing that he had missed so many days of selling oil, he rushed to go to the market. As he walked past the bridge, his legs were pulled by the river ghosts and he drowned.
Heartbroken by his friend’s tragic passing, the frog seller burst into tears. Seeing him mourn his beloved friends, the whistling duck and the moorhen also cried to bid farewell to the oil seller. Their sobbing sounded like the drums and trumpet played during a funeral.
At this point, one might think that there’s nothing ghostly about this story except that the oil seller is killed by ghosts.
But that’s not all to it.
Legend has it that this song was used by ghost masters in southern Vietnam in the old days to summon ghosts. For some reason, this song was popularized among children and deemed as a folk song. Since then, not many people have known that this was a ghost song.
Those who don’t dance on the razor’s edge might give this song a try.
Prepare the ritual
Collect the strings of each fruit and weave them together
Image credit: Dan Viet
First of all, the ritual-holder prepares a 2-meter-long string woven together from the strings of the three fruits mentioned in the song, including the herb solanum trilobatum, potato, and pumpkin.
After weaving, they will expose the string to the dew outdoors for three nights.
A straw effigy
Image adapted from: Bao Tay Ninh
Next, they’ll make or buy a life-size straw effigy, dress it up, put it in an empty and quiet place such as a cemetery or a field, or any haunted places for three nights in advance.
Then, they can bring two small alter-ego effigies (hình nhân thế mạng), representing the oil seller and the frog seller. One can buy these small effigies in the souvenir shops in front of pagodas or temples.
After that, they can place three incense sticks and three candles beneath the straw effigy.
This ritual requires only two participants. If there are three participants, the third one can play the role of cameraman.
Begin the ritual
To start off, participants tie the string onto both arms of the effigy and light the candles. After that, they may burn the incense sticks.
Next, they can place one incense stick on the head of the straw effigy, while each participant holds one incense stick.
After the clock has struck twelve, the participants can start chanting Bắc Kim Thang out loud at a slow speed to summon ghosts.
2 alter-ego effigies. Picture for illustration only.
Image adapted from: Shopee
After finishing chanting, the participants then place two incense sticks down at the position of the straw effigy and burn the alter-ego effigies to ashes.
Now, they wait to see what happens next.
If this method works, the straw effigy will be seen moving around.
4. Swinging a hammock while nobody is sitting on it
Image credit: Noi That Lam Gia
Before the arrival of beds and mats, most Vietnamese people, especially those living in the countryside, would sleep on hammocks.
Portable, light, and convenient, hammocks are still quite popular among Vietnamese residents and often used during camping trips. All you have to do is to find two poles or two trees to hang a hammock from.
Image credit: VOV
As harmless as this object looks, it can also be used to invoke paranormal beings. Indeed, it’s a popular belief among elderly Vietnamese people that one shouldn’t push an empty hammock back and forth. Such an act is seen as an invitation to the unseen forces and may summon ghosts to sit on the hammock.
According to the old traditional beliefs, people can summon a spirit simply by pushing a vacant hammock back and forth. After a while, if one stops, one’ll find the hammock swinging all by itself – perhaps due to the laws of momentum, or perhaps supernatural forces.
However, those who want to give this method a try can carry out the summoning process without having to swing a hammock with their own hands.
Here’s how the ritual plays out.
Prepare the ritual
An empty hammock can be used to summon ghosts
Image credit: Hàng Gia Dụng Online
First, participants prepare a hammock and set it up inside their house or in their garden.
They’ll bring two teddy bears or dolls and a plate filled with biscuits or candy to the ritual, because the hammock spirits are usually babies who enjoy swinging back and forth on hammocks.
Next, participants connect both ends of the hammock with a long red thread on which hangs a small bell.
Having a bell, which emits sounds, will help one notice strange movements of the hammock when nobody is on it.
Begin the ritual
Participants light a candle and start inviting spirits to come over. After that, they put out the candle and wait at a distance.
If the bell starts ringing, especially when the game is carried out indoors, it means that an unseen force has touched it.
In case one carries out the ritual outdoors and it’s windy, they can put heavy stuff such as books or clothes on the hammock to minimize the force of the wind on the hammock. If the hammock swings by itself even with heavy stuff on it, then it might be a spirit who’s swinging it.
5. Playing with one’s shadow at midnight is the easiest way to summon ghosts
Messing with one’s own shadow at midnight is all it takes to summon ghosts.
Image credit: Genk
Since young, many of us Vietnamese have received strict warnings from our parents and grandparents against playing with our shadows at midnight, especially during the ghost month.
There’s a reason for that.
One of the fastest and easiest ways to summon ghosts is to mess around with one’s shadows in the dark and create spooky shapes with them.
Here’s how some people do this.
First, the participants open the windows, turn off all the lights, and light a candle. They make sure that their shadows are imprinted clearly on the walls.
Image credit: Liberty Science Center
As the clock strikes 12AM, they start jumping or dancing around to make the shadow look weird, and keep doing that until they see the shadow doing the opposite of what they are doing.
What does it mean?
It means that the participant has lost his or her own shadow.
In Vietnam, it’s a widespread belief that a person who is without their shadow must be a ghost, because a ghost cannot have a shadow. If a person has lost their shadow, chances are their spirit has been taken away.
Participants should immediately stop playing around with the shadow when something spooky pops up on the wall.
6. Conducting a seance using a spirit board with a small cup or a coin
Conducting a seance with a cup or a coin and a spirit board is a popular way to summon ghosts.
Image adapted from: NĐT Vlogs
In simplest terms, bói chén (conducting a seance with a cup) is similar to the western way of summoning spirits via an ouija board.
This is one of the most popular board games in Vietnam when everyone needs a good scare during group bonding time. It’s believed that this method is most effective if executed inside a cemetery.
First, participants prepare a sheet of A4 paper and jot down the 26 letters of the alphabet on one part of the paper. On another part, they write down Thần – Thánh – Ma – Quỷ (Deity-Saint-Ghost-Devil), as well as Đúng – Sai – Có – Không (True-False-Yes-No).
At the center of the paper, they draw a circle.
At the bottom of the paper, they write Thăng, which means Farewell.
Image credit: Ca Dao Tuc Ngu
Next, they prepare a cup or a coin as a medium, some candies or biscuits to lure the spirit and three incense sticks. At least three players are needed for this game.
To begin with, they burn the incense sticks and hover them all over the board.
Then they place they fingers on the cup and read this incantation in Vietnamese:
“Cầu ma quỷ thánh thần trên thiên đàng dưới điện ngục xin hãy nhập vào đồng xu/ chiếc chén này, three nén hương thắp sẵn. Xin mời người lên chơi xin mời người lên xơi, làm cho cơ quay cờ chạy vòng vòng. Xin mời người lên chơi, xin mời người cùng xơi”.
The English translation is as follows:
“Dear spirits in heaven and in hell, please possess this coin (or this cup). We’ve burned three incense sticks. Please come up and play with us, making the medium move around. Please come up and play with us.”
At this point they wait until a force surfaces and move their fingers on the cup. If nothing happens after thirty minutes, they read out the incantation again.
These are a few things to keep in mind before commencing the seance.
First of all, if the spirit identifies itself as a devil, participants must bid farewell immediately or flip over the sheet of paper to end the game. Never play around with the devil.
They should also refrain from bringing one’s dog or a crying baby to the game, because spirits are not fond of these two.
No crucifixes or talismans must be worn during the game because these objects deter the spirits.
People should make sure they don’t play this game more than 10 times, or the number of days of one’s life may be lessened, according to popular belief.
Don’t ask for trouble
Games or witchcraft, these methods of seance are popular urban legends in Vietnam. They are widely believed among a large number of Vietnamese people, especially those who are advanced in age or those said to have superhuman abilities.
However, let’s not forget that the people who believe in supernatural events and ghostly appearances also believe in trying to avoid them at all costs. Those who are aware don’t go around asking for trouble.
As tempting as these methods sound, they serve mainly as informational material to help people gain more insights into Vietnamese culture and how the legends spread.
We hope that nobody will try any of these methods, especially when you are not equipped with basic knowledge of paranormal activities or ghostbusting skills to stay out of harm’s way.
Also check out:
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- What life is like in the Saigon amid the height of Covid-19 pandemic
- Saigon taxis turned into Covid-19 ambulances amid scarcity of resources
- Inside Saigon’s last line of defense against Covid-19
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