Vietnamese urban legends
Some of us Vietnamese believe ghost stories and urban legends stem from true stories, while others might dismiss them as fictions made up to scare the feeble-minded. Regardless, it’s always intriguing to read about haunted places in our country or paranormal activities going on in the neighborhood.
After all, few things can match the thrilling sense of fascination we get from seeing the streets and buildings we’re familiar with portrayed in a new, mysterious light.
So, here are 8 Vietnamese urban legends that’ll keep you awake at night.
1. The pallbearing ritual – a supernatural phenomenon or just plain physics?
Image credit: horrorandhalloween
Perhaps you are familiar with the “finger lift challenge” that was popularized in the West by many YouTubers back in 2017. Here, one person sits down on a chair, while 4-6 others stand around him/her, performing a ritual by putting their hands above his or her head. After the act, the standing group is able to lift the sitting person just by using one finger each.
The “finger lift” challenge that was very popular among YouTubers in 2017
Video credit: Wassabi
But here is what you probably didn’t know: long before becoming an Internet trend, this little game had been played by Vietnamese children for generations, though the ritual we had was . . . a lot grimmer.
Instead of sitting on a chair, the person being carried must lie down – sometimes with a white towel covering his or her face. 7 others would surround him or her and put their index fingers under his or her head, shoulders, hips, and ankles. The person standing at the head would then ask the person to his or her right: “What are you doing?” to which the other would reply, “I’m pallbearing.”
The process would be repeated until everyone had been asked, and answered the same question. Then, at the count of three, the group of 7 would then be able to lift the lying person on their fingers.
Vietnamese students playing the “pallbearing” game
Video credit: Bùa Thái Kumanthong 0916927376
Many people believe that by covering the carried person’s face and saying they are pallbearing, the participants could trick wandering ghosts into thinking they were carrying a dead person to the grave. Thus, the ghosts would flock over to lend a helping hand, making the lifting possible.
Some also warn that this is an extremely dangerous game to play, as the ghosts might refuse to leave afterward and follow the participants, causing them misfortune or sapping away at their life force – in turn shortening their lifespan.
Video credit: Winning X-Men
But of course, others have looked at the phenomenon from a more scientific angle, explaining that the ritual – whatever it might be – is simply a signal for everyone to act simultaneously. This way, the weight of the carried person is distributed evenly and each carrier only has to support 8-10KG on their finger – the equivalent of carrying a heavy grocery bag.
Still, not everyone is convinced. At the end of the day, we’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is something paranormal at work, or just a physics trick.
2. The ghost of the empty can – a spooky children’s game
Image credit: Ku Khoa Vlog
Another spooky game that Vietnamese children still play from time to time even to this day is ma lon (the ghost of the empty can), where they perform a ritual to supposedly summon a ghost to possess an empty can.
Over the years, there have been many variations of the ritual, but at its core, it involves lighting incense, candles, and a cigarette next to an empty can in a dark, secluded place, ideally a cemetery or the site of a fatal road accident. If performed properly, the cigarette will flare up as if someone were smoking it, and once it goes out, the empty can will begin to move on its own and chase the participants around.
A recorded video of a can used in this ritual seemingly moving on its own
Video credit: Ku Khoa Vlog
Many Vietnamese people claim that they’ve played this spooky game, and some even have video recordings to prove it. Still, the skeptical insist that this is no more than a prank where one of the participants pulls the can with a string to make it move around.
Some believe this urban legend traces back to the 1970s, when electricity was not widely available in Vietnam. Children at the time did not have the Internet or smartphones as we do today, and they’d entertain themselves with makeshift football games using an empty can after dusk.
Perhaps, as they came home with bruised ankles, they made up stories of being chased by a ghost-possessed can to add a level of mystery to things. Again, it’s up to you to decide what to believe.
3. The curse of the Tô Lịch River
Human bones and relics found in the Tô Lịch River
Image credit: Tiền Phong
Tô Lịch is the name of a not-very-clean river weaving through Hanoi that makes locals wince every time they have to pass through the area, but it is also known for an urban legend: the curse of the Tô Lịch River.
Back in September 2001, while dredging a section of the river of mud and trash, a construction team uncovered several wooden piles arranged in a strange formation, including ceramic relics, metal utensils, and even bones from human skeletons. The peculiar occurrence made headlines on several respected newspapers at the time, but eventually died down.
Several years later, in 2007, the issue was brought to the surface again when Mr. Nguyễn Hùng Cường, the leader of the construction team, wrote a series of articles retelling the many misfortunes that had befallen him and others who were related to the project since the incident.
According to Mr. Cường, shortly after excavating the site, several of his construction workers started experiencing nightmares in which they were haunted by ghosts, as well as health issues such as epileptic seizures. Mysterious accidents also happened to their families.
A newspaper article about the supposed curse
Image credit: Săn Mộ
The articles were published on Bảo Vệ Pháp Luật, a newspaper operating under the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam, and sparked a lot of public unrest. People were saying that the formation had been set up by Cao Biền, a Chinese general occupying Vietnam in the 9th century, with many living sacrifices. By disturbing it, the construction team unleashed evil spirits that led to the unfortunate incidents
However, further investigations proved that many of the claims made by the articles were wrong. For instance, Mr. Cường said he had invited Monk Thích Viên Thành, a respected figure of Vietnam’s Buddhist Sangha monastic order, to perform a ritual to lift the curse, but the attempt was unsuccessful and the monk died shortly after.
Professor Trần Quốc Vượng, a well-known historian, also met an untimely demise after examining the relics found in the river. But according to the deceased’s relatives, Monk Thích Viên Thành was never present at the site of the excavation, while Professor Trần Quốc Vượng died after several months battling cancer.
Mr. Cường’s articles were then dismissed as “baseless” and removed, and Bảo Vệ Pháp Luật Newspaper was fined VND20,000,000 (~USD860) for spreading false information. Still, the existence of a mysterious formation underneath the Tô Lịch River has spawned many rumors and even become the inspiration for fiction stories written by horror enthusiasts.
4. The graveyard under the West Lake – home to thousands of submerged graves
(Photo for illustrative purposes only)
Image credit: We are proud to say we’re Welsh
Occupying a large section of northern Hanoi, the West Lake offers plenty of fresh air and is home to many bars and cafes, making it a popular hangout spot for Hanoians. However, underneath its serene surface is a massive graveyard that has given birth to countless legends.
Scholars agree that in ancient times, most of the West Lake today used to be a vast batch of land where generations of people lived, and as they lived out their lives, they were buried close to home as was the custom.
Over the centuries, the area became home to thousands of graves that have now been submerged as the lake expanded. In fact, some graves built on high ground are still visible above the water surface even to this day.
Some of the graves are still visible above the water surface today
Image credit: An Ninh Thủ Đô
Naturally, with the existence of the graveyard comes ghostly stories. Some elders still recall that back in the 1970s, residents around the area started a trend of diving into the lake to retrieve wood from the graveyard’s coffins to sell for money. However, all who did so, or who bought furniture made from the coffin wood, soon encountered misfortunes attributed to retributions of the dead.
Many carpenters reportedly went mad while applying varnish to these pieces of wood to make them look new, as they witnessed human silhouettes forming on the varnish layers. Meanwhile, some of the best divers inexplicably drowned while going out for a casual swim in shallow waters, their bodies only found days after the accident. Locals also say it is not uncommon to fish up human bones and even skulls while fishing in the lake.
Now, we can’t verify if the tales are true or not, but the presence of a giant graveyard underneath the West Lake is an undisputed fact. So, the next time you go out for a late-night stroll around the lake, remember that you are meters away from thousands of dead bodies. Do you feel a chill up your spine now?
5. Ma da – evil spirits of the drowned
Image credit: Supernatural Wiki
The term ma da might not ring a bell to the younger generation, but most millennials have probably heard our grandparents tell stories of these vengeful water spirits.
As the stories go, ma da are the spirits of drowned victims that appear as bloated corpses with weed tangled in their hair. They are usually described as having a childlike appearance – perhaps because victims of water-related accidents in ancient Vietnam were often children.
Due to the untimely and painful nature of their deaths, ma da are unable to find peace, and the only way they can escape their torment and be reincarnated is to find another to take their place. As such, they lurk underwater to prey upon unsuspecting victims. It is also said that it’s very hard to retrieve the body of someone taken by a ma da.
Yes, these are most likely just stories that adults make up to warn children not to venture near lakes and rivers unsupervised, but it is true that deaths by drowning are not uncommon in Vietnam, even in big cities such as Hanoi or Saigon. In fact, if you walk along the bank of the Red River in Hanoi, you might very well come across monks and shamans hired by someone to perform rituals to find their drowned relatives.
6. The hat-wearing dog – the embodiment of a demon
Image credit: Củ Cải
We all know that a dog is a man’s best friend, but if your dog has white fur and a red nose, you’d better keep an eye out to see if it displays any peculiar behaviors, as it might not be what you think it is.
According to Vietnamese folktales, a dog with white fur and a nose red as blood is no dog, but the embodiment of a demon. Normally, it acts like any other of its canine kin, but during the full moon, you might see it walk around on its hind legs, carrying a stick in its front paws and wearing a straw hat.
In some variations of the story, the dog also climbs to the roof of a house and lets out haunting howls until the sun rises. The cries are believed to be the demon dog’s call for other evil spirits to come and cause misfortune to the owner.
Of course, nobody has actually witnessed such occurrences, but the image of the demon-possessed dog is one that is seen in many Vietnamese horror stories.
7. The ghostly purchase at Big C Hải Phòng
Big C Hải Phòng
Image credit: 佳人
A popular urban legend that circulated widely around the northern city of Hải Phòng in 2009 was of a ghost that made a purchase at Big C Hải Phòng, a major mall in the city.
Word on the street was that it was just another day at the mall when a pretty young girl came around and asked for a refrigerator. After finding one to her liking, the girl paid VND3,000,000 (~USD130) for it and asked to have it delivered to her home.
When the delivery man reached the address provided by the girl and rung the bell, an older lady answered but said she lived there alone and had not ordered anything from Big C.
As the man showed her the receipt with the name, age, and address of the girl on it, the older woman burst into tears and said the girl was her daughter, but she had died in a road accident several months prior. “The day before she died, she did promise to buy me a fridge this summer,” the woman said.
Panicked, the delivery man took the fridge back to report to his boss, who checked with the cashier that had served the girl and found that there were several bills of “ghost money” – fake money burnt as offerings to the dead – in the money counter. The total amount added up to exactly VND3,000,000. To make matters worse, the fridge suddenly caught fire for no reason, and no trace of the girl was found on the store’s CCTVs.
The story was massively popular among Hải Phòng residents at the time, but ultimately, there was never any evidence to back it up. No one was ever able to provide the identity of the people involved, from the customer to the cashier to the delivery man. Today, it is mostly remembered as idle gossip.
8. The daughter of the Hứa Family – a popular urban legend of Saigon
One of the most popular urban legends of Saigon is “the daughter of the Hứa Family”, a story associated with Hứa Bổn Hòa (Hui Bi Hua), an influential businessman who lived in the city during the 20th century.
It is believed that aside from his 3 sons known to the public, Hòa also had a daughter later in his life, whom he cherished above all else for her beauty and innocence. As the girl reached her teenage years, however, she contracted leprosy, which at the time was considered as more of a curse than the curable disease it is today.
To protect the family’s reputation, Hòa announced that his daughter had died from a sudden illness and held a modest funeral in front of the public. In truth, though, he had his daughter locked up inside her room, her only interaction with the outside world being a small slit under the door through which she was fed.
This went on for years until the girl passed away for real – some say from the disease, while others claim she took her own life, unable to bear the torment any longer. In any case, the consensus was that she spent the last days of her short life alone and in immense agony.
Since then, locals have reported hearing the mournful cries of a woman echoing from the mansion in the dead of night, or seeing the ghostly figure of a young girl in white dress roaming the halls of the building.
The old mansion of the Hứa family has now become Hồ Chí Minh City’s Museum of Fine Arts
Image credit: Hồng Phú Quý Nguyễn
Hòa’s old mansion still stands at number 97A Phó Đức Chính Street today and currently serves at Hồ Chí Minh City’s Museum of Fine Arts. Understandably, the mysteries surrounding the building have attracted many adventurous people hoping to get to the roots of things, but none has ever come away with anything more than rumors.
Urban legends retold by generations of Vietnamese people
At the end of the day, these urban legends are just that: legends. As scary as they might be, there has never been any evidence to support their authenticity, so don’t think of them as anything more than stories to spice up your perception of Vietnam.
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