Don’t be afraid of seeing a black cat — be afraid of seeing a pregnant woman!
We love Vietnam: the fertile culture and intelligent people make it one of the most exciting places in the world. But, despite its rapid modernisation and state-decreed atheism, Vietnam is steeped in a lot of traditional superstition.
Most of these superstitions are harmless and fun, and some of them are as serious as a quasi-religion — for a foreigner, they can be an interesting window into the hidden motivations and behaviours of this once-closed-now-open society.
Here, we help you learn about Vietnam via 13 of its more unusual, yet common superstitions.
1) Real Estate Decisions Determined by Feng Shui
If you hire a real estate broker in Vietnam, the first thing they will ask you is “Do you care about which direction your building faces?”. The reason isn’t about facing a beautiful waterfront or mountain scenery, but has to do with individuals’ own lucky directions.
Based on a person’s birth-year, each person has their own direction. For example, for one person, if their building faces “north”, it will attract prosperity and good luck, whereas if the building faces “east”, it will attract bad-luck and ill-health. The belief is rooted in the concept of “chi” and how it flows through the environment.
This superstition has major economic consequences for the real-estate market. It can also result in some (seemingly) funny orientations for new constructions in order to suit the home-owners’ personal lucky direction.
2) Dreams of Death are Good Luck in Vietnam
Have you dreamed of dying in your sleep? If you are a superstitious Westerner, you may have woken-up with the haunting feeling that such dreams serve as a warning: you should be extra careful throughout the day to avoid the dream coming true.
However, for Vietnamese, death-dreams are good luck!
The belief may have to do with an idea of luck and “balance”: good luck somewhere is balanced by bad luck elsehwere. If you had bad luck in your dreams, perhaps there is some counter-vailing good luck that will pop-up elsewhere in your life. So, relish the nightmares!
3) “Salt & Rice” – Stop Spirits Entering Through a Sneeze
If you sneeze in Vietnam, people will say “Cơm muối!”. It is like saying “Bless you!”, but literaly it means “Salt & Rice!”
Why? The holy salt & rice are meant to scare away evil spirits who try to enter you nose when you sneeze.
4) Bad Luck to See Women
You will have bad luck all day if, when you first open your door in the morning, you are presented with an adult female. The superstition doesn’t pertain to women throughout the rest of the day, only for that first moment when you open your doors to the outside world in the morning.
Is this a traditional form of sexism, or just a cultural quirk? In any case, some old people have been known to frown and yell at female-passerbyers if, upon embarking on their morning excursion, the woman is the first thing to enter their field of view.
5) Can Vietnamese People Swim? Magic Dragonfly Bites
Most Vietnamese children have memories of running around trying to catch dragonflies. The belief is that, in order to know how to swim, you must catch a dragonfly and get it to bite your belly button. Then you will instantly have the skill to swim — like Neo in the Matrix downloading knowledge into his brain.
What is perhaps more miraculous is that the dragonflies can actually be induced to bite you with their telescopic mandibles. Who knew?
6) Vietnamese Mirrors Will Steal Your Soul
This Vietnamese superstition posits that you cannot have a mirror opposite to where you sleep. At night time, your reflection is an evil doppleganger who can take-over your physical body, and banish you to the mirror world, where you will be trapped!
This is why Vietnamese hotel-rooms will be arranged slightly differently from Western hotel rooms. It must be very uncomfortable for Vietnamese people to travel through America, where the typical hotel-room layout will situate a vanity desk/dressor plus mirror across from the beds.
If you are hosting Vietnamese guests in your private Airbnb room, and you want to go the extra mile for them, you can inquire ahead of time whether they want any mirrors removed or rearranged in the bedroom. Of course, Vietnamese people have a simple solution: just drape a blanket over the mirror!
7) Vietnamese Weddings Are Bad, But Funerals Are Good
Like the death-dreams being good luck, there is a peculiar opposite-ness to which things are good luck, and which things are bad luck. For example, if you are walking around a town and randomly happen-upon a stranger’s wedding, then you will have bad luck that day (This doesn’t apply to the guests at the wedding).
However, if you randomly happen upon a stranger’s funeral, this means you will have good luck that day.
To a Westerner, this definitely seems peculiar: weddings are a celebration of love and life and fertility, and good for everyone, while funerals exude saddness and dispiritedness and remind all beholders about their own mortality — how can it possibly be that the former is bad luck while the latter is good luck? It may have to do with the underlying balance of luck: if bad luck springs-up in one place, good luck will spring-up elsewhere. So, someone else’s misfortune could be your day to shine.
8) Most Auspicious Day in Vietnam: Tết & the First Day of the Lunar New Year
The first day of the Lunar New Year (Tết) is an especially auspicious day and much celebrated in Vietnam (it is like Christmas and New Year combined).
Among all the celebrations, there is one particularly ominous superstition that can tilt your fortunes throughout the whole year: who is the first guest to visit your house in the new year. If the new year is a Year of the Tiger (as is 2022), then you get good luck if an Tiger-person is the first guest to enter your house. In contrast, if one of the animals that conflicts with the Tiger enters your house, then your year will be full of bad luck. Just who “conflicts” with you requires a complex calculation based on age and year, etc. (this is why fortune-tellers still have a lot of influence in Vietnam, despite being officially atheist).
People will carefully plan ahead and ensure that their first guest is a correct & lucky person so that they can enjoy good luck all year.
As a foreigner, don’t be surprised if people are suddenly very interested in your age and birth-year around Tết. If you have the correct Zodiac sign, you may get some special invites.
9) First Client of the Year
This superstition is for business owners and sole proprietors: the first client or customer of the year will foreshadow your luck and fortunes for the rest of the year.
If your first customer is picky, or cheap, or mean, or unscrupulous, you will have bad luck the rest of the year. Therefore, business owners are known to be both very inviting and kind to their most valuable customers around Tết.
On the flipside, if you wonder why a business owner doesn’t want you to enter their business, or why they are being mean to you if you don’t look like a serious buyer, perhaps it is due to a superstition.
10) Pregnant Women are Bad Luck in Vietnam
According to this superstition, pregnant women shouldn’t go to grand, importantn, auspicious events, such as weddings or funerals. If they do, they may be yelled at “Hey! You are pregnant! You shouldn’t be here!”.
Menstruation is also considered bad-luck period, therefore, such females shouldn’t go to holy pagodas.
These traditional bad-luck attitudes towards women may have arisen from older influences of Chinese Taoism/Daoism, which is deeply sexist (even today) whereas Vietnam is much less so. Or, it could be that such attitudes towards pregnant women have preciptated from a more benign and paternalistic concern for the safety of pregnant women: it is easy to imagine how “bad luck” would befall vulunerable women in the harsh and cruel ancient world.
In any case, if you are pregnant, it is perhaps best not to go to Vietnam!
11) Schedule Your Important Dates With Fortune Tellers
A common superstition in Vietnam, even among young people, pertains to the planning of important affairs according to “lucky days”, such as weddings, travel, starting a business, etc. The dates for such affairs should only be set while consulting fortune tellers: they will do numereological “calculations” and instruct their devotes about which days are most lucky and will maximize their benefit.
For example, women are known to induce labour so that their child’s birthday will align according to the recommendations of fortune tellers. This is perhaps the most extreme example, but it also practiced with more mundane examples, like planning when to email a boss to negotiate salary, or when to talk to your husband about relationship issues.
So, if you enjoy telling people what to do and when, it seems like a job as a fortune teller holds an inordinate amount of power over people!
12) Tỳ Hưu – The Attractor of Wealth
The majority of Vietnamese offices have feng-shui stuff. For example, Tỳ Hưu is a mighty mythological beast who is like a dragon/lion/dog combo. He has a big mouth and no anus, so that he can grab all the luck and retain it inside the body.
If you need a good office gift for your boss, the Tỳ Hưu is a solid choice. It is especially good to procure one at the base of Marble Mountain in Da Nang — which is incidentally one of our favourite, most beautiful pagodas to visit.
13) Vietnamese Haircuts: Time It Properly
Imagine having an upcoming important event, like an exam or job interview. If you don’t want to handicap the event with bad luck, then you should avoid getting a haircut on the morning of, or the day before the event. Haircuts before important dates are bad luck.
This superstition may have arisen from the relationship between chi and its flow through human hair. Or, it may have to do with how new haircuts looking kinda funny and unsettled on the first day.
The superstition also extends to auspicious Lunar days or numerological dates, so people will avoid getting haircuts on days like the first day of month, or the first day of the year.
14) Ghost Month – Don’t do anything important in July
July is a month of bad luck, so Vietnamese people try not to do anything of consequence during the entire month of July. One should not make any major decision:
- Do not propose to a girl in July!
- Do not start a business in July!
- Do not buy a car or a house in July!
- Be extra careful while travelling in July (don’t do major air travel).
This superstition can have major consequences for economic activity, which few foreigners understand.
The reason has to do with a belief that July is the month in which ghosts are released from the spirit world and co-mingle with living people. They can cause bad luck and harm you, so you mustn’t do anything of major importance.