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The village in the city

(No.12, Vol.2, Dec 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Every year, on about the 9th or 10th day after Tet, in Tan Phu and Tan Binh districts of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), groups of people who live in the same neighbourhood participate in a ritual that they call lễ cúng xóm or just cúng xóm, literally, ‘hamlet offering’. In this case the group of worshippers consists of members of an urban neighbourhood, but the word ‘hamlet’ recalls the provincial origin of this ritual.
People in other HCMC districts have not heard of cúng xóm. They are not familiar with it because it is a ritual associated with central Vietnam, especially Quang Nam, Danang and Hue, and in Tan Phu and Tan Binh there are many long-term migrants from these provinces who arrived in HCMC some 30 years ago. Many came originally to work in the textile industry, making silk at home to earn a living.
In Vietnam it is customary for migrants to visit their original homes (quê hương) during Tet, and some of these early migrants from the centre still do so if they have relatives there, but most have now been settled in HCMC for a long time and no longer have close kin at their places of origin. In this sense then, participation in cúng xóm substitutes for the Tet visit to the original home and enables people to express their continued attachment to and identification with it.
Most of the features of cúng xóm in HCMC are found in descriptions of similar events in central Vietnam, obtained through interviews conducted there, especially with Mr Truong Ngoc Bang of Hoa Cuong Bac ward, Hai Chau district, Danang, who has been particularly helpful.
Cúng xóm has two main aspects; lễ, meaning ritual and hội, festivity. Lễ involves ritual worship (cúng) as a mark of gratitude and supplication to the deities or spirits associated with the land. The ritual aspect also includes prayers directed at ‘homeless ghosts’ (cô hồn), the restless and potentially troublesome spirits of people who never received a proper burial for one reason or another. Hội, on the other hand, comes after lễ, and refers to the party that follows the serious business of worship, the gathering of people living in the area, eating and drinking together.

Cúng xóm
(‘hamlet worship’) in Ho Chi Minh City during Tết


Cúng xóm in Tan Binh and Tan Phu takes place out in the open, in a hẻm (alley), preferably at a cross-roads or on a street corner. In some cases a temporary gathering place or ‘square’ (điểm tập trung) is established in the street, with a marquee erected specially for the occasion (referred to as hội trường, the hall/the tent). Each family in the group contributes towards the expenses, so if the group is small and does not have enough funds for a marquee, the event takes place out in the open. In HCMC, it takes place at night, from about 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., but in Danang, it takes place from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. At the cúng xóm that we attended in Tan Phu in 2012 many people took part, and at the party after the ritual at least 50 adults and about 50 children were counted.

Organisation of the event
A neighbourhood committee called ban tổ chức organises the event. This group collects the funds required from every participating family, makes the arrangements for the ritual, and purchases all the things required for it and for the festivity that follows. The officiating group at the ritual itself is called ban tế lễ (literally the ‘group that makes the ritual offering’) or ban nghi lễ , the ritual committee. They are distinguished by their ritual dress – they wear blue brocaded ritual dress called lễ phục including robe (áo dài) and turbans (khăn đóng). This group represents the families that participate, and consists of senior men, preferably over 50 years of age. These men are appointed on the basis of their good character and reputation for ethical behaviour (đạo đức), and are men with prestige (uy tín). It is through them that the prayers and wishes of the xóm as a whole will be conveyed and, hopefully, answered, so they bear a heavy responsibility.
The ban tế lễ members work as a team to ensure that the ritual is properly conducted, dividing the duties between them. The leader is called chánh tế. He leads the worship and is associated with the main (central) altar-table. Ranking below him are two men, one associated with the left hand altar, called tả ban, one with the right hand altar, called hữu ban. Another man, called người dẫn xướng plays the role of Master of Ceremonies; he chants instructions (xướng lễ) reading from a script written in Hán Vietnamese that guides the sequence of worship step by step.
There is also a man called người đọc văn or người đọc sớ (or người đọc xướng) who reads the oration, the sớ (petition) or văn tế, which means ‘funeral oration’. The former term alludes to the favours being asked of the gods, the latter to the wishes expressed for cô hồn, the wandering spirits or ‘homeless ghosts’. It is also referred to as chúc (wishes/requests). This is an important part of the worship; he needs to know how to chant well.
Another member of ban tế lễ manages the music team. There are three musical instruments: trống lệnh, a small drum, chiêng, a brass gong, and trống chầu, a much larger drum. The three instruments are beaten in sequence (the small drum first) throughout the ceremony.


Reading the prayer-oration for co hon at the altar-table dedicated to them, cúng xóm ritual, Tan Phu District, HCMC, February 2012. Photo: Patrick McAllister

The tables for worship
At cúng xóm, three altar-tables inside the marquee are for the worship of the many deities and spirits associated with the land. They are laden with ritual offerings and parephenalia – brass censers, incense, flowers, candles in brass candle sticks, piles of votive paper offerings (đồ mã), etc. Each has two small cups of water (said to enable the deities to wash their mouths or clean their teeth prior to eating), two empty cups for wine (filled during the worship), and another two for tea (also filled during the worship). The altar-tables are also laden with food: plates of fruit, rice cakes made in the style of central Vietnam (bánh rò), a whole boiled chicken trussed up to look attractive, small bowls of rice and salt, processed pork (chả lụa), boiled pork, rice gruel (cháo), bowls of fish sauce, rice crackers (bánh tráng nướng), empty bowls and spoons, pots of tea and bottles of rice wine, and betel quids. Betel is associated with sociability and used to entertain guests, as indicated in the saying miếng trầu là đầu câu chuyện , ‘a quid of betel is the start of a conversation’. An essential item is a whole roast pig (heo quay). There are also small plates containing an egg, pork and shrimp, called tam sên (‘three things’) ‘for the [deities of] land’ (đất đai). The higher central table, however, has only vegetarian food (đồ chay), indicating its high status.
Just outside the doorway of the marquee is a fourth altar-table, for offerings to the ‘homeless spirits’ who wander the earth and who are potentially dangerous to the living. This is similarly laden with food but it also has some items especially for these spirits, namely mut (candies, dried fruit), popcorn, biscuit-candies and rice gruel (cháo), considered mandatory for this table. The votive papers (hàng mã) are similar to those on the other tables but also contain some papers specifically associated with homeless ghosts.

Conduct of the ritual
In Tan Phu cô hồn are worshipped first, the spirits afterwards. In Danang it is the other way around.
The altar-table for cô hồn was prepared and the formal worship started with the first instructions being chanted slowly by the người dẫn xướng, punctuated after each phrase by percussion (drum and gong beats). His chanted instructions commanded them to wash their hands, ready the altars, kowtow three times, stand up, and so on, each time with long pauses and percussion sounds in between each short instruction. This continued throughout the ritual, which lasted for nearly two hours. He continuously repeated the instructions such as: phục hưng (kneel and kowtow), bình thân (stand up), chước tửu (pour wine), giai quỳ (kneel), etc.
The chanting was similar to the style of hát tuồng, a style found in the Quang Nam area and other central provinces. Each command that he called out was concluded with a long drawn out descending ‘aaaaaaaaaaa’ sound. At intervals the người dẫn xướng commanded the assistants to pour wine into the empty cups, and later, tea. After about 30 minutes his command was to bring over the wooden frame containing the oration and to uncover it. One man held the wooden frame with the paper on which the sacred words were written, while others stood on either side of the orator, as the drums and gong sounded at regular intervals. Every now and then the three in front of the oration paper prostrated themselves in front of the altar, or bowed deeply.

The oration for homeless ghosts
The oration has two somewhat different sections: one section is for deities (thần, thánh), tutelary or guardian spirits (thành hoàng), deities associated with the land and the elements, and the other section is for the wandering spirits (or cô hồn).
In Danang the oration for the spirits and deities is read first, but the first part of the oration read in Tan Phu was for cô hồn. They were of many different kinds, such as those who died in forests, on mountains, or at sea, and whose spirits are far away; people who travelled around the country and who suddenly died in remote regions, thus not having a proper burial; people who were very famous or who had high positions in society but whose bodies were lost at sea or in river. In the oration, sorrow was expressed for these people who died and who didn’t have a proper burial, and referred to the fact that the living were keeping their promise to pray for the homeless spirits, that they mourned and felt pity for these souls, and they prayed that they would be able to fly to the heaven. They expressed the hope that cô hồn would accept the invitation to be present to enjoy the worship. They prayed that everybody would get good things in life and fulfil their ambitions, that all families will be helped to be prosperous all year round.
At the conclusion of the worship in front of the altar for cô hồn, some of the offerings were put into a paper bag and taken hurriedly into the main street nearby by a young man and laid down there, as far into the street as possible, along with sticks of incense, which were also placed on the lane about half way to the corner so that cô hồn would find their way to the offerings. The votive papers for cô hồn were burnt nearby. The candies, popcorn and candied biscuits, as well as the rice on the table and the water and wine were strewn around on the ground at the base of the table and in the lane, as the altar was completely dismantled, and the worship moved to the other altars inside the marquee.
The next phase of worship, which started with chanting by người dẫn xướng, was repeated at each of the three main altars. Finally, the oration to the spirits and deities was read by the ritual leader, chánh bái.
The many spirits or deities were invited to be present by naming them, using their full titles. Many of them are deities associated with the land or guardian spirits, referred to as công thần or tiền hiền, or people of virtue or merit who discovered and developed the original area in the centre, or who did many good things for people in the past as well as meritorious officials of kings linked to the creation and development of the land, such as the founding mandarins (tiền hiền) who created the land, the mandarins who came later (hậu hiền) who maintained and developed the land, and the spirits of high ranking or meritorious people from the past associated with the land (thần linh, tiên linh). Also mentioned were deities associated with the elements and the natural environment. There as a very long list of spirits or deities, mainly associated with the land, including saints associated with the new year, spirits of the five elements, and others.
The second part of the oration ended with an invitation to all the named deities, spirits and ghosts to come and enjoy the worship. They were respectfully asked to bless the people and the land. They were asked to bring good health and peace to the land, to bring good business and prosperity.


Women of the neighbourhood prepare the food for the festive meal that concludes the cúng xóm ritual,
Tan Phu District, HCMC, February 2012
Photo: Patrick McAllister

Concluding the ritual
At the end of the worship the three men associated with the three central tables were required to sip the wine, an action called hữu phước, and then to pour it on the ground as an offering to the deities and to the land. The plate of boiled pork (called thọ tợ) was placed on the ground under the table, also for ‘the land’ (đất đai). The pork and the wine are seen as a gift from the deities which brings blessings to the people. The act of sipping the wine and putting the pork on the ground is called ẩm phước. The rice and the salt from the altar-tables was scattered around. The tam sên (pork, egg and prawn) was put into a bag and given to a young man, who took it away along with some fruit, and it was said that he could give it to anyone he liked. According to one of our interviewees, this food given to the young man is meant to be placed at the crossroads as ‘a gift to say good bye to our guests [the deities]’ (the deities invited to the event).
Now the other people who had gathered outside and had been watching the proceedings were told that they could come in and worship at these tables, and many men and women did so, burning incense and kowtowing at the three main altar-tables. The votive papers from the main altar-tables were burnt, as were the large yellow oration papers. All the remaining items were removed from the altar-tables, and one man started to carve up the roast in preparation for the party. Tet songs and other music with a fast beat came across the loudspeaker system as a joyous party atmosphere replaced the solemn one of worship.
The sides of the marquee were taken off, leaving the roof in case of rain. Ten large tables were set out, ten chairs at each of them, and they were rapidly laid with all the food and drink that had been prepared earlier in a nearby house. Children sat on a large mat on the ground outside, not far away. There was a lot of food and drink, and the night air rang with repeated calls of ‘mot, hai, ba, dzo!!’, as men toasted each other, often getting up to go to another table to offer or receive drink, chat with a friend, and so on. Gentler music played in the background now, complementing the very happy social atmosphere.

The cock’s legs
The lower legs with feet of the cockerel that was offered on the main altar-table were kept one side, being destined to be taken the next day to thầy who is believed to be able to divine the future of the neighbourhood and its people on the basis of the appearance of the legs and feet (coi giò gà). One man explained that thầy will look at the toes, legs, and tendons of the cock, and this tells you something . . . He will look at it and tell you all the things that will happen in your area.’ One year, we were told, thầy said that there would be a fire in that neighbourhood, and he was right, there was a fire that destroyed some houses.

Conclusion
There appear to be a number of interesting conclusions to be drawn from cúng xóm.
1.It shows that long term migrants continue to identify with each other and with their original homes many years after their initial migration into the city.
2.In their new homes in the city they engage in worship of a large variety of deities and spirits associated with their original homes in central Vietnam. Thus despite the fact that they no longer visit quê hương during Tet, the association with the home area remains strong and is enacted via ritual during Tet.
3.The outcome of cúng xóm seems to be the maintenance and development of solidarity and a sense of community associated with an urban neighbourhood. This contrasts with the emphasis on family that is an important aspect of Tet. It is an opportunity for everyone in the group to come together and give each other best wishes for the new year. It is also a chance for different families to get together to talk about work and business or to put aside disagreements of the past year, in the spirit of Tet. In this sense cúng xóm ideally helps to ensure a happy and trouble-free new year.
4.Cúng xóm as described here seems to be part of the religious revival that has characterised Vietnam for the last 25-30 years (Taylor 2007). In both Danang and HCMC we were told that there was a long period from 1975 onwards during which cúng xóm did not take place, or took place very infrequently, because it was forbidden by the state. In the 1980s it was practiced secretly in Danang, and from the mid 1990s it was again done openly without fear of reprisal.

References
Malarney, S. K. Culture, ritual and revolution in Vietnam. London/New York: Routledge Curzon. 2002.
Taylor , P. ‘Modernity and re-enchantment: religion in post-revolutionary Vietnam’, in Philip Taylor (ed.) Modernity and re-enchantment: religion in post-revolutionary Vietnam. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2007): 1-56.

By Patrick McAllister and Bui Thi Diem Trinh
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