Trung Nguyen or Wandering Souls’ Day is the second largest festival of the year (Tet is first). Though it falls on the 15th day of the seventh month, its celebration may be held at any convenient time during the latter half of the month. The festival is celebrated throughout the country, in Buddhist Pagodas, homes, businesses, factories, government offices, and Armed Forces units. It is not just a Buddhist holiday. In general, it’s celebrated by all Vietnamese who believed in the existence of God, good and also evil.
Many Vietnamese believe that every person has two souls; one is spiritual (Hon), and the other is material (Via). When a person dies, his soul is taken to a tribunal in hell and judged by ten justices. When the judgement is rendered, the soul is sent to heaven or hell, as a reward or punishment for the person’s conduct on earth.
They believe those sinful souls can be absolved of their punishment and delivered from hell through prayers said by the living on the first and 15 of every month. Wandering Souls’ Day, however, is believed to be the best time for priest and relatives to secure general amnesty for all the souls. On this day, the gates of hell are said to be opened at sunset and the souls there fly out, unclothed and hungry. Those who have relatives fly back to their homes and villages and find plenty of food on their family altars.
Those who have no relatives or have been forsaken by the living are doomed to wander helplessly through the air on black clouds, over the rivers and from tree to tree. In reality, they are the sad “wandering souls” who are in need of food and prayer. This is why additional altars full of offerings are placed in pagodas and many public places.
This is a day that the oldsters have said, “the living and the dead meet in thought,” and traditional rites should be respected by all. Weather permitting, the services should be in the open air. Otherwise, the largest room in the house should be used so that there is room for many wandering souls.
During the ceremony, huge tables are covered with offerings which basically consist of three kinds of meat: boiled chicken, roast pork, and crabs; and five fruits. Other foods may be included such as sticky rice cakes, vermicelli soup, and meat rolls to satisfy the appetite of the wandering souls who are supposed to be hungry the year round.
Money and clothes made of votive papers are also burned at this time.
Butcher shops are especially careful to observe this holiday. Many people believe in reincarnation. Therefore, butchers are afraid that they might have killed some poor person.
Also, Vietnamese believe it is extremely bad luck to die away from home. Therefore, transportation carriers who have had fatalities among its passengers strictly observe the ceremonies.