Nguyen Thi Mai is willing to open her pocket to buy numerous items for her daughter to prepare for the new school year, but she would not make the purchases at any supermarkets or shopping malls.
Instead, the Hanoi resident visited a store on Hang Ma, a busy street packed with shops selling paper votive offerings, for the shopping.
“Give me two floral dresses, a set of cosmetics, perfume, a schoolbag, notebooks and the most expensive electric bicycle,” Mai placed her order.
All of these items are made of paper, and would be burnt as votive offerings for the deceased daughter of the woman, a practice that is still observed across Vietnam during the Ullambana celebration, the Vietnamese equivalent to Mother’s Day in western culture.
Traditionally, paper votive offerings used to be simple items like clothes or shoes but they are now made in replication of modern products such as motorbikes, LCD TVs, cars, multi-story houses, and even long-legged models for people in the afterlife to entertain with.
“Also add any personal items available at your shop,” Mai told the shop attendant on Hang Ma, adding she should not worry about the money.
“What’s important is my daughter could have everything she needs,” the customer said.
Another woman nearby was looking for a paper scooter to send to her husband in the other world.
A woman named Thuy, from Hanoi’s Tu Liem District, chose to organize a wedding for her older sister, who passed away in a traffic accident two years ago.
She spent VND2.5 million (US$118) buying a complete set of necessary items for the wedding ceremony, including even the bride and groom and a wedding car. All are meticulously made of paper and bamboo frames.
Another woman bought a “paper model” for her deceased husband to marry in the afterlife. Standing 1.2 meters high, the VND300,000 ($14.12) “model” is hoped to help the man “live happily and will thus bless his wife and children,” the woman said.
Burning paper iPhones for the dead
Most paper votive offerings on sale in Hanoi and other northern localities are made by people in Van Hoi Village, some 20km south of the capital city’s downtown area.
The street leading to the village was full of trucks loaded with votive offerings traveling to and fro to deliver the products, which would be burned on Sunday, or the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar year.
Most of the households in the village have a store in front of their house to showcase their products, which range from clothes, footwear, and cosmetics to MP3 players, laptops, TVs, and villas.
There are also modern items including iPhone 5S’s, Samsung Galaxy handsets, Honda SH scooters, BMW cars, and even airplanes.
Nearly 800 out of 900 households in Van Hoi are earning a livelihood by making paper votive offerings.
“During busy times, we can receive orders worth up to VND50 million ($2,353) each,” Le Van Chen, an experienced votive offering maker, said.
Dr. Nguyen Quoc Tuan, head of the Institute for Religious Studies under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, said burning paper votive offerings is a long-observed custom of the Vietnamese people to show gratitude for the departed.
“But spending millions of dong buying paper cars, bikes, and even brides and grooms to burn for the deceased is an act of showing off and wasting money.”