Since the third day of the Lunar New Year, which fell on January 24, Mai has been so busy going to different places of worship in other provinces.
For her first trip of the new year, Mai, the owner of a hair salon in Hanoi, visited Huong Pagoda outside the capital.
She then went to Hoang Bay Temple in the northern border province of Lao Cai, Cong Dong Bac Le and Dong Dang temples in Lang Son, pagodas like Ba Vang and Yen Tu in Quang Ninh, Hoang Muoi Temple in Nghe An, as well as several communal houses, pagodas and shrines in Hanoi.
According to her plan, on the 14th day of the Lunar New Year, she must be present at Tran Temple in Nam Dinh to get a red seal for luck.
After decades of going to these super crowded places of worship after Tet, Mai insists on continuing her tradition in order to bring her family luck and prosperity all year round.
The 45-year-old woman hasn’t seen her children for a week, because her travels often see her return home after midnight and then she leaves again early the next morning.
Mai’s husband has implored her to be more selective. According to him, these places of worship are all the same.
But Mai disagrees.
“Each place is sacred in its own way,” she said. “If you want to ask for many things in a year, you must go to them all.”
The crowd at Ba Vang Pagoda in Quang Ninh Province on January 29, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ba Vang Pagoda
Thu, 27, from northern Vietnam’s Ha Tinh Province, invited her friends to go with her to pagodas around Hanoi during Tet.
On other holidays, she travels to various places of worship in different provinces.
Thu said that this year, people born in the Year of the Mouse will face bad luck, so she needs to ask for the gods’ help at a variety of holy places. She said that without such sacred blessings, people will struggle with business and prosperity problems, and they’ll suffer career instability alongside challenges in their love life.
She plans to visit 20 places of worship in Northern and Central provinces this year. The cost for each trip ranges from a few hundred thousand to several million dong (VND1 million = $42.4), depending on the travel schedule and the cost of the items she brings to offer up to the deities.
There are currently no statistics recording the number of people like Mai and Thu who regularly travel to places of worship during the Lunar New Year.
But as evinced by the dangerous overcrowding at these sites so far this year, the figures are clearly massive.
During the seven days of Tet, which fell from January 20-26, alone, Ba Vang Pagoda in Quang Ninh welcomed nearly 222,000 visitors in total. On peak days, the number of visitors there can reach 75,000.
At Huong Pagoda, nearly 5,000 local boats have been deployed to serve demand during Tet. On the sixth day of Tet, the number of Huong Pagoda visitors reached 150,000.
Managers at the Trang An Tourist Area in Ninh Binh – home to many holy sites – said that from the second to the fourth day of Tet, about 1,000 boats were put into service every day. On average, each visitor has to wait nearly an hour to get a boat to the local pagoda.
Transport service companies have also recorded a large number of passengers ever since the Lunar New Year.
Nguyen Dung, director of a passenger transport company in Hanoi, said that two years before the pandemic, his firm regularly ran out of seats for the holidays due to the large number of people booking every day in January.
“That number was lower this year because many people used their own cars. However, the company is fully booked on weekends through the end of February, mostly for taking people to places of worship. There are regular customers who book several trips a week for this purpose alone,” Dung said.
Culture researcher Pham Dinh Hai said visiting places of worship in the new year is a traditional cultural custom of the Vietnamese people, and it is definitely not against the law.
According to ancient beliefs, Vietnamese people travel to sacred places to enjoy the spring air and watch flowers bloom, both of which can also be considered omens of good luck.
Hai said that visiting places of worship at the beginning of the year should not only be about wishing for good things for family, relatives and friends, but it’s also important to remember that it’s historically an activity maintained to carve out time to find a spiritual space and engage with traditional culture in a personal and often inwardly beneficial way.
“However, at the moment, there is only a small number of people who actually come to enjoy the scenery. Most of them come to ask for fame and money. This makes the original meaning of going to places of worship misunderstood,” Hai argued.
Dr. Do Minh Cuong, a former lecturer at Vietnam National University’s University of Economics in Hanoi, said that obsessively visiting places of worship can also adversely impact one’s life and work. For example, overspending on travel and the purchase of items for offerings can make things difficult for a family, he said.
Cuong also pointed out that distraction from work, disagreements between spouses, traffic jams and out-of-control littering were all also significant problems caused by this phenomenon.
“Not to mention the fact that those who blindly follow the movement can also be taken advantage of by bad people,” Cuong said.
Mai opened her shop on the fourth day of the Tet, then closed it for several days to hit the pagodas. She spent so much money and spent so little time caring for her family that her husband said if she continues her addiction, he’ll take the children to their grandparents’ house and leave her alone.
Thu was also reminded by her boss that she had asked for too many days off and often disappears on weekends. And she also knows that she’s spent too much money on rituals asking for prosperity, ironically.
Thu said the rituals cost her at least VND1-2 million to buy offering items such as fruits, and vegan and savory dishes. Some trips can cost up to VND10 million ($423), which is her total monthly salary. So she said she had no choice but to borrow money from friends.
A stream of people going into Huong Tich Cave in Huong Pagoda, Hanoi on January 28, 2023. Photo by Anh Thu
Many retirees with free time also follow shamans to places of worship.
Thanh Xuan, 60, from Hung Yen is a devoted Buddhist. Six years ago, she followed a shaman who opened a shrine at his home. He also organized trips for about 25 disciples to visit worship sites in the first two months of this year. Short trips take 1-2 days while long trips can last a full week.
According to Xuan, it’s best to follow the shaman because as his disciple, she doesn’t have to worry about booking a car, shopping for offering items, or doing the ritual herself. The cost of trips with meals, offerings and car fare ranges from VND700,000 to one million per day.
Researcher Nguyen Dinh Hai believes that mindset and perspective determine the fate of a person. “If people want to go places of worship effectively, each of them must deal with their own thinking about how to maintain honesty and integrity. Don’t let outside factors have a bad influence on you,” he said.
Dr. Do Minh Cuong also said that each individual should be clearly aware of religious issues. According to him, each person needs to determine their own good motivation and self-development goals instead of just waiting for external forces to help them. In addition, agencies and organizations also need to limit the movement of people traveling for worship during the spring tourism season, he noted.
“If you really want to travel during spring, you should choose the right time to feel comfortable, instead of squeezing yourself into the sea of people,” Cuong said.
Taking employees to places of worship is an annual activity at Thien Huong’s company. She said before the pandemic, the company would book two 45-seat buses for employees to travel to Huong Pagoda, Tran Temple to get the lucky seal, and then to Chin Temple in Thanh Hoa to pray for fortune and prosperity in business.
During the two years of the pandemic, it was impossible to make such trips, but business was still going well, so this year Huong’s company decided to change the time to the late spring and early summer to avoid the crowds of Tet so the staff can have a relaxing space to enjoy the spring atmosphere.
“I think that only people who really put their mind toward the Buddha, show kindness and work hard will have their wishes granted,” Huong said.
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