Getting lucky
  • | dtinews.vn | March 09, 2010 03:20 PM

As I continue discovering Vietnam, one word that always seems to be on the tip of peoples tongues is the word luck.

Among the endless cultural differences I have encountered while roaming around Asia is the concept of luck. Luck plays a major role in life out here, and many things seem to be focused on luck. Everything seems to be associated with luck, from lucky money, to lucky numbers, to lucky foods; people in Asia just love their luck. I decided to dig a little deeper and find out all I could about luck in Vietnam.

I have never really believed that things are determined by pure luck. Sure, I think that most people have some sort of superstitious side to them. It could be a favourite shirt you wear for important meetings, a number you wear on a sports jersey, or a belief that certain things actually have the power to bring or alter your luck. I think life has ups and downs and I don't try to explain anything according to luck but, after a long time in Asia, I'm starting to see how much stock people put into luck. It isn't taken lightly here at all, and the differences are quite fascinating.

In Vietnam, I have been intrigued by the beliefs surrounding luck. Since my arrival, people have been wishing me "happy and lucky and healthy and prosperity". . . I have been stopped by parents inside of shops who have asked me to shake their child's hand for good luck. I have been introduced to the concept of the first person entering your home for the new year affecting your luck. I have received and given lucky money. I've seen as people look with excitement at vehicle plates and remark how lucky the plate is. I have constantly been surrounded by this concept of luck and I haven't always understood it, but it is yet another one of the unique things about Asia in general, and Vietnam in particular.

There are some major cultural differences in regards to luck, but the concept exists everywhere. In Vietnam, there are certain numbers believed to be lucky. Numbers such as 6 or 8, they are pronounced similarly to "prosperity" in Chinese and are considered to be lucky. The number 4 however, sounds like death and therefore, isn't lucky. I know many Vietnamese who change their mobile number when they are feeling unlucky. Apparently it is common practice to pay extra money to have a good mobile number or to have a plate with good numbers for your vehicle. Virtually any large shop you go to has some form of a lucky draw, and many events use lucky draws as a way to gain donations or to sell items and tickets. Lottery tickets are another item surrounded by beliefs in luck and numbers, and on virtually any corner, you can see them being sold.

Of course, for everything that can bring you luck, there are just as many things that can bring bad luck. For example, giving someone a toothpick in Vietnam is believed to bring negativity or bad luck to a friendship. Buying gloves for a person can mean that you will never be friends again. Cutting your hair at the beginning of the month is a no-no. Eating dog is designated as an end of month feast to take away the previous month's bad luck. If a woman gives birth at the beginning of the month, there should be no visitors until the end of the month (other than family) according to tradition. Sorry ladies, but if a woman is the first person you see when you leave a home, this is bad, especially if she's wearing black. When leaving your home, care must be taken to step out with your left foot first. Eating eggs or bananas before an exam? Don't do it. Bananas make you slip and eggs look like a "0"; instead, you'd want to eat green bean sticky rice, because "green" in Vietnamese sounds like "pass". These are just a few of an endless amount of lucky beliefs and if you ask people in Vietnam about luck, they can tell you many more. I'm constantly discovering new things about good luck and bad luck; there is no shortage.

In the West, there are some superstitions about luck as well. Some of the things that might bring bad luck are the number 13, Friday the 13th, the 13th floor (which doesn't exist, it is always skipped), black cats, shattering mirrors, walking under a ladder, and opening an umbrella inside of a building. Generally speaking, most people take these things rather lightly. Many Vietnamese, especially younger ones, also don't take the beliefs too seriously.

I've never really used the term "lucky" to describe things because it implies that all is left to chance, that we don't control any of our own destiny, that it is all just decided for us. I can also see how it is a way to describe the many things in life which we actually do not and cannot control.

With all this talk about luck, who better to see than a fortune teller to help me understand it? In Vietnam, depending on the person, this is a very common activity to help determine one's luck, what their luck will be, or how to avoid bad luck in the future. I have always heard about fortune tellers but I have never in my life seen one and never thought I would. I know many people put a lot of belief into what numbers and symbols mean. Many believe their horoscope sign, or lunar symbol determines happenings in their lives. I have been told that before you get married in Vietnam, most people will see a fortune teller to determine the correct date to have the wedding in order to ensure that the marriage brings luck. It is all very fascinating for me because I've always been taught to decide for myself, or at least try to. Part of my experience in Vietnam is that I want to do everything possible to actually understand and be a part of the culture in every way I can. This meant that seeing a fortune teller in Vietnam was a must-do.

The gate to the Mau Temple

I set out to Hung Yen city with a group of friends for a short road trip. Hung Yen is about 60 kilometres from Hanoi. The goal was to visit the Mau Temple and draw "lucky" numbers which determine what the fortune teller would reveal to us. We walked around the temple which was magnificent, crowded and off the beaten path. Many people were doing the same thing we were and we didn't see a single tourist. The way you choose your number is by pulling a stick out of a jar-like tube. When I chose, two numbers came out, 15 and 37. The number 15 fell to the ground, and I was told that I should choose this number, so I did. On the way out of the temple, you get a piece of paper with your number and traditional Vietnamese writing. After that, with paper in hand, it's off to see the fortune teller.

When I think "fortune teller", what comes to mind are things like a crystal ball, smoke-filled room, gypsy's, palm-readers and eerie sounds. The fortune teller's house was packed; it would be awhile before he could see us so we decided to kill time outside. I sat outside with my friends at a Bia Hoi in the very quaint town of Hung Yen. The place was overlooking Ban Nguyet lake, a small and calm patch of water with a huge Vietnamese flag flying in the middle. Hung Yen has a very relaxed feel to it and is a nice getaway from the chaos of Hanoi. My friends have been teaching me Vietnamese poker and with all this talk of luck, I decided to try mine out with some cards. Turns out, luck was with me, and after winning a few games, it was finally our turn to see the fortune teller.

The room was packed and nothing like I would have envisioned. My limited Vietnamese meant that I understood virtually nothing, so I sat patiently. My number was called and the whole room paused and turned to take a look at me. Maybe they were surprised to see me there. I felt myself blush a little; you never really get used to people talking about you in a language you don't understand, it's one of those bizarre things that you don't ever totally get used to. My friend sat next to me and translated the fortune teller's words.

He said that I should get married this year, that it's a good year to get married. He looked at my friend and asked her if she would like to marry me, to which she laughed, and I think that meant her answer was no. He asked a few more questions, things like whether I liked Vietnamese women and where I was from. The fortune teller finished with me and moved on to another. My face was stone cold for a moment. I'd never had my fortune told, and I know in Vietnam, everybody seems to think I'm old not to be married. It was like he was repeating what many people feel, and for a moment I panicked at the thought of getting married. We left the room and went outside. By now, I was laughing at myself and the fortune. Sure, this is a good year to get married, but so is any other year!

Overall I felt rather unaffected by the fortune teller's words but it was definitely a worthwhile experience nonetheless. Will I see a fortune teller again? I'm not sure but I don't regret going by any means.

That was it for us and no matter what my fortune would have said, I felt lucky to be where I was. It was time to head back towards Hanoi; time to talk about the future and to wish each other luck.

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