It’s 8pm in Hanoi’s labyrinthine Old Quarter and shop-owner Tran Thu Hien places her last $100 bill on the crackling street-side fire. I’ve watched her burn through thousands of dollars, but it’s still not enough. Hien, crouched over the blaze and dripping with sweat, has exhausted the cash. So she unpacks a box of personal items, pre-prepared for incineration: a gold Rolex, a pair of designer sunglasses, a pack of Cuban cigars and an iPhone X. Finally, Hien turns to a black Toyota Camry. The car is larger so getting the flames to catch is more of a challenge, but after a few careful manoeuvres, it’s ablaze. Smoke drifts into passing traffic, but aside from a few glances, passers-by pay little attention.
Hien, 38, isn’t an anarchist. Nor is she unhinged. She’s safeguarding the fortunes of her business and family. The day of my visit, August 15th, is the beginning of the Hungry Ghost Festival, an annual month-long event celebrated by Taoists and Buddhists across East Asia. It takes place during the seventh month of the lunar calendar – usually starting in August – and marks the opening of the gates of hell, when the dead roam free and cause trouble for the living.
Many Vietnamese people burn offerings to their ancestors throughout the year, but during the festival these ceremonies ramp up. They are also extended to appease other spirits: lost souls that have led sinful or greedy lives. Hien is one of many believers burning offerings for these spirits, which are only honoured during the festival. Fake money and cardboard replicas of modern-day luxuries are commonly thrown onto the fires, and are meant to waft into the afterlife, materialising as usable gifts for the dead.
“It’s just like people in the West at church,” Hien says, poking the fake cardboard car with a long stick. “People pray there because they believe that something bad will happen if they don’t. This is no different. Nobody wants bad luck.” Few Vietnamese know exactly where the tradition comes from, and academics disagree on its origins. But Hien is just one of thousands of believers who are conducting their own burning ceremonies across Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
Traditionally, roaming souls were satisfied with cremated fake money. But Vietnam’s dead are becoming increasingly demanding, so ceremonies are more elaborate than ever. “After people die, they need the same things in the afterlife that they had in this world,” explains Hien after the ceremony, wiping sweat from her brow with a damp cloth. “Much like the living, the recently deceased want iPhones and cars.”
An industry producing cardboard replicas has developed, helping to meet these new demands. In the week leading up to the festival, I visited Dao Tu, a village on the outskirts of Hanoi that produces and supplies Vietnam with these offerings. Tranquil rice paddies surround Dao Tu but its centre is bustling and frantic, as suppliers try to keep up with the surge in demand in the run-up to the festival. Washing machines, television screens, air-conditioning units and karaoke speakers – all cardboard replicas – lie in bundles on the side of the road ready to be delivered. Motorbikes weave through the village stacked with fake laptops, iPads and their respective chargers. I picked up one white cardboard cylinder and saw the logo for Viettel, one of Vietnam’s most popular internet providers. It was a fake wireless router to provide fake WiFi to a fake smartphone.
Screen addiction is not the only contemporary scourge affecting the afterlife. “The underworld is suffering from deforestation too, you know,” a balding artisan told me while constructing the bamboo frame for a fake forest. “It’s my job to fix that.” Once finished with the frame, he’ll pass it to a neighbouring artisan to cover with paper grass and trees before populating the fake forest with pictures of animals and waterfalls. Whoever buys and burns it will help new saplings grow in the underworld.
Back in the Hanoi Old Quarter I meet 68-year-old Tran Quoc Viet, who’s conducting his own ceremony for his ancestors, around the corner from Tran Thu Hien’s offering for the lost souls. It’s starting to rain, but this does little to temper the worshippers’ spirits. Viet pulls out and unpacks a box of fake gold and silver trinkets. “These are for my aunt,” he says, holding a cardboard tiara. “She wanted to be a famous singer. I burn these for her in the hope that they’ll help her on the other side.” According to some practitioners, the dead have not only material demands – but also unrealised dreams.
Viet ensures that the jewellery makes it to the intended ancestor by placing it on the family altar and praying before the burning ceremony. He finishes by preparing some fake black and purple tunics, traditional clothing worn by old people in Vietnam. He hands me one and I’m surprised by how real it feels, the only giveaway being its lightness. “These are for my grandparents who died long ago,” Viet explains as he throws them into the fire. “They lived very simple lives so clothes are all they really need. They wouldn’t even know what an iPhone was!”