The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division , at sacred-texts.com
Gassho: is a form of greeting or the highest form of respect, in which hands are placed palms together, fingers pointing upward, in front of the chest. In showing respect to clergy or respected persons of high honor, the hands are placed in front of the face instead of the chest. The form also represents unity. It is often used as a means of greeting in lieu of the American handshake. The gassho is also the position in which worshippers hold their hands while listening to sermons in the pagoda, or to the advice and counsel of a bonze.
Joss Stick Lighting: Worshippers normally light three joss sticks (the Cao Daist use five) in the courtyard of the house of worship, and place them in sand-filled containers or in specially prepared racks. Then moving to the center of the patio or pagoda front, they perform the gassho three times. This is quite similar to the Japanese version of clapping the hands three times from a similar location. "Money" made of golden or red crepe paper may also be burned at this time in an outdoor fire so that the ascending smoke may supply the needs of the spirits or gods. Unless specifically invited to do so, it is not proper for non-adherents of the faith to light joss sticks.
Worship in the Pagoda or Temple: takes place after the worshipper removes his shoes at the temple door and, if wearing one, removes his hat. He moves to a position in front of the altar, be it one of Buddha or of Spirit Veneration; and performs the gassho three times. He then kneels, and from this position lowers his forehead to the floor three times. Once these acts are completed, the worshipper stands, bows to the altar or to the Buddha statue, then moves away. This may complete the worship. Sometimes the worshipper may shake a container of numbered sticks until one or more fall away. The sticks which drop are then taken to an attendant who gives a printed answer to the worshipper for each stick, the written material supposedly giving answers to the desires of the one who has performed the service.
Funerals: Dependent upon locality and ethnic group, as well as upon religious beliefs, funerals will vary in accordance with wealth and social position of the family. The head of the home is normally given a more elaborate funeral than is a wife or children. This is equally true when cremation is the method for handling the corpse. Burials may be in cemeteries or on family property, in simple round graves or in elaborately constructed and decorated graves. Normally the cities have cemeteries and funerals are more elaborate than in villages. But even in the latter, it is necessary for descendents to conform to a pattern of "entertainment" often beyond their means. The amount of food, drink, music, etc., provided at a funeral is considered by some as indicative of the amount of respect the family had for the deceased.
Because embalming is not practiced in Vietnam, funerals normally take place shortly after death. There are exceptions, however; and on such occasions the body is placed in a casket with sand about it, and perfume is used to conceal odors of decay. Because of the heat and humidity, however, even this practice must be short-termed.
In the typical procession, the eldest son of the deceased leads the march to the place of burial. He is followed by the clergy, relics of worship, and a picture of the deceased. If within the means of the family, a hired band is next in line, followed by the hearse. Female members of the family, dressed in white and wearing white head-bands which signify mourning, follow the hearse on foot. Other mourners follow to complete the procession.
For many villagers, the funeral maybe quite simply the choosing of a burial spot, the digging of a shallow grave, the placing of the casket, and the closing of the grave. In such cases the casket may be attached to a bamboo pole and carried to the gravesite on the shoulders of two men. In most cases the grave is tended from time to time; the dirt is repiled and shaped to mark it as a grave; and grass and weeds are removed.
In reference to death and funerals in Vietnam, it is important to remember the following:
1. Jokes about sickness and death are in very bad taste among Vietnamese.
2. Treat graves as you would desire those of your own loved ones to be treated.
3. Beliefs about death and afterlife are utilized by the Viet Cong as part of psychological warfare.
4. Treat the dead in the same manner that you would desire for yourself or loved ones to the extent that conditions permit.
Graves: A variety of gravesites dot the countryside of Vietnam. Many graves are merely round piles of dirt in the form of a circle, and may be found in rice paddies, on hillsides, etc. Treatment of these sites ought not to be less than that expected for cemetery plots in America. The
[paragraph continues] Vietnamese believe that the individual must earn the right to be buried, and will therefore often bury the deceased at a prime location on his land. They will then farm around the grave. Those who are financially able often erect barriers and decorations around the grave, utilizing the same type of materials and decorations found on pagodas and temples. Wisdom dictates that extra trouble be taken to avoid needless desecration of graves. Respect for gravesites not only promotes a "good neighbor policy", but reveals a feeling for Vietnamese beliefs. According to these beliefs, desecration of a grave not only affects the physical site itself, but angers the Spirits, who might directly attack the living. It is for the latter reason that any destruction of graves, purposeful or accidental, should be remedied without delay.
Communal Houses: The Communal House in Vietnam is often the place where memorial tables to the deceased are stored; and is the location for occasional ceremonies of the clan, tribe, or village. Like the WAT, it must be treated with both respect and care. The pagoda or temple, the Communal House, and the market place are the three locations of most importance in any community; and none of them should be disturbed without clear orders.
Ancestor Veneration Temples: Temples for the veneration of Great Heroes are a vital part of the Vietnamese scene. Due to the influence of Confucianism, there are a number of temples where Vietnamese go for worship and prayer to the spirits of deceased heroes. Each temple is dedicated to a number of such spirits, and in view of legendary Vietnamese history, any listing of the various Veneration Temples would be quite lengthy. As a rule, these Temples do not have Buddhas or Buddhist symbolism; but are richly ornamented in Chinese designs, and contain altars covered with items acceptable to this type of worship (incense burners, candles, pictures of the deceased etc.).
Marriage: The mixture of various religious concepts into one culture (as found in Vietnam except among tribal peoples) tends to give a uniformity to marriage arrangements, ceremonies, feasts, dowry, etc. Because the individual is less important than the family, it is expected that the family will have a major voice in the selection of wives and husbands of their children. This is often done through a "go-between" (male or female) to save "face" in case it is deemed best to break off bargaining. Another major factor in the choosing of marriage partners is consulting of horoscopes. This is often done by a Buddhist bonze who practices the art,
The wedding ceremony can take place in either the home of the bride or the groom or of relatives. It consists mainly of pledges by the couple. Often the go-between acts as the officiating personality. Sometimes, scripture reading by a bonze is included. During the ceremony elder married relatives may pour holy water over the hands of the couple, signifying that part of the virtue of Buddha is granted them.
The wedding feast often takes place several hours after the ceremony, or even the next day. It is proper to give gifts to the young couple, but they should not be given in odd numbers, To do so would be, according to popular belief, to bring "bad luck" on the marriage. It is thus better to present two less expensive gifts rather than one expensive gift.
It is not proper for an American to attend a wedding ceremony or feast unless he is specifically invited to be there.
Spirit Houses: These little shelters, some simple and some elaborate, are to be seen all over Vietnam. They are erected by the devout for the happiness of the Spirits. These Spirits may be those of a particular location, or the Spirits of deceased relatives which must be placated lest harm come to the living. The little shelters, which remind Westerners of "birdhouses", often contain candles, Joss Sticks, toy furniture, and other useful items for the pleasure and use of the Spirits. Spirit houses reflect prevalent belief in animism and ancestor veneration, and are of vital importance to those who erect them. For the best rapport with the people, Americans are strongly advised to steer completely clear of spirit houses.