Why you should care
Because death is literally part of life in some places.
“I remember one monk said to me that this is fate. Meaning my fate has a connection with the spiritual world. It seems like I was chosen by a supernatural power.”
I am standing inside the arch of a long-abandoned Christian church nestled into a forest in northern Vietnam, and those are the words of the professional ghost hunter I’m with, Hong Nam. Opening doors into tribes and treasures alike. In this case, the treasure is this relic of a church and the ceremony that I’m about to witness.
In Vietnam, Hong and his pal Trang are seen as both trailblazers and charlatans. The latter is not a reflection of their characters but rather of people’s desires to appear modern. But what makes my experience here in this misty forest more compelling is the ancient tradition that gives rise to ghost hunting at all: the Vietnamese understanding of the afterlife.
Our adventure started 24 hours earlier at the end of a warren of narrow streets in Dong Ngac, an ancient village outside Hanoi. Behind an unremarkable set of wooden doors was an aging rectangular home that’s shed its former elegance for the charming patina of loved neglect. Which is somewhat fitting, as I discover that it’s been converted from a residence to a permanent shrine for deceased relatives. It sits somewhere at the nexus of a temple and a mausoleum staged at the Vietnamese Grey Gardens.
Hong walked me around the rarely pruned gardens as he explained the particular significance of the spiritual plane for Buddhists in his country — in Vietnam, people believe that each person has three souls. Death occurs when all three souls leave a person’s body, though only the most enlightened persons are believed to be led immediately to heaven. The lion’s share of us are left to wander in a kind of limbo while living relatives pray ardently for their deceased loved ones.
Hong and Trang venture back into the carcass of the church and start setting up candles around the former home of the altar, stacking at least a million dollars of fake cash in the center …
The catch? It’s easy for souls to get lost during this period of limbo. So, between this and the concept of reincarnation, which is not necessarily immediate, there’s the possibility that a multitude of spirits are among us, Hong says. It’s worth noting that Phạm Công Sơn, a Vietnamese anthropologist, once said, “Death is not the end but is the final stage of one life to be transformed into another.”
We streamed out of the unremarkable wooden gates again and down a maze onto a street where Trang was waiting for Hong with a truck full of hard plastic cases — the kind I use for travel into war zones and conflict areas. We drove away and dodged Vietnamese traffic before veering off into a dense forest and, higher, into the mountains.
I began to notice moss-covered stone buildings camouflaged by the foliage. Hong explained that this mountaintop was once a seat of power for the colonial government of Tonkin in French Indochina. The French used the top of the mountain as a political prison for the local population and built what sounds a bit like “Le Club Med” for senior French officials in the ring below. As French rule collapsed, this whole area was the scene of fierce fighting between the colonizers and the colonized, making Ho Chi Minh a legend in his land.
The church we’re at is in a clearing, and the guys take me on a recon trip into some of the other ruins, out of sight of the church, so they can investigate. Hong channels his inner Spider-Man, scampering up the sheer face of a stone wall and scaling its flat top. He says we’re in a place where the spirits of ancestors reside.
We return to the church and file in behind Hong and Trang as they carry in their cases and open them at the nave, revealing a bizarre assortment of paraphernalia. As they begin to remove items, it starts to rain. We duck for cover to wait it out. The storm cuts through the fog, releasing the aroma of the forest; once it stops, Hong and Trang venture back into the carcass of the church and start setting up candles around the former home of the altar, stacking at least a million dollars of fake cash in the center and setting out a mirror.
The mirror, acting as a gateway between worlds and combined with the ash, is their portal.
I ask Hong about the cash, and he tells me that this is called joss paper, or “ghost money.”
“Burning joss creates heat to attract spirits if they are around and also acts as a greeting or gift to strange spirits,” he says. “Though, in general, we believe that the people in the afterlife have lives similar to ours. People who have deceased relatives also wish that the ones who passed away could enjoy a happy afterlife. So they burn the joss paper in order to give the deceased a better life.”
Among their other tools are sensors that detect changes in temperature, a typical tool to detect ghosts, and a sensor that detects changes in radio frequencies. The radio-frequency angle is new to me, though Hong’s explanation is akin to radar — ghosts effect change in the unseen environment and this helps them detect that change.
As darkness falls, they light the candles. There’s a pause, words are spoken that I can’t understand and then Hong and Trang spread out and canvas the perimeter using their detection tools before coming together again in the center and lighting the joss paper, creating a blaze inside. They huddle, engaged in a ritual that involves the scraps of ash that float past them into the ether above.
The mirror is now carefully balanced in Hong’s hand as Trang gathers bits of the ash. The mirror, acting as a gateway between worlds and combined with the ash, is their portal.
Earlier in the day, Hong had said something to me that rang true. “What has made me stay with this until today? I think it’s my desire to know if the afterlife really exists. I don’t know if my adventures will get any results, if I will find any clues or any signs. But just thinking about it gives me more energy and reminds me to be a good person. Because when we think that the spirits are around us, especially our loved ones who are watching us, we will always try to be a better person.”