As evidenced in The Frangipani Hotel, Vietnam abounds with mythology and ghost stories. In the country's creation myth, Dragon Lord Lạc Long Quân and his fairy wife, Au Cợ, hatched their 100 children from eggs, giving rise to Vietnam's 100 family surnames. Lạc Long Quân had an undersea palace at the southern coast, but Au Cợ and 50 children stayed in the northern mountains, thus peopling the country's two distinct terrains. In Kupersmith's story "Red Veil," Sister Emmanuel recounts this legend before embarking on her personal history: "I will start at the very beginning—the beginning we all were taught as children. Thousands of years ago, a dragon prince and a fairy spirit fell in love..." Thus Vietnam's primal story paves the way for all the magical tales to come.
The Communist government discourages belief in spirits, and is suspicious of shrines. Still, Vietnamese folk religion, including ancestor worship, thrives. Ghosts (con ma), whether friendly or malevolent, are wandering souls who suffered untimely death away from home; "good death" can only occur if one is surrounded by family members and given correct burial rites. Souls need to take particular objects into the afterlife with them, such as clothing and sticky rice. "Ghost money" (joss paper) is burned alongside incense in prayerful homage.
The ancestors may be benevolent, but angry ghosts abound. Tree ghosts curse those who cut down trees without permission, and there are tales of ma doi, hungry ghosts who wander the country as robbers. At road turnings where there have been accidents, ghosts are thought to leap out and frighten drivers into crashing. The Vietnamese horror film, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait (2007), tells of a vengeful ghost and a haunted portrait. In a war-torn country where thousands are still classed as 'MIA,' it is not surprising that soldier ghosts are thought to be everywhere. Many lie in unmarked graves, until remains can be exhumed and given funerals.
Honoring ancestors is an important obligation, even for those Vietnamese living abroad. Off Highway 1A, between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) – the very route the trucker travels in Kupersmith's story "Little Brother" – lies what has become known as the "City of Ghosts" or "City of Tombs." This necropolis, covering a sandy plain about twelve miles east of Hue, is full of huge, ornate mausoleums. Many were paid for by the boat people of the 1970s and 1980s, who left their homeland for a better life in the West.
Hạ Long Bay, one of Vietnam's most popular destinations, is an idyllic cluster of 2,000 limestone islands. Yet it, too, has known its share of tragedy: in September 2009 and February 2012, excursion boats sank, killing 12 and five tourists, respectively. The site's name means "descending dragon bay," evoking the myth of how the islands formed when a dragon fell from the sky. In Kupersmith's "Descending Dragon," a lonely elderly woman decides to recreate this very myth to get her family's attention. The Frangipani Hotel is richly imbued with Vietnam's legendary history.
This article was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the
February 2015 paperback release.
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