On my last trip to Vietnam, I noticed something that I had actually never taken into consideration before. It wasn’t because I had never seen it. It was because I’d seen it so often that it never registered in my mind how incongruous it was to the normal scheme of things.
Allow me to clarify.
Since I was going to be in Vietnam by myself for around three weeks, I filled my days wandering around the glittering city, visiting this spa and that shop, buying all sorts of things and enjoying my time in Saigon.
Saigon is a beautiful city with so much to do. There is sight-seeing and shopping for fast fashion. There are restaurants of all types of cuisines, and a dizzying number of milk tea shops and coffee shops and pastry shops.
There are shops that sell everything a girl could possibly want and even offered things that a girl didn’t even know she wanted or needed. I found a place that sold luxuriously scented incense, and another spot that sold pearls of every imaginable color under the sun.
I also indulged myself in various beauty salons of all sorts. Believe me, there are few places that offer the quality of beauty care that can be found in Saigon.
There are nail salons and hair salons and massage salons (for women). There are tattoo parlors that offer permanent makeup…also for women.
There are treatment spas for women’s skin therapy. There are hair treatment spas which offer hour-long hair pampering washes and head massages…also for women.
In short, there is no shortage of pampering treatments (for women…of course). I do have to emphasize the ‘for women’ aspect of skin and health care because this is Vietnam we’re talking about.
Although the Vietnamese people in general have become quite open and more accepting of modern cultural openness between the sexes, there are still a few boundaries that seem to be upheld.
Men and women do not frequent each other’s spas and such. We do not want to see men in our relaxing spas because then, it wouldn’t be relaxing, now would it?
Women are quite liberal in Saigon, in any case. They wear less clothing than I do–but only at night. During the day, the women are completely covered up, not because of modesty, or needing to adhere to some oppressive religion.
They cover up because of the relentless tropical sun and the pollution that plagues a densely populated city like Saigon. Viet women are very protective of their skin and do not want to get damaged skin and cancers. Can’t say I blame them. When I am in Vietnam, I wear sunblock and a big hat myself.
But I’m digressing. I need to get back to the point of this post.
Throughout my sojourn around the Pearl of the Orient, I noticed that in every shop I visited, there was always a small wooden altar on the floor, somewhere in an inconspicuous corner.
In front of these tiny shrines, there were always some sort of floral decorative touches such as chrysanthemum flowers and bamboo shoots on both sides, a red electric candle that was always lit (at least during business hours), tea, coffee, a small food bun, and even lit cigarettes were the offerings placed in front of one or both of the lucky deities. These gods were named Ông Thổ Địa and Ông Thần Tài.
Having been back to Vietnam many times, I have seen these tiny shrines before and knew what they were used for (kinda), but I’m always searching for new answers, even to questions I (mostly) know the answers to, so I began asking the owners of the venues about the shrines.
My questions mostly revolved around who these men were and why they are being venerated.
Also, why in the world are they on the floor?
Let me tell you. The answers I got were rarely ever illuminating. In fact, many of the shop owners were Catholics, but were doing this as a way to cover all bases.
The idea is to pray to Jesus and Mary and all the saints–but don’t forget to light a candle to these lesser gods so they don’t get pissed off and cause unfortunate things that could sink the business.
To my casual observation, this sort of folk belief system permeated almost the entire populace.
Just about every business I visited, be they coffee shops, restaurants, or auto repair shops, they all had the ubiquitous shrine somewhere on the floor of their business.
There was always the wispy lazy smoke of the incense burning. There was always the unflickering red light of the shrine candle, always on, always watching.
But who was doing the watching?
To answer that, I must first get into the minutiae of the two lesser deities that are being venerated.
Ông Thần Tài
Ông Thần Tài means Mister Wealth God. He’s also known for bringing luck to businesses and increasing talents and abilities for students.
Note: I am capitalizing God because that’s literally his title/name, and not because he is the Almighty God.
His story is interesting in an odd way. Apparently, he was an extraterrestrial who had some sort of catastrophic accident and landed on Earth, alone and without any of his ship companions.
He wandered about the lands, begging for sustenance until he met a tavern keeper who took pity on him and took him in. He was fed and given shelter without asking for anything in return.
Over the course of weeks, the tavern keeper continued to feed this beggar with whatever food he could spare.
His kindness started paying off because he began to notice that his once-sparse business, began to take off. He began to become more and more prosperous as guests started pouring into his business.
Not realizing that his business was prosperous due to the Wealth God, he sent the beggar away, and within a matter of days, had lost all his customers. Meanwhile, another shop had taken him in and suddenly received all the good luck.
He continued to bestow luck on any shop he visited until the 10th day of the first lunar month, when he took off, back into the sky to rejoin his fellow sky-gods. From that point forward, every 10th day of the first lunar month is considered Ông Thần Tài‘s day.
The Wealth god loves seafood such as crabs, shrimp, fish, bananas, and wine of all sorts.
Ông Thổ Địa
Ông Thổ Địa means Mister Land God. He is also known as the land demon, earth demon, land elohim–whatever you like to call him.
Note: Elohim, used in this context is the original Hebrew word ‘אֱלֹהִים‘ which means ‘gods’.
He is always depicted as a half-dressed guy with a rotund, exposed belly and a bald head. He holds a fan in his right hand, and in his left hand, he either holds gold bullion ingots or a pipe filled with tobacco.
You want this guy on your side. This guy is the one who protects your house, your land, your crops (for any of you who have some tomatoes and okra growing in your planter boxes).
No point in making all that money and accumulating all that wealth if nobody is protecting everything from being looted or raided. In fact, you have to ask permission from Mr. Land God to invite Mr. Wealth God into the house, since Land God presides over the lands and the house.
Anything having to do with the lands, such as digging a well, prepping the ground for a pond, putting down a foundation for a house, or plowing the lands to prepare for the new planting season must all require the veneration of Mr. Land God.
Being a rather rotund man, Mr. Land God loves food offerings, but you must break off a piece and eat it first before offering it to him because he is afraid of getting poisoned. Apparently, this particular god was once a mortal and had died from being poisoned.
Mr. Land god loves Thai bananas, coffee, and cigarettes. Make sure you eat one banana from the bunch, take a sip of the coffee and a puff of the cigarette before you offer it to him.
There is an ongoing debate on whether to place the Wealth & Land gods on the floor or up at table height. On the one hand, people say that the Land god is the god of the land and therefore likes to be as close to the land as possible. On the other hand, there are others who maintain that the veneration of any god must be done at a more respectful height.
I don’t know what the best answer is since I do not have a business that would require for me to set up such a shrine. If anyone has any thoughts on this, I welcome your thoughts.
4 thoughts on “Saigon Glamor and Lucky Gods”
I would worry about bumping into or kicking the shrines if they’re on the floor, as I might not notice them at first there. At least now I have a heads up, to look out for all those shrines in Saigon. It is a good question though, what height to put those, I am not sure. I wonder if there are other underlying reasons people have. Its interesting though, I learned something new. I hope you’re enjoying yourself there, I’d want to go to Saigon someday myself. Also, you are so pretty, I hope you don’t mind compliments. Thank you for writing.
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I live across the canal from Q5 in district 8. Sometime ago you wrote your Mả Lạng article. That bit of history never finished. At the end of my street is a statue which completely rewrites that story. That story had repercussions in the Vatican ‘recently’. I am writing a book about the rewrite. I have just in the last few weeks solved some of the mysteries surrounding the statue and the insurrection. Contact me if you wish to get sucked into a never ending piece of history.
Enjoy your stay.
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Oh wow. Now I’m super curious as to what you have found. I can’t wait for your new book to come out so we may all be given front row seats on your latest findings.
Thank you for the compliments. I appreciate that. I have no doubt that you would be able to see the shrines even though they are on the floor. They are painted red with red lights and bright yellow chrysanthemums. It’s a very cool place to visit, if you ever get the chance to go there.
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