Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
War and Shadows

War and Shadows: The Haunting of Vietnam

Mai Lan Gustafsson
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    War and Shadows
    Book Description:

    Vietnamese culture and religious traditions place the utmost importance on dying well: in old age, body unblemished, with surviving children, and properly buried and mourned. More than five million people were killed in the Vietnam War, many of them young, many of them dying far from home. Another 300,000 are still missing. Having died badly, they are thought to have become angry ghosts, doomed to spend eternity in a kind of spirit hell. Decades after the war ended, many survivors believe that the spirits of those dead and missing have returned to haunt their loved ones.

    In War and Shadows, the anthropologist Mai Lan Gustafsson tells the story of the anger of these spirits and the torments of their kin. Gustafsson's rich ethnographic research allows her to bring readers into the world of spirit possession, focusing on the source of the pain, the physical and mental anguish the spirits bring, and various attempts to ameliorate their anger through ritual offerings and the intervention of mediums. Through a series of personal life histories, she chronicles the variety of ailments brought about by the spirits' wrath, from headaches and aching limbs (often the same limb lost by a loved one in battle) to self-mutilation.

    In Gustafsson's view, the Communist suppression of spirit-based religion after the fall of Saigon has intensified anxieties about the well-being of the spirit world. While shrines and mourning are still allowed, spirit mediums were outlawed and driven underground, along with many of the other practices that might have provided some comfort. Despite these restrictions, she finds, victims of these hauntings do as much as possible to try to lay their ghosts to rest.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5869-9
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. 1. The Problem
    (pp. 1-10)

    It was the blood that gave Vi away. Had it not been there, she would have remained my friend but she would not have become an informant. But it was there, and it was startling to see it on her immaculate figure. I met Ly Thi Vi in 1996. She was a regular fixture in the foreigners’ guesthouse where I lived in Hanoi. Two or three times a week, I would see her sitting in the garden bar with a soft drink or having a meal in the canteen. Always, she was surrounded by foreigners, and the staff of the...

  5. 2. Foundations
    (pp. 11-24)

    If the war haunts Vietnam, who or what haunts the Vietnamese? It is the angry spirits of the dead, or con ma. The millions of dead from the war joined other classes of beings in Vietnam’s otherworld, known as the gioi khac. That world’s intrusion into our world is taken for granted by Vietnamese—even my informants believed that their problems were not unusual in being caused by ghosts but just for their duration and scope. That supernatural experiences are not considered out of the ordinary in Vietnam is indicative of a worldview in which spirits are believed to influence...

  6. 3. Revelations
    (pp. 25-34)

    Vi told me everything later that day after we left the café. Abandoning our dinner plans, she took me to her apartment to dress her wounds. Just before she left to meet me, she explained, the angry ghost of her brother had made himself known. She’d blindly torn at her chest with her nails, ripping open the skin, while explosions and a loud male voice rang in her ears. This was the worst of Vi’s frequent possession episodes: tearing the flesh of her chest and stomach with her long, lacquered fingernails. The damage was terrible and extensive. “My body is...

  7. 4. The Living and the Dead
    (pp. 35-54)

    Nghiem Thi Huong related to me the following story about her first-hand experience during the war:

    Six people are making their way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They are somewhere in northeastern Cambodia, and they have been walking for two months. For three of them, this is their third trip. Two of the others are newcomers to this arduous journey, but like the rest, they do not complain about the hardships. They are an offshoot unit of Battalion 18, Regiment 102, Division 400 of the People’s Army of North Vietnam, and they are on the way to where the...

  8. 5. Afterlives
    (pp. 55-72)

    Whatever the affliction, whichever spirit was to blame, all of the victims I worked with knew one thing: to become well again, they had to lay these ghosts of war to rest. Unfortunately, appeasing them is very difficult. They are known as angry ghosts for a reason. It is in their nature to harm the living. However loving and kind these spirits were in life, in death they are cruel tormentors. Why? The answer lies in the manner of their dying, for it is how someone dies that most of all determines whether he or she will become an ancestral...

  9. 6. Problem Solving
    (pp. 73-86)

    Three people sit stiffly on a dark red divan covered with clear plastic. The older woman, Do Thi Luu, clutches the hand of the younger—her daughter, Nguyen Thi Thi. Both appear nervous. Thi Thi whispers something to her mother, but Luu quiets her with a quick jerk of the head. Thi Thi’s husband, Lam Van Loi, sips tea with studied nonchalance, but the rapid tapping of his foot betrays him. They wait.

    From another room travels the sharp voice of a woman: “Finish your homework and be quiet.” Loi straightens up at the sound of the voice, which is...

  10. 7. “Superstition” in a Secular State
    (pp. 87-106)

    The directions were carefully written and very precise:

    Follow Nguyen Trai Street away from the center. After the traffic circle next to the Alpo Hotel, make a right onto Hue Street. Follow Hue Street until you come to an unmarked alley between a photo shop and a coconut juice bar. Follow this alley for ten minutes until you reach the market. She sells in the fish section. She has red buckets and she is very fat.

    “She” was Dinh Anh Tuyet, a thirty-year-old full-time fish vendor and part-time secret medium. My first encounter with her was unforgettable. I followed the...

  11. 8. Revivals
    (pp. 107-122)

    The raising of living standards in Vietnam in the 1990s is attributed by economists both there and in the West to the effects of Doi Moi, or Renovation. Introduced at the Sixth National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in late 1986, Doi Moi initiated an open-door and free-market policy in Vietnam designed to promote socioeconomic development and closer ties with the rest of the world.¹ Following its introduction in 1986, significant economic reforms were instituted in 1987, 1988, and 1990.² By 1992 the transition was complete,³ and Vietnam had begun its transformation into one of the Tiger economies...

  12. 9. Conclusion
    (pp. 123-138)

    I often share the experiences of the many con ma victims I knew in Vietnam with my students. They sympathize. Some of them are afraid of what they hear. Invariably, all want to know if my informants’ troubles are “real.” It is a joyful challenge to bring other people’s lives and culture to life for students—even the tamest of subjects requires thought and care. When ghosts are the topic, it must be framed in such a way that participants in the discussion are drawn in and persuaded to forego their preconceived notions about what constitutes reality. In my professional...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 139-146)

    I would be remiss if I failed to present the resolution (or not) of my informants’ ghost problems. For all of them, see appendix 1. Below are the details of what happened to the people whose cases are featured in chapter 4—and to Ms. Vi, who opened the book.

    Following their self-diagnosis in January 1997, this trio of comrades visited the medium Phuong in April. She confirmed that their dead comrade Chat was the source of their ailments and that he was directing his anger at being unburied against all who knew him well in life. Chat was uncooperative...

  14. Appendix 1. Table of Suffering
    (pp. 147-168)
  15. Appendix 2. Chronology of the War
    (pp. 169-176)
  16. NOTES
    (pp. 177-192)
  17. References
    (pp. 193-204)
  18. Index
    (pp. 205-206)