Ancestor worship is a cornerstone of Vietnamese life. As evidence, nearly every Vietnamese home has a family altar, where the household venerates and honors its ancestors. But not all Vietnamese ancestral altars look the same. That’s because of the range of religious beliefs held across the country. While Buddhism is the most widely observed religion in Vietnam, it’s far from the only one.
Many Vietnamese people don’t practice Buddhism, or they practice a combination of Buddhism and other religions. Those other religions include Taoism, as well as Confucianism, and Catholicism.
Depending on which religion the family practices, you can find different items decorating the altar of a family altar. But each shrine has the common theme of venerating the family’s dead. Family altars serve to welcome ancestral spirits into the home and to make them feel loved and cared for.
Below, we’ll look at some of the most common things you can expect to see on a Vietnamese family altar.
1. Red cloth
A Vietnamese family altar almost always includes cloth of some kind, which is often red.
In Vietnam, the color red traditionally represents happiness and good fortune.
On their wedding days, for example, brides customarily dress in red rather than the white we observe in the West. White represents mourning in Vietnam, so it’s more appropriate to wear white to a Vietnamese funeral rather than a wedding.
2. Incense burner
There’s always an incense burner on the family altar in a Vietnamese home. Incense is an integral part of all rituals, including ancestral worship traditions. An incense burner is typically a round brass or porcelain bowl. It’s ornately decorated and filled with sand or uncooked rice to hold up the incense.
Burning incense on the family altar is supposed to extend an invitation to ancestral spirits. By lighting incense on the altar, it’s believed the family can make the ancestors feel welcome.
In addition to incense, many family altars also include candles. For ancestral worship rituals, members of the family can light these candles as a way to welcome the spirits in. The candles on a Vietnamese family altar are generally red to represent good luck and fortune. The candles can also be white to symbolize mourning if a family member recently passed away.
Families often personalize their altars with pictures of departed relatives that they wish to honor. Placing a picture of an ancestor on the altar can help direct the ancestral rituals towards that specific person.
When photos aren’t available, the family might place an engraved piece of wood or stone on the altar to represent an ancestor. The tablet is usually inscribed with the person’s name, but writing the name in pen can work, too. Once the name has been carved into or written on the tablet, the object represents that ancestor indefinitely.
In many households, it’s considered inappropriate to speak the name of an ancestor or family member after they’ve died. When that’s the case, the engraved tablet serves as that person’s real connection to the living world.
6. Food offerings
Many family altars include temporary food offerings for the ancestral spirits. The food represents sustenance needed by the ancestors to complete their journey through the afterlife.
Food offerings are typically only temporary. They’re symbolic offerings, and the family usually eats the offerings after a short time to avoid wasting the food.
7. Religious iconography
Depending on which religion or religions the family practices, they’ll typically have religious figures or icons on the family altar. In Buddhist homes, this can include figures and statues of Buddha. In Catholic homes, you might find a crucifix.
Most family altars feature brightly-colored flowers or floral bouquets in decorative vases. The flowers typically represent luck or prosperity according to their color. The most common colors used for altar flowers are red and yellow.
As mentioned, red represents luck and good fortune. Yellow or gold symbolizes happiness and prosperity. The family altar might also feature lotus flowers, which are the national flower of Vietnam.
9. Five fruits
As mentioned above, families often make food offerings to the ancestors by placing them on the altar. Nearly any type of food can serve as an offering to the spirit, lending them sustenance in the afterlife.
But more specifically, many families place a combination of fruit on the family altar. The five-fruit offering generally takes place on holidays like Tet. Still, a family can put together the arrangement whenever they’d like.
The five fruits traditionally included are bananas, persimmon, pear, pomelo, and tangerines, all in different colors. The goal is to choose a fruit representing each of five colors, which in turn represents prosperity, notability, longevity, health, and peace.
You’ll often see branches adorning Vietnamese family altars, too. The most common kind is a peach blossom branch with pink flowers. The peach blossoms are thought to drive away bad luck and keep evil spirits at bay.
In addition to food and specifically-chosen fruits, families sometimes place wine on the family altar temporarily. As with the five-fruit offering, wine and spirits are typically reserved for special occasions and holidays.
The wine is a temporary offering that might be left overnight and taken away in the morning. It’s thought to help make the spirits feel more comfortable and welcome in the home.
The altar often includes tea in a teacup or kettle, or alternatively, dried tea leaves. Again, the tea is a way to make ancestral spirits feel welcomed into the home.
There might also be a tea service set near the altar that’s set aside for guests. That’s because families often serve tea in front of the family altar, which sits in a central location within the home.
Many family altars have a set of chairs, a day-bed, or a small sofa in front of the family altar, where guests and family can gather for tea and refreshments.
13. Oil Lamp
The family altar always includes an incense burner, and often candles, too. But there might also be a small oil lamp on the family altar to illuminate it when it’s dark.
If the family feels like an oil lamp will make their departed ancestors feel more welcome, they’re likely to include one and light it at night.
14. Candy and treats
Food offerings are typically temporary and reserved for special occasions like Tet. But a family altar can feature a somewhat permanent arrangement of candy and sweets, which are shelf-stable. The family will often choose sweet snacks that their departed family members and ancestors especially enjoyed in life.
15. Joss Paper
Some family altars include fake paper money called Joss Paper. Joss Paper is typically red or gold, and it’s crafted to imitate real paper money or currency.
Joss Paper, also known as “ghost money” or “spirit money,” usually appears on Taoist family altars. The family might place Joss Paper on the altar as a way to offer merit to the ancestors. Alternatively, the family might burn Joss Paper at the altar to offer it to departed loved ones.
16. Symbolic animals
Finally, you’ll often see animal statues or paintings and photos of animals—both real and fantastical—on Vietnamese family altars. That’s because some animals symbolize values and ideals that the family might hold dear. An animal might also represent a departed loved one’s spirit.
For example, a dragon can symbolize power and nobility. It’s the emblem chosen to represent many emperors. A tortoise can represent longevity and perfection—especially if it’s depicted with a branch in its mouth. And a phoenix or bird embodies peace on Earth and in the afterlife.
Ancestor Worship in Vietnam
Family life is vital to Vietnamese culture, and ancestor worship is part of its overarching familial values. In the past, most people in Vietnam would often judge each other according to how well they honored their family and relatives.
Additionally, people traditionally believed they earned merit, or luck, based on the sincerity of their adoration. The failure to honor your ancestors could bring misfortune and even death.
Since ancient times, ancestral worship traditions have lessened, becoming less central to daily life. But family altars remain a crucial part of home life in Vietnam.
- “Worshiping the Ancestors.” Cornell University. seap.einaudi.cornell.edu/worshiping-ancestors
- “Worshipping ancestors - A fine tradition of Vietnam.” Vietnam Net. english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/art-entertainment/171841/worshipping-ancestors---a-fine-tradition-of-vietnam.html