Turtles, Eggs, and Rocks: Vietnamese Superstitions in Practice

Staff Writer Pho Vu ’23 proffers twelve bits of Vietnamese wisdom that might help you avoid bad luck (and, maybe the hiccups).

Turtles, Eggs, and Rocks: Vietnamese Superstitions in Practice
Though seemingly bizarre to those without cultural context, superstitions can offer comfort by soothing uncertainty. Graphic courtesy of Nina Aagaard ’26.

If you are burdened with seemingly unsolvable problems, talk it out with your Vietnamese friend. One thing that is characteristic of Vietnamese culture is how persevering people are in looking for solutions, even if that means trying out obscure methods. The saying “You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take” rings true when describing the people’s meticulous search for solutions.

These resolutions are driven by folktales and traditional practices. As a child of Vietnam, I am compiling 12 superstitions — including folk remedies and taboos — that are most often used by my family and friends. They might just help you out.

Take a Rain Check During the Ghost Month

While Vietnamese people do business using a solar calendar, they make sure to double-check with the lunar calendar (check out this site’s conversion tables). In this calendar preserved for the Underworld, July is named a Ghost Month, which is the time Hell’s Gate opens and releases damned souls into the living world. With devilish powers meddling with people’s affairs, important events like moving houses, buying cars, and going on business trips must wait. If you insist on proceeding with your plan, chances are you’ll experience a real-life League of Legends Player Kill match with an opponent that you can’t see with naked eyes.

Heal Hiccups with Hydration

To stop hiccups, people suggest violent methods like scaring the crap out of hiccup-ers, or having them stop breathing for a short period. But a proposition from Vietnamese predecessors is to solve it one sip at a time — take seven sips of water if you are a male, and nine sips if you are a female. This stems from a Daoist mythological belief about the duality of souls that deems that, apart from having the same three cloud-souls (hún 魂 in Chinese; they represent the personality and consciousness), men each have seven white-souls, and women have nine. A white-soul — in Chinese, pò 魄 — refers to the subconscious side of the being, which dictates the thought-free process, such as the growth and healing of the body.

Despite being known as a folk remedy for hiccups, this one is well substantiated with actual scientific evidence. When drinking water continuously with many distinct small sips, the diaphragm will no longer spasm. In addition, if you drink water continuously while holding your breath, the concentration of blood’s carbon dioxide increases. As a result, hiccups are repelled faster.

In my experience, if you do it right, it is a foolproof formula when hiccups make a random visit.

Let Go of Broken Mirrors

For “Constantine” die-hards, mirrors are easily recognized as being among the special gateways that connect two words.

When demons look into the mirror, they see their fierce form in the mirror and run away in fear. When the mirror is broken, it is a sign that the devil has been set free from the exorcism, thereby being empowered to spread negative energies.

Drive Away Ghosts with the Om Mani Padme Hum Chant

To Buddhist practitioners, this “spell” is beyond a cultural superstition and contains the charisma to drive away the evil forces and fill life with delight. Originated in Sanskrit, Om Mani Padme Hum, translated to “Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus,” is crowned the longest mantra in existence. There’s not one but numerous variations surrounding the explanation of this chant whose meaning cost Buddha 1000 lives to find. No matter how different these interpretations are, they all point to the omnipresence of Avalokiteshvara, the most important deity in Buddhism. So, in reciting the chant with sincere devotion, one is calling the compassionate heart of the deity to their life.

The chant is well-received in many countries where Buddhism is prevalent. In an exclusive interview with the New York Times in 2022, Everything Everywhere All At Once superstar Michelle Yeoh shared her habit of reciting the chant as a crucial step of her daily fitness routine.

During last summer’s dorm transition period, I was making long walks from Val Quad to the Zu almost every night. Under the moon, citing the chant verbatim gave me full-fledged courage to make it home.

Cutting Hair on Certain Days

When they face difficulties in life or are experiencing a depressed mood, Vietnamese people often cut their hair. The haircut is considered a lucky charm, helping to expel bad luck, change appearance, and bring good luck to one’s life. But if all is well, a haircut will reverse that.

At the same time, many believe that hair is like the antenna of the brain. Cutting hair before an exam will force the learned knowledge to fall out of one’s brain, causing you to fail the exam, perhaps, or incur bad luck.

Eating Before Exams

Regarding what to eat (and not to eat) on testing day, Vietnamese students have quite a list. Stay away from all types of eggs. Possessing a round shape, eggs look like a zero, which is not something one hopes to receive as a grade. No bananas should be consumed either, for their slippery nature can cause facts to slip your mind and lead you to flop an exam. Instead, try to eat more red beans. In Vietnamese, “beans” is a homonym with the word “passing,” which is highly anticipated good news for exam takers. Like many already know, red is a lucky color, so in combination, red beans are an ideal consumption choice for earning flying colors. On the other hand, black beans are out of people’s favor. Black represents bad luck, so black beans can indicate a bad omen for your next exam.

Don’t Gift Your Lover(s) Shoes or Handkerchiefs

Couples, take note. While giving shoes as a gift can be seen as an affectionate act, it is also believed that new shoes bring the recipients to new land, thus signifying an eventual end to the relationship. Similarly, according to feng shui, handkerchiefs as gifts can also be a bad choice for relationships, because they are used to wipe tears and sweat, thus symbolizing sadness and misery. Giving handkerchiefs to each other predicts separation.

No Pet Turtles

Turtles have always played an important role in beliefs and feng shui. Along with dragons, unicorns, and phoenixes, turtles are one of the four spirits that guard the four corners of the Earth. Yet, they are the only one existent while the three others are only seen in illustrated works. Then, how come raising them is a bad idea? The Five Phases theory establishes that turtles are associated with the fire element. Also in this theory, relationships among five elements are explained with multiple cycles. As fire produces earth in the inter-promoting cycle, people identified with the earth element are said to be suited for raising turtles. However, fire melts metal in the inter-regulating cycle, so people with metal as their element are advised to not keep turtles because it can adversely affect the fortune of the owner.

In reality, though, no matter what element they are, if one of my friends brings home a turtle, they will be scolded so badly for potentially slowing the family’s progress. Turtles are mostly seen in public places, namely temples and lakes. Vietnamese people believe that turtles being outside, unleashed, activates their strongest power, thereby benefiting the entire community. Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake is a historical site that bears proof to Vietnamese favor of turtles.

Skip Rocks on the Way Home

In the past, unidentified dead bodies, or those without relatives, were often buried on the roadside or along the river. People used rocks as blessings when burying the dead. Therefore, the ordinary-looking stone you see on the roadside may be the same stone that was used for such a purpose, and it can carry the soul of the dead person back home with whoever is picking it up. At many rock-filled Vietnamese tourist sites, visitors are told real stories of people encountering strange phenomena after bringing home some colorful rocks. This actually helps people leave things where they belong.

Involve Little Ones in Your House-Hunting Journey

Our grandparents always note that, when moving to a new house, especially an old house bought from someone else, you should bring a dog or baby under three years old. When you go to a house and the dog walks around the house wagging its tail or the baby crawls and plays by himself, this shows that it is a good place. Conversely, when the dog doesn’t want to come in and barks constantly, or the baby cries, this place has negative energy. Naturally, babies and dogs are thought to be able to recognize an invisible force existing in the house.

Avoid Jingling Your Keys After Dark

After 10 p.m., it is absolutely advised that you do not shake your house keys. Ghosts are sensitive to sounds, and shaking keys can be a surefire way to invite the wandering spirits into your home. At night, it’s best to leave your keys somewhere they won’t make any sound. Similarly, refrain from doing the dishes at this hour as the clashing sounds from this activity are inviting as well.

Comb Your Hair Before Getting into Vehicles

From ancient times, it was believed that the mirror and comb are the objects that create the connection between the two realms of yin and yang. In rituals for kids that die young, mirrors and combs are mostly seen items.

Older people believe that homeless souls often wander on the street to find shelter, and once a strand of hair falls out due to our physical force, the yang qi (positive energy) in the hair exudes, the yin qi (negative power) becomes stronger, creating favorable conditions for these souls to intrude and create disturbance.

Hence, drivers are afraid that passengers checking themselves in the mirror or brushing their hair in the car can accidentally “wake up” those unjustly dead souls, allowing them to enter through the mirror or the comb to curse the entire car and people within it.

Try to do your hair before boarding, but if it can’t be done in advance, save your grooming for later.

Conclusion: What Do We Make of This?

Following these superstitious beliefs is not purely a ritual in Vietnamese culture. It is a means of honoring our cultural legacy — the beliefs our ancestors relied on to benefit future generations — in our daily routines. While having so many options can be overwhelming, these little things are a helpful guide to our daily actions.

Accompanying them is a popular Vietnamese saying that translates to “With prayer, there is holiness; with forbearance, there is good.”

My aunt told me that when there’s a fire in front of us, being blind doesn’t give us special treatment of not getting burnt by it. “It feels helpless to not know how the universe actually works, so knowing possible ways is a privilege.”

It can be hard to relate to these quirky beliefs, especially when you didn’t grow up in that culture. However, when unexpected life scenarios happen to drive you to insanity, remember, you are provided with a rare opportunity to put these Vietnamese-style hacks into testing. Who knows, maybe you’ll stave off some bad luck!