First Things First

The campaign against ghost money in Saigonese funerals seems to have taken the right path. It first began with propaganda in the community to be followed by financial sanctions.

Pay VND2,000 (roughly 10 U.S. cents) and you’ll get 50 US$100 banknotes. Give another VND2,000 and you’ll have another 50 banknotes of 500 euros each. In Saigon, this type of “exchange counters” can be easily found at a market in town.

But don’t get us wrong! Of course, those notes aren’t real ones and nobody cares about them except for bereaved families. They are among the joss paper local family members either burn down or litter on the way while accompanying the coffin to the cemetery or the crematorium.

Expatriates may be surprised when they happen to go behind a procession on the way to the funeral parlor. At the moment, they will see Hell Bank notes being scattered onto the streets. After the hearse has passed by, the streets are strewn with spirit money.

Little has been known about how and when the custom of scattering ghost money on the streets was initiated. According to Associate Professor Nguyen Trong Hoa at the HCM City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, to many Vietnamese, burning and scattering ghost money in funerals is a deep-rooted tradition. Many Vietnamese believe that death is just the beginning of a new life in a different world. Therefore, preparing for relatives’ new life is very important. As there is no life in the modern world without… money, the bulk of joss paper of choice for the deceased is in the form of high-value Hell Bank notes. In Vietnam, the U.S. dollar has been preferred. In recent years, when the euro began to challenge the greenback, ghost money in euros has become a favorite item of joss paper.

No official figure of how much Saigonese spend every year on joss paper during funerals is available although estimates show that the custom may cost them billions of dong. Aside from financial waste on the part of the bereaved, it’s obvious that scattering ghost money on the streets is polluting, spoils the cityscape and may be detrimental to road users, particularly motorbike riders. Considering the above arguments, the custom of scattering joss paper on the streets should be got rid of, authorities have argued.

The municipal government last week took the first step toward doing away with this obsolete custom. A workshop on the issue was held last Thursday by the HCM City Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the People’s Committee of District 11 where almost 45% of the registered population is of Chinese origin, according to the district’s cultural and information division.

Participants at the workshop all agreed that in the context of the modern urban environment, this custom should be done away with although it is century-old. However, an appropriate approach should be adopted along the way. First things first: Raising the awareness of the issue among the population is the foremost step to be taken.
Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper quoted Le Thi Thu Huong, chairwoman of Phu Nhuan District’s Ward 14 People’s Committee as saying that her ward started with compiling a letter to be sent to bereaved families. In the letter, aside from condolences, a note is also given to families advising them not to scatter spirit money on the way to the funeral parlor. This has proved to be effective, Huong told delegates at the workshop.

Associate Professor Nguyen Minh Hoa said he is in favor of Huong’s approach. After the time of propaganda, financial sanctions should follow because, Hoa argued, a litter of ghost money is also a form of environmental pollution. He added that HCM City has lagged behind Hanoi in this regard.

This time the city authorities seem to have taken an appropriate approach to the joss paper issue. Such a campaign will take time and require effort as well as patience. Above all, the crucial factor relates mostly to enforcement. Adequately dealing with those who fail to comply with regulations will decide the success of a campaign of this sort.

And yet, scattering ghost money on the way to the funeral parlor is just part of the issue. The next step should be the elimination of ear-deafening funeral music bands. By Quynh Thu of SGT

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