Food for the deceased

What is Vu Lan Festival in Vietnam?

Vu Lan Festival is one of the main holidays of Mahayana Buddhism. On this day, Buddhists will attend the pagoda and participate in a set of activities to demonstrate their filial piety (hiếu) towards their parents and ancestors.


The Etymology of the word Vu Lan 

Mother and son pray before placing paper flowers into the river.
Mother and son pray before placing paper flowers into the river. 2022.

Vu-lan ( Chinese : 盂蘭; sa. ullambana ) is an acronym for Vu-lan-pen, which is a transliteration from the sanskrit noun ullambana. Ullambana comes from the verb meaning “to hang (upside) down”. It refers to the liberation for those who are extremely miserable in the realm of Hell.


Origins Behind the Vu Lan Festival

People prayer at Viet Nam Quoc Tu
Prayers, incense and offerings at the Vietnamese National Buddhist Temple (Việt Nam Quốc Tự). 2023.

The origins of Vu Lan are based on one story of the historical buddhist monk Mục Kiền Liên (approximately 500 BC). Mục Kiền Liên’s mother (named Bà Thanh Đề) lived an unwholesome life, which led her to be reborn in the underworld (hell) after death. Mục Kiền Liên found his mother suffering under the torments and pains of hell and prayed to buddha for his mother’s well-being and less sufferable conditions. The Buddha gave Mục Kiền Liên instructions to achieve his mother’s release from hell. Those instructions became known as the Vu Lan ceremony. Once he followed Buddha’s instructions, Mục Kiền Liên’s mother was freed from hell and his actions had changed her mind from one of greed and decadence to one of modesty and repentance. Mục Kiền Liên’s acts of filial piety (hiếu) in liberating his mother from the underworld is the main concept behind Vu Lan festival and the acts committed by buddhists on the day are variations of Buddha’s instructions.


Vu Lan festival is a buddhist tradition of filial piety and ancestor worship. A day for each person to appreciate what they have, and to remind children of their duty to show affection and gratitude towards the merits of their parents. The phrase “uống nước nhớ nguồn” ( when drinking water, remember its source) dominantes Vu Lan festival and is used to reinforce the importance of filial piety.


Dates of Vu Lan Festival

Vu Lan schedule at Việt Nam Quốc Tự
The schedule for Vu Lan festival at the national Vietnam Buddhist Temple (Việt Nam Quốc Tự) in District 10, Hồ Chí Minh City. 2023.

Vu Lan festival coincides with the full moon day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar. This is also an important day for the month of wandering souls (tháng cô hồn) so a ceremony to worship the souls with no home nor family occurs during Vu Lan. This date is also the day every soul in Hell has the opportunity to achieve amnesty and be released from hell. Therefore, in addition to offerings for family ancestors, people also prepare an outdoor tray for hungry ghosts to prevent them from disrupting or harassing the household. Over time, the practices of Vu Lan and Tháng cô hồn are often intertwined. 


Activities of Buddhists During Vu Lan Festival

  • Cúng bái – Worship at the altar.  Includes making offerings to ancestors, silent prayer, lighting incense and bowing. Offerings can include specific foods, drinks and flowers. Some families offer crockery and utensils too.

    A Vu Lan participant prays in the pagoda.
    A Vu Lan participant prays in the pagoda. 2022.
  • Thả Hoa Đăng – Releasing paper lanterns into the river. The paper lanterns include a candle. Before they are placed into the water, people will write messages or wishes on them before setting them off down the river.
    Thả Hoa Đăng - Releasing paper lanterns into the river.
    Thả Hoa Đăng – the act of releasing paper lanterns into the river. 2022.
  • Làm từ thiện – Charitable work and offerings. For example, people will make charitable donations of food and/or money to the needy and the vulnerable. This act can range from individual spontaneous gestures to group-sized pre-organised itineraries.
    Free vegetarian food available for everyone during Vu lan.
    Charitable acts are a part of Vu Lan festivals. Individuals and groups offer free vegetarian food. People often eat free vegetarian food at pagodas on this day. 2022.
  • Đọc và Tụng Kinh – Reading and singing buddhist saltras.
    Sultras for Vu Lan.
    Books of sultras for prayer and chanting. 2023.
  • Ăn chay – Eating vegetarian. Meals are cooked at home, at the restaurant and often at the pagoda (sometimes for free).
    Eating vegetarian food at the restaurant during Vu Lan
    Vegetarian restaurants are very busy during Vu lan festival. Some restaurants change their menu and vend vegetarian food on this day. 2023.
  • Phóng Sinh -the practice focused on saving animals, birds, and fish from harm and captivity. This ritual involves liberating animals, typically by purchasing them to prevent their killing, and is driven by the intention to offer these beings a chance for continued life. Often involving the release of birds and fish, this compassionate act aims to awaken the Bodhi mind within sentient beings before their release.
    Phong Sinh
    A mother films her child participating in the act of phóng sinh during Vu Lan. 2022.
  • Bông hồng cài áo -Buddhists will wear a  paper rose on their lapels. Red symbolises their mother is still alive and white represents the passing of their mother. 
Red flower on the lapel during Vu Lan.
A participant wears a red flower, which signifies their mother is still alive. 2023.
A volunteer provides Vu lan attendees with flowers to wear on their lapels.
A volunteer provides Vu lan attendees with flowers to wear on their lapels. 2022.
sending a prayer during Vu lan
At some pagoda, people write the names of their deceased relatives as a way of ‘remembering’ them. 2023.
wandering souls offering.
A communal offering for wandering souls. I was told this was specifically for those who died during Covid. 2023.
Thả Hoa Đăng - Releasing paper lanterns into the river.
Thả Hoa Đăng – Releasing paper lanterns into the river. 2022.

Notes on this article;

Words and images for this article by Luke Digweed. Images taken at the following locations;

  • Dieu Phap Buddhist Temple (Chùa Diệu Pháp), Hồ Chí Minh City. Vu Lan 2022.
  • Vietnam Buddhist Temple (Việt Nam Quốc Tự), Hồ Chí Minh City. Vu Lan 2023.
  • Tuyen Lam Buddhist Temple (Chùa Tuyền Lâm), Hồ Chí Minh City. Vu Lan 2023.


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