Published August 12, 2016 in Episode 54
It’s a crisp autumn day in the northern suburbs of Perth, Australia. I’m walking down the driveway of a quaint residential triplex, with my friend Renita Lee. Today she is visiting a fortune teller for the very first time and she has agreed to let me tag along to record the session.
“I feel both excited and a little bit nervous,” she confides. “I’ve always wanted to get my fortune read. But I also know that I can be a bit superstitious, so depending on what I hear, I worry that I might dwell on things too much.”
We’re greeted at the door by Kim Fa Hoàng, a lady of short stature in her 60s, plainly dressed, and long black hair tied up in a bun. She is a self-taught practitioner of cartomancy, a method of fortune-telling using a deck of playing cards.
She leads us to the side of the house to a room about the size of a small walk-in closet. It’s a cosy space, a small table sits close to the ground and splits the room. Cushions adorn the floor and the walls are decorated with posters depicting scenes of tranquility.
Hoàng sits down on the far side of the table and invites us to find our place on the other side. Any feelings of nervousness are put at ease as the reading starts.
Hoàng begins by asking Renita some preliminary questions: her full name, birthdate, her boyfriend’s name, birthdate, and records it down in a notebook sitting atop the table. She comments about how their zodiacs are quite compatible. Hoàng pulls out a deck of cards and tells Renita to shuffle the cards and think about what she wishes to know.
Hoàng then methodically flips over the cards one by one while arranging them into four columns.
Fortune telling, astrology, and superstition are widely popular across many Asian cultures. Buddhist psalms called khata are widely used in Thailand and Cambodia for protection. Koreans practice a form of fortune-telling called saju, which refers to the Four Pillars of Destiny and is also popular in both Japan and China. For believers, it’s a way to satisfy their curiosity and doubts about the future.
Professor Oscar Salemink, an anthropologist and historian from The University of Copenhagen who has researched worship and mysticism in Việt Nam for more than 30 years, says Việt Nam boasts a wide range of different methods of fortune-telling.
“In Việt Nam people usually associate it with tossing coins. You go to a temple or a pagoda, you toss coins, ‘gieo quẻ âm dương.’ [There is] geomancy, so you go to a geomancer to ascertain that a house is oriented in the right direction in terms of the chi flows. People build a house for instance or start a new venture, very often they would consult an astrologer to make sure the date is the right date for them, or getting married for instance on a day that’s not so auspicious.”
With a population of over 90 million, the practices of astrology and superstition in Việt Nam is widespread. Fortune-tellers command a certain level of respect and families seek their advice in matters big and small. They experience their highest demand around the period of Tét, the Vietnamese new year.
My parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, all visit fortune tellers during this time to seek advice and receive predictions regarding their personal and professional life for the upcoming year. My friend Renita sought out Hoàng for the same reasons.
“I guess I would like to see what she would have to say about my future in terms of say career, relationships and family,” she told me. “Obviously I would hope that the things coming out of it are positive.”
Some people say the belief in these customs and traditions is a result of social class, where the higher up you go on the social ladder, the less prominent the practice is. But Salemink says that judgement is misplaced.
“That’s not necessarily the case. I’ve known academics and wealthy traders, and politicians, political officials even who are very very actively participating in these practices. So for example, lên đồng is very often practiced or attended. At least, the clients are people who are often fairly well off, certainly in the urban areas, in the north or in the central part of Việt Nam. And sometimes even the spirit mediums themselves tend to be of the higher strata of society. So, it’s a very very mixed bag and very difficult to generalise about this.”
Lên Đồng is the Vietnamese expression for spirit possession. It’s also a common misperception that superstitions have taken a back seat as societies modernise. During the post-war era of the 70s and 80s, the communist government tried, unsuccessfully, to crack down on superstition and religion. Fortune telling was banned in an effort to put the nation on a path of progress.
“One theory of course, and that was the official reason, this was seen as anti-rational and anti-scientific. And according to the predating Marxist ideology of the day, it would lead people to engage in practices that were antithetical to productivity for instance, to hygienic and modern lifestyles. In order to avoid that kind of situation, the government of those days thought it’d be a good idea to simply ban it. Of course it also had to do with the view of religion as opium for the people. Meaning that religion reconciles people with a life of oppression, so it’s antithetical to revolutionary consciousness.”
As difficult as it was to ban religion, it was even harder to root out superstition. Hoàng, our cartomancer, says she saw it first-hand in her new customers:
“The Việt Cộng also get their fortunes read. Back then, when I read fortunes, I did it for the communists too. The Việt Cộng came to have theirs read, but when what I said hit the mark, they were too scared to arrest me. So many times they tried to trap me, but they couldn’t arrest me. What I said hit their darkest, deepest spots.”
She recalls 1978 in particular, her first year practising fortune-telling. Those whose lives were most uncertain seemed to need her the most, she says.
“It was in 78, during a time when life was very difficult in Việt Nam. Because if the communists knew I was reading fortunes, they would arrest me. A lot of people came to get their futures told. There were so many that they filled out the yard. Lots of people! Most of those were people who were about to escape by boat. If I told them it would be fine, they’d go. If I predicted that they would get arrested, sure enough they would get arrested. It happened immediately. That’s how I knew how accurate I was, almost 100 percent. It was scary!”
Since Đổi Mới and the economic reforms of the late 80s, the government has taken a relaxed stance on fortune telling. Salemink says one international conference in 2001 in Nam Định, on the practice of lên đồng or spirit possession proved to be the turning point.
“It brought together Vietnamese researchers, Vietnamese officials, practitioners, and then also a number of foreign researchers. And that really helped give this particular practice a respectability. So much so that earlier this year, there was again a conference in a bid to UNESCO to have this particular practice recognised as intangible cultural heritage. So right now we have, call it Vietnamese superstition, recognised by UNESCO as world heritage.”
That designation added legitimacy and renewed interest in the folk custom, though it may not have convinced any sceptics. But whether you believe in the power of fortune telling or not, getting your future predicted can be eye-opening.
As my friend Renita and I leave Hoàng's house after the reading wraps up, I can sense that she is full of mixed emotions. We talk it over in my car.
“That was really intense,” she said. “I feel like I’m a bit shaken still because some of the things she was very accurate with. And obviously some of her predictions about the future, I’m really anticipating to see whether they will happen. There seems to be a lot of positives, you know, career-wise and relationships so that was a relief, probably better than what I had hoped for. I don’t expect every single thing she says to be completely 100 percent accurate, but the things she did say were very accurate.”
Hoàng believes that whether her predictions come true or not, her clients leave her sessions feeling emotionally at peace.
“They say, after you get your fortune read, you’ll feel lighter,” she explains. “You feel as though you received another choice. Before you came here, you felt darkness, no way out. But once you have your fortune told, you know how to proceed. You know what you need to do to resolve your situation.”
I caught up with Renita three months after her reading. She expressed that she was still taken aback at how accurate Hoàng had described her and her boyfriend’s personalities, and that of their families. I listed out the various predictions that were made and asked if any of them had come to fruition.
“She said that I would receive a bill within 21 days, and I didn’t receive that,” Renita reflected. “On the other hand she did say someone I know would approach me to sign an important document. One of my friend did actually approach me to sign her settlement documents for her house that she purchased.”
For Renita, despite many of her predictions not coming true, she found the experience to be positive overall and said she would return for another reading as well as recommend that friends and family go too.
And that is a testament to the power fortune telling. It could be said that fortune tellers, mediums and astrologers fulfill a human need in times of uncertainty. These readers take up a role of advisors, similar to the way therapists and psychologists do. Their predictions give people a feeling of confidence and faith.