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04/02/2014 07:19 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

A Beginner's Guide To Vietnamese Ghosts

Spiegel & Grau

Vietnamese ghosts aren't that scary as long as you know what it is that they want. If it isn't staying dead then there's probably a reason, and all you have to do is give the ghost the thing that it's seeking --revenge, redemption, a resolution.

Back in Vietnam, my grandmother and great-grandmother were often paid unexpected visits by inhabitants of the spirit world. My favorite of their stories is the one about three men from their small coastal village who were lost at sea during a particularly bad storm. For days everyone scoured the shoreline looking for the bodies and wreckage from their boat, but found no sign of it. And then, late one night, my great-grandmother was woken by a clanging, howling ruckus from the kitchen. When she crept down to investigate, she discovered that the three ghosts of the missing men had taken out all her pots and pans and were there banging away on them like a spectral percussion ensemble. Over the clatter they called out to her the name of the place where their bodies had washed ashore. The next day my great-grandmother and some of the other villagers ventured out to the location that the ghosts had named and lo and behold, the remains of the three bodies were there. The men were given all the proper funerary rites, and their spirits were finally laid to rest.

Apart from a few missing narrative points that were lost either over time or through translation, (like what happened after the ghosts had successfully conveyed their message? Did they just vanish? Did they clean up the kitchen before they left?) it's a tidy little tale, where in the end, everyone got what it was that they needed. I on the other hand, am left wondering about plot holes, but I assume my great-grandmother's spirit has more important things to do than clear these up for me.

It's the ghost without a clear purpose that frightens me, and those are the ones who tend to populate the stories that I encountered during my solo travels around Vietnam after college. I realized that these were not the kind of ghosts that my great-grandmother knew, in the same way that the country I was discovering bore little resemblance to the war-torn place she and her family had fled in 1975. The post-war ghosts don't seem to follow the logical behavior of those ghosts of the old tales, and what's even more unsettling about the stories is the nonchalance with which they are usually told. For example:

"I finally got rid of the little ghost girl in my room," one of my Viet friends announced to me over coffee some time ago, in the casual way that a person might say, 'I finally got rid of the squirrels in my attic.' My response to hearing this (spilled drink, dropped jaw, subdued shriek) must have seemed like an overreaction to him, but in my defense, I was still new to the land and to the idea that here ghosts weren't a superstition, they were a fact. I begged him for a full account. My friend complied, prefacing the story with the disclaimer that his ghost was not terribly exciting, just your everyday, pedestrian phantom. Nevertheless, it is the only one that still gives me nightmares regularly.

"I would see her in my sleep," he began matter-of-factly. "Not dreams, exactly. These felt too real to be dreams, but while having them I knew that I was sleeping. My body was unconscious but I was fully aware on the inside--it was like I was able to see with my eyes closed. I would see my own room, from where I was lying in my bed, and everything was as it should be. That's when the ghost--this pale little girl with braids and crooked teeth--would climb out of the wall directly across from my bed.

"The wall across from me would start splitting about three feet from the floor, and then it would part like a curtain and out she slipped. Even though I could see her I couldn't move, or cry out, or do anything, because my body was still sleeping. The girl would crawl across the floor over to the bed, and then she would inch her way up over my legs and sit on top of my chest. She would just perch there, cross-legged, staring down at me silently, sometimes smiling and sometimes not, all while I was frozen in one place. This would go on for hours. And then eventually dawn would arrive and I would wake up and be able to move again, and the girl would be gone and my wall was intact. But my chest would hurt and my body would be sore all over."

"What did she want with you?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Who knows? After five nights of it I went to see a monk for advice. He told me that sleeping with a knife under my pillow would keep it away. I did, and the ghost stopped coming. It's been almost a week now since I've seen her." Then my friend finished his coffee, changed the subject of conversation, and never mentioned the incident again.

There was nothing at all gruesome about my friend's story. A ghost that just sits on you doesn't seem to be particularly dangerous. But what preys on my mind is that the ghost is not gone for good, it's just waiting, somewhere in those walls. The night you forget the knife under your pillow, she will be back. And there is nothing you can give her to make her stop, because even she doesn't seem to know what she is looking for.

Violet Kupersmith is the author of The Frangipani Hotel [Spiegel & Grau, $25.00].