Vu Lan Festival in Vietnam I Discover Its Rich Origins and Meaning

A lantern on the river in Hoi An, Vietnam, during the Vu Lan festival

The Vu Lan Festival (held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month every year) is one of the major Buddhist festivals originating from the legend of Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother from the realm of hungry ghosts. Vu Lan has become an annual celebration to express gratitude to parents and ancestors in general, reminding individuals to appreciate what they have and fulfill their duty as children by always remembering the nurturing kindness of their parents and performing virtuous deeds to show love and gratitude.

Today, the Vu Lan Festival holds not only significant religious meaning but also profound cultural significance, urging individuals to return to their roots and embrace the moral principle of “Remembering the source when drinking water” with regards to ancestors. The Buddhist Vu Lan Festival has become a tradition of filial piety and gratitude, aligning with the sacred ancestral worship spirit of the Vietnamese people. It is a celebration that embodies humanism and illuminates the moral principle of repaying kindness and obligations of the nation.

Origin of the Vu Lan Festival

Vu Lan Festival I Lanterns in the air at Vu Lan festival, Hoi An, Vietnam
Lanterns in the air at Vu Lan festival, Hoi An, Vietnam

The Vu Lan Festival is rooted in a Buddhist legend recorded in the Vu Lan Sutra. According to the Vu Lan Sutra, the festival originated from the time of the Buddha, who taught the method of expressing filial piety to parents in this life and future lives. The first person to receive this teaching was the venerable Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s ten distinguished disciples.

The Vu Lan Sutra recounts that when the Bodhisattva Maudgalyayana attained great spiritual powers, he searched everywhere in heaven and earth with his divine vision to find his mother. He discovered his mother was in the realm of hungry ghosts, suffering from hunger and thirst. Out of compassion, he used his supernatural powers to descend into the realm of hungry ghosts and offered a bowl of rice to his mother. Unfortunately, due to his mother’s past negative karma, the rice turned into burning coals when she tried to eat it. Maudgalyayana was unable to save his mother and returned to seek the Buddha’s guidance.

The Buddha taught, “No matter how great your supernatural powers are, you cannot save your mother. The only way is to rely on the collective power of all the monks. After three months of retreat and intensive prayer, you can transform your merit to help your mother escape suffering.”

Following the Buddha’s instructions, Maudgalyayana invited the monks, prepared offerings, and performed the ritual on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month.

As a result, his mother was liberated. On this occasion, the Buddha also taught that anyone who wants to express filial piety to their parents should follow the Vu Lan Sutra method. From then on, the Vu Lan Festival was established. 

Significance of Ancestral Worship

Vu Lan Festival I Vu Lan Festival in Phu Quoc - Lanterns, people on the street, and a lively market celebrating the occasion.
Vu Lan Festival in Phu Quoc – Lanterns, people on the street, and a lively market celebrating the occasion

The Vu Lan Festival coincides with the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, known as the day of amnesty and liberation of wandering spirits in East Asian customs. According to folk beliefs, this is the day when the gates of hell open, granting amnesty to wandering spirits and providing an opportunity for prisoners in the underworld to seek forgiveness and escape from suffering. Therefore, in addition to offering ancestral worship to one’s own ancestors at home, people also set up outdoor altars during the Vu Lan Festival to worship lost souls and hungry ghosts without family, shelter, or relatives in the earthly realm.

In Buddhism, during the Vu Lan Festival, Buddhists often dedicate merits to deceased individuals, perform virtuous acts, and release creatures to accumulate blessings and seek peace and longevity for their parents. Additionally, when visiting temples during the Vu Lan Festival, Buddhist followers are given a red rose to wear on their clothes,

The Vu Lan Festival holds deep religious and cultural significance in Vietnamese society, honoring filial piety and ancestral worship. By joining VLS (Vietnamese Language Studies), you can engage in Vietnamese language and culture courses that enhance personal, academic, and professional growth. With experienced teachers and a comprehensive curriculum, VLS offers dynamic Vietnamese, business Vietnamese, survival Vietnamese, pronunciation, and cultural courses. Embrace Vietnamese culture and language with VLS. Enroll today at Contact us at for more information.


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