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From Vietnam to the US, the Zodiac Is an Important Part of Vietnamese Culture

Vietnamese horoscope reading in a mall. Photo from Loa

This article by Jenny Lý is from Loa, a news website and online radio project of Viet Tan that broadcasts stories about Vietnam. It is republished by Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Phước Lộc Thọ, also known as Asian Garden Mall, is the commercial staple of the Vietnamese-American community in Orange County, California. But amid the bustling shoppers and overlapping sounds, there is a space of relief. It’s tucked away on the second floor: an altar. Not far away sits an elderly man who appears to be in his 70s. A sign in front of the table he sits at reads “Chấm Tử Vi” — horoscope reading.

“Most of the time, people want to ask about love or work or if their business will fail,” says Bùi Minh Lê, a long time horoscope reader, having continued his practice in Việt Nam to present day America. He shares that many people want guidance, especially when they embark on a new chapter in their lives.

The Vietnamese horoscope uses a variation of the Chinese zodiac based on the lunar calendar. It uses astrology as well as the time, date, month and year of a person’s birth to make predictions. The Vietnamese zodiac sets 12 animals over a 12-year cycle rather than 12 signs in one year. The animal associated with the year in which we were born tells us something about our personality and our life.

As the Lunar New Year was approaching last month, the lines of people coming to see Bùi continued to grow. People were eager to see what their 2017 will look like.

But there are skeptics. Phan Việt, who’s turning exactly 60 this year as he’s born in the year of the rooster, is one of them. He does not believe in the zodiac or tử vi predictions — even though 2017 is his year. Believers say it’s particularly important if it’s your animal’s year. Phan said:

When family gathering, this subject coming up more often you know especially you know during the New Year the Tết people coming in and suddenly this subject coming up. Hey this year is the rooster, and they start telling me hey this year you will have love, you maybe will have change in your financial, something like that. I listen you know but I don’t always believe it.

But 68-year-old Vũ Cường, a visitor at Phước Lộc Thọ and also a retired teacher, thinks the zodiac is a fun way to learn about yourself and your life. He breaks down the complexity of the Vietnamese zodiac as a classification system:

…according to the history of China in particular, and the history of Asian cultures generally, people assigned animals to symbolize time. They classified the years with the 12 animals, one name for the celestial stem and one for the animal. They start with the stem Giáp, Ất, Bính, Đinh, Mậu, Kỷ, Canh, Tân, Nhâm, Quý. Then it is combined with one of the 12 animals: Rat, Buffalo, Tiger, Cat, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.

Eastern Zodiac system. Photo from Loa

The ten celestial stems, 12 animal signs, and five elemental associations make for distinct personalities and years. For example, 2017 is known as Đinh Dậu, or the Fire Rooster year. The eastern zodiac is considered to be one of the oldest horoscope systems in the world, dating back to more than 3,000 years. The zodiac system was said to have been developed by spiritual teachers who, at the time, were responsible for maintaining health and balance among the people.

Trang Nguyễn, a graduate student in Communities Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, says Vietnamese people get to know each other by using the zodiac:

In Vietnamese culture, you ask someone what zodiac animal year they are and from that you can tell their age because there are 12 animals on the wheel so it repeats every 12 years so you can sort of tell what generation is in or which cycle of the 12 they are in so you can calculate the age in your head. So that’s why when you meet Vietnamese elders, they don’t ask how old you are as much a lot of the time as your year you were born, your zodiac year and they can tell your age but they can also tell sort of your personality and all the things that’s associated with that year.

Nguyễn adds that her family all know each other’s animal year by heart. She shares, “…my mom is a dragon, I am a cat, my dad is a horse, my sister is an ox, my brother is a snake, my oldest nephew is a dragon and my youngest nephew is a dog.”

Vũ, the retired teacher, says each zodiac animal symbolizes a different quality that may carry lots of fortune or challenges. Sometimes, it can help explain why certain people act a certain way. He says, “…the tiger symbolizes strength, the dragon symbolizes wealth, and the rat symbolizes hard work.”

According to believers, not only can the zodiac predict an individual’s personality but it can also forecast the coming year. To see what’s in store for 2017: the year of the Fire Rooster, you’ve got to understand the animal.

The rooster is known for its cocky, self-assured demeanor. It’s no stranger to dramatic entrances. This zodiac sign is also known for its ability to work hard and never give up. The rooster isn’t afraid to be loud, bombastic and outspoken.

Back in Phước Lộc Thọ, horoscope reader Bùi often gets asked whether his readings are a form of fortune telling. He says, “Fortune telling is different from tử vi. Tử vi is about the basic elements using the date of birth.“

Bùi claims there is science behind tử vi and readily admits not everyone believes in the horoscopes. Nevertheless, he still comes to the mall daily to do people’s readings. He sits on that second floor inside the mall that features three giant lion figures out front representing luck, wealth, and longevity.

Listen to this podcast to learn why the Vietnamese zodiac features a cat and not a rabbit, as in the Chinese zodiac.

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