by Trung Hieu-Hue Linh
To prepare for high school graduation and university entrance exams, Ha Noi 12th grader Vu Hai has decided not to have his hair cut or take a bath until the exams are over.
Hai is a victim of traditional superstitions and voodoo fetishes that strongly underpin some Vietnamese thinking and actions.
"During the previous semester exams I did not obey this rule, so the results were not very good," Hai says. "Therefore, before these most important exams, I am determined not to let this shortcoming occur.
"Not only to avoid having my hair cut, but there will be no hair washing and cutting my nails; I will even try not to bathe.
"Some of my friends also avoid doing these things because we believe it will wash away our knowledge. This is quite uncomfortable but I still must accept it as long as I believe I will pass the exams."
To get good marks, students should not only prepare their knowledge, they should also stay healthy.
However, based on the conception that "If you worship you will be blessed, if you adhere to taboos you will have good luck", many youngsters adhere to taboos in daily life, despite the fact they could adversely affect their health and exam results.
Strict diets have become a popular trend. Thanh Xuan, 18, said her mother banned her from eating bananas at exam time for fear of failing "like sliding on a banana skin". She also was not allowed to eat squid, which emit a black substance when they are disturbed, "as black as ink", which has the connotation of a black mark.
"I had to avoid eating eggs for fear of a zero mark," Xuan says. "Also, I was told not to eat beef because we were afraid we would be as stupid as cows."
Eating squash, pumpkin and peanuts was also a no-no. The word for pumpkin in Vietnamese also means "stuck" and the word for peanut means "digress". Duck and dog meat are associated with bad luck.
"In contrast, my mother asked me to eat birds for ‘a high mark' and shrimps for ‘increased resilience'; eating green beans and red beans means ‘a pass with excellent marks'," Xuan says.
"I was too scared to ignore these rules, I thought it would be better to follow them than to fail, and if I do fail it is not my fault," she says.
The fact these superstitious beliefs are nonsense and fatuous seems not to matter.
Some students become vegetarians for a month with the view that a diet will make "the mind pure", so instead of eating meat and fish, their meals are vegetables, tofu and sesame.
Praying for good luck is also very common in Viet Nam. As the examination days get closer, more parents and students visit Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam (the Temple of Literature and the country's first university) and pagodas and temples to pray for good luck.
Some students have their own superstitions, such as stepping out of the door on the right foot on exam day.
Others feel they must avoid meeting women, especially pregnant women, and avoid facing a wedding, which are thought to bring bad luck.
They even choose people of a suitable age to take them to the examination venue.
Dr Tran Thu Ha, from Bach Mai Hospital, says the idea that particular types of food cause bad examination results is nonsense.
"Vegetables like zucchini and pumpkin contains fibre, carbohydrates and vitamins. They supply nutrition for the brain, so eating them is good for the memory.
"Some people believe that eating black beans will bring bad luck but in fact green beans, black beans, red beans, soybeans and peanuts are high in protein, highly nutritious and essential for exam candidates.
"Many people believe eating bananas may cause contestants to fail but in fact it is a nutritious fruit with which other fruits can hardly compare.
"Eggs of geese, chickens, and ducks are nutritious and especially suitable for teenagers who are in the development process. Eggs contain protein of high biological value, along with fat, calcium and vitamins. Beef is high in protein, rich in iron and good for the blood so it can't be ignored by students heading into the examination season."
Ha says food safety should be the main concern.
"Food must be carefully cooked and within the expiry date. In addition, students should eat familiar foods and avoid strange foods which may cause diarrhea or allergies.
"Most important, parents and contestants should remember the brain is recharged and filled with energy in students who get enough sleep and are clean and healthy.
"With good preparation and comfortable psychology, achieving the expected results will not be too difficult."
Psychologist Ngo Xuan Diep of the Paediatrics Hospital Psychology Department says examinations are a time when many students face psychological strain due to exam pressures.
"Therefore, after each exam, whether the result is good or not, parents should encourage their children," Diep says.
Parents are wrong if they threaten their children: "If you fail you should not come home!"
Parents should accept their children's abilities and learn how to encourage them instead of pressuring them because study is the cause of a whole lifetime and one exam is not a decisive thing.
Meanwhile, not all students are so artless and naive as to believe in superstition. Ha Le, a Banking Academy student, says: "The taboos are not helpful. They do not bring luck and they can be harmful to their health and psychology.
"I've seen a classmate faint in the exam room because she didn't have enough nutrients, having eaten red bean porridge for days on end.
"For best results, students need to equip themselves with knowledge and have confidence in what they have learned." — VNS