From the start, the mountains give off a ghosty air. Fog dissipates with the sunrise, leaving red roofs and broken buildings.
It’s said that to experience the supernatural, you have to be open to it. And on this trip, we’ve decided to make ourselves “available”.
We’re to meet Violet Kupersmith, Vietnam’s leading English-language ghost chronicler — or at least the one tabbed by the New York Times and Huffington Post to write about Vietnamese ghosts and their metaphorical equivalents, ever since the 2014 publication of her ghost-centric book, The Frangipani Hotel. In it, she expands on the ghost stories her Vietnamese grandmother told her, taking them into the realm of sci-fi cultural commentary.
And, even though she doesn’t have much insight into the haunted houses that lurk atop the Prenn Pass, she’s the best ghost tour guide we can ask for.
Before we check out the ghosts, we consult a famous fortuneteller, my friend Anh doing translation. She’s been seeing this fortuneteller for months, mostly about matters of love. We think it will be fun.
The fortuneteller is a 60-year-old, brown-pyjamaed woman, telling fortunes in the downstairs bedroom of a back-alley house. Nondescript living room, a kid sitting on the couch, music echoing from somewhere. She’s alarmed when Kyle and I enter the room shoeless.
We start, and my bad qualities show right through (as I journal this, it’s photographer Kyle’s turn. The fortuneteller leads with, “You usually cry”).
“Your nose is too large,” the fortuneteller says. She points at Kyle. “Yours is better. You” — her attention is on me again — “will become sick. Your eyes are sad, they show a great sadness. Your ears show intelligence, but your money goes right out.
“For example, you have the choice between a bowl of pho and some coffee, and you choose only coffee to save money. But you buy a coffee for five of your friends, so you don’t save any money!”
She’s drawn to me, I think. We spend a half-hour at the table together, and even when it’s Kyle’s turn she compares us. She says that he’s organised and I’m messy; he’s not good at convincing people of his abilities, I am. But I have something inside me that makes me restless, that makes me go far from home.
She focuses on money, and I lose interest. To tell the truth I started disengaged. It’s too generalistic, it doesn’t flatter my vanity or sense of drama. (“You need love,” she tells Kyle, “unlike Eddie. Eddie doesn’t need love. He has a lot of love.”) It almost feels like I’ve picked up the wrong newspaper, the conservative-leaning one supplied for free to my great-aunt’s apartment building perhaps, and am now reading a fortune meant for an angsty paralegal.
She lays out four rows of playing cards from a deck of 32, all numbered higher than six. She’s told me small things — I’m stubborn, lonely, my friends take advantage and aren’t good for me, money never stays, something bad will happen with my work, I go into jobs fast and leave them fast, I’ll hit a career wall, I’m not happy with my salary — but here she spells out my fate. And here it gets interesting.
She circles the first row. It’s my past and present. There’s a card there that will turn up two more times, the Seven of Diamonds. It’s tied to me, like the camera strapped across my chest.
(This isn’t the first time she references my appearance. My unbuttoned pocket — laundry woman’s fault — symbolises the money I can’t keep. My beard helps me to persuade people, but it would be better if I shave the connecting section between my moustache and beard. I actually consider this.)
The Seven of Diamonds is a spirit tied to me, one I carry inside. It’s also symbolic of a man. This man is someone who understands me — he understands me in a rare way, like no-one else.
It’s at this point I volunteer the story of Uncle Bruce. In short strokes, he grew up happy, energetic, a people person. In the summer after his last year of high school he went to a sleepaway camp, and something happened. He came back early, nine days later, a different person.
He grew morose over the following year. In high school, he’d run for class president; now he took the long way through his college campus, trying to avoid people he knew. He isolated himself, sitting for long hours in his bedroom. My mother gave him part of her earnings from the post-college job she was working — she told him to spend it in any way he chose, it was just for him.
One day he disappeared. The bag he’d brought with him, filled with the clothes he’d taken and the money my mother had been giving him, was found abandoned in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge.
She never heard from him again. When I was born, she gave the name Bruce for my second name.
Where Do Ghosts Come From?
A girl dies. Once she was beautiful in the way all young girls are beautiful. Then she was raped, murdered, and thrown down a well.
It’s the type of story that’s passed down in half-remembered detail, losing any real details it might once have had. In this way it becomes a symbol, a loss so heavy it can only be carried collectively.
It’s the type of symbol Violet might have put into her book.
“A lot of the ghost stories stem from the war,” she says, “and no-one found the bodies of the soldiers. And so a lot of these ghost narratives — they’re ghosts because no-one found their bodies and they’ve never been laid to rest properly.
“And people don’t like to talk about it, like my grandmother doesn’t like to talk about the war. The way I get her to talk about the war is by asking about ghosts.”
In The Frangipani Hotel, Violet sketched out her grandmother’s ghost stories into larger, evolving things, memories that seem to echo through the past into the present. “That’s sort of what my book was about,” Violet says, “ghosts as this trope. And it ties into immigration too, because a ghost is an in-between person, right? You’re stuck between worlds. And I think my grandmother identifies with this, as a Vietnamese person in America now.”
Ghosts like these are a connection to a hazy, impossible past — a past that was loaded with contradictions, a past that couldn’t have possibly endured. And Dalat, the last outpost of the French Empire in Indochina, is as good a reminder of this past as any.
“Why’s it so mystical out here?” I ask.
“It’s just something,” Violet says. “The weather?” It’s raining outside.
“It’s a weird place. The ethnic hill tribes had a lot of mystic s*** going on with them too. It’s an old place.”
She’s just spitballing at this point, but when she says, “The French history...?” it seems like she’s hit on something.
‘Hill stations’ like Dalat were built all over the colonial world, on the backs of manual labourers often enlisted against their will. Typically, hundreds died from overwork in such projects.
Before the roads were complete, Vietnamese porters carried French patients on their backs up the steep mountains. Songs reminiscent of American ‘Negro spirituals’ were written about the exhausting, sometimes murderous, working conditions. This all happened in the early 20th century — their memory remains.
“They have all the abandoned French houses,” Violet says. “They look like skeletons. They’re these shells of old houses.”
It’s these houses we’ve come to investigate. They are full of mysteries. Ruined French villas hide hundreds of squatters. A secret tunnel is said to extend from the former homes of French officials on Tran Hung Dao to the countryside residence of Emperor Bao Dai.
And, at the gates to the city, two mysterious ruins act as lightning bolts for all of Dalat’s mystical vibes.
There are unsubstantiated stories on the Internet about investors in these beautiful modernist shells backing out for undisclosed reasons and dying in plane crashes. Apparitions appear regularly, yet people can’t stay away. A strange energy draws people to them.
A girl was raped then thrown down one of the houses’ deep wells. Another girl was attacked by mysterious assailants. A security guard assigned to watch the second house hung himself there in 1997, for reasons never explained.
“They were two young lovers who wanted to get married,” Violet says about the legend behind the first house on our list, “but their families wouldn’t let them. So they ran away and committed suicide together in this abandoned house. Now people who try to stay overnight at the house get bothered, it’s like traditional poltergeist s***.
“They can’t sleep through the night, they get thrown out of their beds, there’s a lot of weird creepy sounds and voices... just like belligerent ghosts.”
— “Should we try to sleep there?” I ask, even though we’re staying at a fancy hotel.
“You know, that would be funny, it would be a good story.”
Ghost Hunting with Violet
We decide to do it.
Our first stop is the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ghost house, 50 steps up weed-punctuated stairs from the twisting mountain road. It’s daylight. We walk around snapping pictures, trying to absorb the aura. I spot a graffito that says “Vi + Toan” and wonder aloud if it’s a creepy coincidence — Violet’s boyfriend’s name is Toan. But it turns out she’d written it herself minutes earlier.
Down concrete stairs with strange curving lines carved into their sides, we wander into a damp basement. Miniature pillars, the kind that fit grand old staircases, are scattered nearby. In another pile, disused sinks. An indentation in the wall houses a little shrine. Next to it is a painted demon face, hiding in the weak light.
Still, we don’t feel it. And when the groups of post-adolescents start arriving — about 12 giggling atmosphere-wreckers in quick succession — we know the ghost hunt is off.
A Random Selection of Ghost House Graffiti
“Happy New Year/Hot Boy City”
“I’m a crazy person for coming here in the middle of the night”
“An old soul came and sat in the ghost house”
“What are fear ghost fall”
“The ghost of the 3 children”
“Spirits capture spirits”
“Someone was here and ate all the fruit”
A Di Da Phat
The most prominent graffito is “A Di Da Phat” — a Vietnamese rendering of the Amitabha Buddha’s name. We see it everywhere, in doorways, on walls, in the shrines where people leave their ghost offerings.
It’s believed that a dying person who lays eyes on an image of the Amitabha Buddha will be reborn in paradise. In this context, it acts as protection, as a wish for a kind end to these lost souls’ wanderings.
If the inscription was subtle before, in this second house it isn’t. This is the house of the raped girl, who was abducted and thrown down the well in back. This is where the early-morning hitchhiker calls passing cars to misfortune, like a Greek siren. This is the place the Vietnamese-Canadian investor purchased to renovate in 1986, shortly before dying in a plane crash. This is the place where the security guard once danced on a noose in the moonlight.
Incense sticks out from every hinge. A missing ladder bars the way to an unexplored attic. Chipped mouldings mark where chandeliers had been. Side passages narrow into dead ends. Fireflies lurk, along with other mysteries of the night.
Wandering through this house, “A Di Da Phat” is on each of our lips.
Sleepover of the Doomed
We leave to pick up supplies. It’s our cheeky plan to spit roast a chicken in the haunted house, then sleep the night there. We pick up some fruits to offer at the fireplace-shrine, and two bags full of beer cans.
It’s pitch-black upon our return. As we climb the stairs, long shadows escort us.
Toan kneels by the shrine to make the offering. “A Di Da Phat” is written above in thick chalk strikes. Holding three sticks of incense, he bows and intones magical words in a murmur. When he’s through, he sets the incense upright in a small ceramic dish, near the remnants of other prayers.
Next, Toan sets up two pillars to shelter a fire of coals and kindling. It takes a while to catch, then it does. Eventually, the smell of cooking meat wafts out to us. Once this smell must have filled the house every evening.
We triangulate our seating arrangement in a primitive way, cornering where it’s safest. I’ve got my back to the shadows, which play tricks on those facing them. People break off their conversation when this deep darkness behaves strangely.
Toan is by the fire. Violet is sitting next to an unlit doorway. Kyle’s sitting with his back to the fireplace-shrine.
A story sticks in my mind, about a head falling through a fireplace at midnight and talking. I try not to look too long. There’s something over there, I feel, a strange presence.
The night wears on, tension our constant companion. Sounds freeze us. The light of the dying fire seems like the only safe place. It’s honestly terrifying.
It’s not real, I know. What we’re reacting to is a survival instinct known as ‘agent detection’. It’s the inclination to assume that a sentient force is involved in situations that might not involve one.
It’s been in us as long as it’s been in lions. If a lion is walking alone and hears a twig crunch, it will look around for predators. If we’re home alone and see something fall, we’ll look around for ghosts. Even if it’s a windy night, and the window is open. The possibility of the supernatural will occur even to those who don’t believe in such things.
Something has to give, and then it does. We stand up, motivated — we’ve decided to take a midnight tour.
We walk through the house, demystifying the long shadows as we go. We inspect the graffiti. It’s just kids, we conclude, scaring themselves in much the same way we’ve been doing. Returning to the fireplace room, we sink into the comfortable euphoria of the sleepover, giddiness leading into exhaustion.
We’re woken an hour later, at 2.30am, by Violet’s panicked whispers. She’d heard the sounds of tyres, two men talking. Toan is already up, and I rouse myself. Adrenalin takes over.
Walking down the stairs, our feet softly crush broken glass. In the room where we’d parked our bikes — nothing, no-one. We shine our light into unlit rooms, then walk outside. From the relative safety of the driveway, we look out into the woods.
It’s a thick tangle of tree and undergrowth that covers the mountainside. I think I see a pair of eyes reflecting the moonlight. I try to fix my bleary vision on it, but it’s gone.
As Toan wanders down to the main road, I look over at the shrine. It’s a short walk through the woods away. Toan’s ghost expert cousin had said that if you walk down to “the little house” in the pre-dawn hours, it’s easy to meet ghosts. I think about it, standing alone on the edge of woodline.
When we reconvene, we decide not to stay the night. Rationally, we blame it on the robbers who might come — maybe they regularly check these houses for sloppy ghost hunters. The ghosts got us on a technicality.
This all happened one year ago. Renovations have since gotten underway on both houses, and their ghosty auras have dissipated into the generally ghosty mountain aura. The holes in their walls, which formerly opened onto the thick fog of the mountain pass, have been fitted with new windows. No-one’s died in any plane crashes yet.
And maybe this is the way it’s supposed to go. Our world isn’t set up to resolve these ambiguities. We just pave them over when they get too pointless.
But on the darkest and creepiest nights, we find answers. Even if those answers just amount to cat’s eyes in the moonlight, watching us right back.
Interview with a Witness!
At the time of this writing, we tried reaching out to the people who wrote their — or their arch-enemy’s? — numbers on the walls of the house we overnighted in. Quyen in Daklak had since changed her phone, the vandal who’d seen “the ghost of the three children” wasn’t home and the one who wrote “his work was hunting” had a “subscriber is unavailable” message.
However the last number on the list, who I’d only written “Mr. 11pm” to identify, answered our call. Mr. 11pm was actually a woman, and that wouldn’t be the last terrifying surprise she would reveal!
Translator Vy: “Can you tell me what you saw in the house?”
Mrs. 11pm: “A lot... a lot...”
Vy: “Can you tell me a bit about it?”
Mrs. 11pm: “A lot... it was so terrible... I can’t tell!”
Vy: “Ok, so was it a woman or a man?”
Mrs. 11pm: “I don’t know... it was far away... but when I got closer it disappeared!”
Vy: “Oh...ok... Do you know the story behind it?”
Mrs. 11pm: “You have to know more than me... you are a journalist, you have travelled a lot... you must know the story!”
At this point, Vy had to convince Mrs. 11pm that she wasn’t holding out. Vy pressed Mrs. 11pm for more details... but her strange story was about to get stranger!
Mrs. 11pm: “When you come to the house, you have to write your phone number on the wall!”
Vy: “Oh, really? Why do I have to do that?
Mrs. 11pm: “..................... you have to.........”
And later: “I didn’t write my phone number there, it was there at the beginning. At the start there was nothing on the wall, but when I was about to leave I saw it written on the wall.”
Offerings for Hungry Ghosts
In Asian mythology, the world is made of five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. On the ancestral altar, five different fruits symbolise those elements, conveying the host’s wishes. Coconuts (dua or vua), papayas (du du or du), mangos (xoai or xai), custard-apples (mang cau or cau) and figs (sung) are the grouping commonly in use today. Together they create the ghost-appeasing phrase “Cau vua du xai sung” — “Pray to God to have enough money to spend generously.”
A Stupid Violet Story
Although Violet Kupersmith’s book The Frangipani Hotel revolves around Vietnamese ghost stories, Violet herself isn’t a ghost hunting pro. And she’s got the fate-tempting story to prove it:
“So last year, last spring, when I’d just moved to Dalat, I was ghost hunting. I’d come up here because the weather was nice, but also that.
“I really wanted to go to the ghost houses, but I was scared as f*** and I was like, ‘I need to get a little drunk before I go to this ghost house.’ I got drunk with some friends and then it was time to go to the ghost house.
“It was creepy because we went at sunset, because pre-gaming the ghost house had taken too long, so it was extra creepy. And I was going around, and people left presents for the ghost: incense, some bowls of food — and someone had left a pair of Vietnamese lady pyjamas.
“I was like, ‘Those look like my size.’ So I stole them, I ran around out back and put them on — ‘These are Violet’s now.’
“So I stole the ghost pyjamas. But if you borrow the ghost’s clothes, the ghost is going to borrow your body. It’s an even exchange.
“I wore them back home... I wore them as pyjamas. And in the night I started hearing this weird s***. I started hearing this woman laughing a couple of times at like 4 in the morning, and just like terrible nightmares. And then I returned the pyjamas.”
— “Did you wash the ghost off of them,” I ask, “before you started wearing them?”
“This is why it’s a terrible Violet story. They smelled fine.”