Fortune Tellers and Psychics in Vietnam: Decoding the Government's Double Standards

The Vietnamese government's recognition of the fortune-telling profession contrasts with its simultaneous imposition of penalties on fortune tellers, citing allegations of engaging in superstitious and deviant practices.

Fortune Tellers and Psychics in Vietnam: Decoding the Government's Double Standards

In 1973, a woman who had just moved to Saigon amazed locals with her extraordinary precognitive abilities. She was the 23-year-old woman, Tran Thi Kim, who specialized in fortune-telling through cards and flowers. She believed her clairvoyant powers came from a Laotian fortune teller's skull that she worshiped at home. [1]

Kim even convinced a priest of her unique ability when she accurately stated the amount of money he was carrying in his pocket. She also correctly predicted that a Western woman had almost died while giving birth to her second child. In addition, Kim's precognitive abilities extended to another Westerner's departure date from Vietnam, showcasing her remarkable accuracy in these instances.

Fifty years have passed since Kim gained fame in South Vietnam, and things have changed. In the present day, a new woman has risen to fame through social media for her talent in describing a stranger's family background. However, her newfound recognition was short-lived, as the authorities swiftly fined her for administrative violations just a few days later. [2]

The powers and skills demonstrated by these two women belong to the oldest profession in the world: the art of divination.

Fortune tellers, psychics, and mystics claim to assert the power to perceive past and future events. The enigmatic divination abilities have stood the test of time, captivating the public and professionals like professors, businesspeople, and politicians.

Nevertheless, it continues to be a contentious profession, challenging legal standards and freedom of speech in numerous countries. In some places, practitioners face imprisonment on fraud charges, despite fortune-telling being recognized as a legitimate profession elsewhere. Vietnam, in particular, lacks a clear stance on how to regulate the practice of divination.

While state-owned media consistently condemn acts related to mystical spirituality and precognition, it is crucial to understand its place in the broader social fabric of Vietnam.

Once Commonplace in Southern Vietnam, Banned After 1975

Before 1975, Minh Huong was one of Saigon's most famous fortune tellers. She was invited to the Presidential Palace monthly to read the fortune for minister’s wives and First Lady Nguyen Thi Mai Anh. [3]

Superstition and belief in the supernatural were also prevalent in the Republic of Vietnam’s military. American military advisors recounted instances where military offensives were postponed because Southern Vietnamese generals had not yet chosen auspicious dates based on astrological signs. [4]

Previously, fortune-telling had been banned during the time of President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was a devout Catholic. However, the art of divinity experienced a resurgence in Southern Vietnam after his assassination in 1963.

Fortune tellers usually practiced their craft in temples, shrines, and private chambers at home. These spiritual spaces were refuges for those experiencing uncertainties and anxieties and those needing advice or divination. After the coup in 1963, hundreds of fortune-tellers began operating openly in Saigon. [5]

In contrast, Northern Vietnam completely eradicated spiritual activities, including fortune-telling during the Vietnam War; the Communist government considered this profession "superstitious and deviant," as well as a social vice. [6] Due to this, many renowned psychics and mystics migrated to the South in 1954.

After 1975, the new regime prohibited the practice of fortune-telling. The authorities viewed it as a residual influence of Chinese domination over Vietnam and a tool the United States exploited to undermine the spirit of resistance against foreign aggression.

In reality, however, fortune-telling and other forms of spirituality became indispensable spiritual activities for ordinary people, in contrast to the new government's hardline stance on the issue.

In the 1980s and 1990s, despite heavy condemnation and criticism from the government, fortune-telling, together with folk beliefs, experienced a strong revival and became a significant form of spiritual support for the Vietnamese people, especially during times when the state pushed the country to the brink of economic collapse and spiritual crisis.

In the 1990s, the government began to accept traditional spiritual culture, considering it a spiritual support foundation. However, fortune-telling was still not publicly recognized, even though it was discreetly practiced. This activity faced many risks, and the authorities could target practitioners for spreading superstitious and deviant beliefs.

Recognized but Still Punished by the Vietnamese Government

In 2008, Vietnam's General Statistics Office issued a list of occupations in the population census, in which "astrologers, fortune-tellers, and other related individuals" were recognized as a distinct profession. [7]

In the same year, a fortune teller in Van Giang District, Hung Yen Province, was released after serving a second sentence for practicing superstitious and deviant activities. [8]

By 2020, then Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc signed Decision No. 34/2020/QD-TTg, which introduced a classification list of occupations in  Vietnam, once again recognizing "astrologers, physiognomists, and individuals involved in other spiritual activities" as a profession. [9]

The prime minister's decision describes this profession's characteristics as “telling the past, predicting the future of human lives through horoscopes, reading palm characteristics, fortune-telling by cards or other techniques.” It also describes how this profession is practiced, such as writing horoscope charts, reading palm lines, tarot card reading, fortune-telling using tea leaves or coffee grounds, etc.

This makes it clear that the art of divination is a profession undoubtedly recognized by the state. However, a woman who recently practiced fortune-telling by cutting areca fruits was administratively fined for spreading superstition and deviant beliefs.

State authorities commonly apply two regulations when imposing administrative penalties on psychics or mystics. One restricts the use of social media to spread superstitious and deviant beliefs (Decree No. 15/2020/ND-CP). The other bans exploiting festivals to engage in superstitious and abnormal activities (Decree No. 38/2021/ND-CP). [11]

Furthermore, under the current Criminal Law, individuals practicing superstition and engaging in deviant activities may face fines and imprisonment, particularly if they have a history of criminal admonishment, if their criminal records have not been expunged, or if they persist in pursuing this profession. [12]

However, current Vietnamese laws do not have specific provisions to determine what constitutes superstitious and deviant activities. Does cutting an areca fruit for fortune-telling differ from reading coffee grounds in a cup? Why does the state recognize fortune-telling as a profession while penalizing practitioners using social networks?

For decades, the Vietnamese government has classified fortune-telling and other physiognomy activities as superstitious and deviant practices. This notion has been widely understood by the public and state officials alike. Surprisingly, despite the official recognition of this profession, the authorities failed to inform the people that they were now allowed to engage in such practices.

With the popularity and public nature of activities performed by psychics, authorities may no longer be able to prohibit this profession outrightly. On the other hand, recognizing occupations related to spirituality also acknowledges their longstanding values.

Nevertheless, maintaining vague regulations on superstition and alleged deviant activities indicates that the government does not want this service to thrive. The current legal framework provides leeway for authorities to interpret and punish those practicing this profession.

Fortune Telling as Part of Spiritual Life

Within the Vietnamese spiritual tradition, several key elements are deeply ingrained. These include a firm belief in people's capacity to communicate with spirits, a strong conviction in karma, and a profound association of these beliefs with fortune-telling. These beliefs are very similar to those found in other East Asian cultures.

Taiwan is known as the "island of fortune-telling." [13] The Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top academic institution, has estimated that about one-third of the Taiwanese population seeks fortune-telling services.

Psychics and mystics are readily available in night markets and areas with concentrated fortune-tellers, like Taipei's Bangka Lungshan Temple neighborhood. Here, various fortune-telling methods are offered, such as card reading, bird fortune-telling, leaf reading, electronic fortune-telling, and fortune-telling games.

When facing mental health issues, Taiwanese often seek the advice of fortune-tellers before seeing their therapists. Consulting a fortune-teller provides comfort as people do not have to express their emotions and feelings like when they see their psychotherapists. [14]

Chiu Hei-yuan, a renowned sociologist and professor at National Taiwan University, believes that the popularity of fortune-telling in Taiwan is related to political fluctuations. Taiwanese people have lived under Japanese rule and experienced repressive conditions for over 40 years during the Martial Law era before embarking on their path to democratization. As a result, they constantly fear instability and need to foresee the future. This has fueled the significant development of the fortune-telling profession. [15]

During the French colonial period, various mystical and spiritual activities occurred in Vietnam, including séances to communicate with the dead for inquiries about the future, seeking fortune, or requesting medicinal remedies. The practice of séances also led to a new religion in South Vietnam in 1926, Caodaism. Hòa Hảo Buddhism also emerged from a founder believed to possess miraculous healing abilities, the ability to see the past and foresee the future.

Due to a lack of survey data on the fortune-telling profession in Vietnam, it is difficult to determine the current status and demand for these services accurately. However, from a historical and religious perspective, fortune-telling can be seen as an integral part of Vietnamese spiritual and cultural life; it has become an essential support mechanism for the psychological well-being of people amidst difficult historical circumstances.

Fortune-telling, Fraud, and Freedom of Speech.

In the realm of fortune-telling, skepticism often prevails, with many equating this ancient profession with fraudulent practices - a common predicament faced by its practitioners.

Fortune tellers wield considerable authority, rendering judgments on matters that clients may find difficult to contest. Some unscrupulous individuals have exploited this power to manipulate minds, fabricate problematic scenarios, and coerce exorbitant payments to resolve perceived misfortunes. However, it should not be banned as a profession because it is important to recognize that fraud is not confined solely to this mystical realm.

The act of predicting the future extends beyond the boundaries of divination. Economists forecast market trends, the media predicts sports outcomes and even politicians endeavor to anticipate election results. The essence of fraud lies in deception – the art of extracting something from others through false pretenses or dishonesty, and it regrettably permeates across various professions.

Irrespective of its acceptance by legal systems, divination persists in one form or another, fueled by the principles of supply and demand within a market-driven society. Fortune-telling should be acknowledged as a social reality, embodying people's beliefs in religious and spiritual aspects of life. However, it also has drawbacks, necessitating service users to exercise vigilance and discernment.

In this intricate tapestry of beliefs and practices, the allure of fortune-telling remains a captivating force, intertwining with humanity's quest for answers and meaning in an uncertain world. The authorities should accept it and let it thrive.

This article was written in Vietnamese and previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on May 5, 2023. Lee Nguyen and Karie Nguyen translated this into English.


1. Women Soothsayers: The Vietnamese Want to Know Their Fate. (1973, August 3). The New York Times.

2. Đúng làm theo, sai hãy sửa. (2023, February 11). Sài Gòn Giải Phóng.

3. See [1].

4. See [1].

5. Khi chiêm tinh gia trở thành công cụ chính trị. (2014, March 5). Báo Công an Nhân Dân.

6. Cái cũ, cái mới trong văn hóa. (2023, February 26). Đà Nẵng Online.

7. Quyết định 1019/QĐ-TCTK 2008 danh mục nghề nghiệp áp dụng cho điều tra dân số. (2008, November 12). Luật Việt Nam.

8. Cần sớm ngăn chặn hành vi lừa đảo của Lê Thanh Vọng. (2008, October 17).

9. Quyết định số 34/2020/QĐ-TTg của Thủ tướng Chính phủ: Ban hành Danh mục nghề nghiệp Việt Nam. (2020). Thư Viện Pháp Luật.

10. Nghị định 15/2020/NĐ-CP quy định xử phạt vi phạm hành chính trong lĩnh vực bưu chính, viễn thông, tần số vô tuyến điện, công nghệ thông tin và giao dịch điện tử. (2020, February 3). Thư Viện Pháp Luật.

11. Nghị định số 38/2021/NĐ-CP của Chính phủ: Quy định xử phạt vi phạm hành chính trong lĩnh vực văn hóa và quảng cáo. (2021). Thư Viện Pháp Luật.

12. Bộ luật Hình sự hợp nhất. (2017). Thư Viện Pháp Luật.

13. Writer, K. I. N. S. (2018, March 15). For the truth, go to a Taiwan fortunetelling booth. Nikkei Asia.

14. In Taiwan, Fortunetellers Are the Preferred Form of Therapists. (2020). Vice.

15. See [13]

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