R. I. P. – Life and death in Vietnam

I have already mentioned a few times before that I always try to visit churches and cemeteries in different places. Since it was my first time in Vietnam, I had to see as much as possible. The local cemetery was high on my list of places to visit. Considering my total inability to find my way around, even in a familiar place, my solo trip to find a mysterious cemetery out of Hoi An was sheer madness. Of course I got lost in the country side, of course nobody spoke English, of course I panicked. But like a Fairy Godmother, my new friend Cam suddenly appeared on her scooter.

I believe that by speaking quite loudly and madly waving your hands in the air, people can have quite meaningful conversations even without knowing the language. So I began some pantomime and to my surprise Cam understood me very well. Obviously nobody ever asked her how to get to the cemetery before (and she worked with tourists on a daily basis).  Her surprise was palpable, but she still offered to take me there on her scooter. Thank you, dear friend. You helped me satisfy my thirst for everything new.

The first thing I saw when we arrived to the cemetery was these beautiful temple-like structures. The small walls, reaching to about knee height, define a family plot where the entire family and extended family members find their last resting place.




This is the main entrance to a large cemetery for rich Vietnamese people in Hoi An and the nearby villages. I had trouble to believe that those beautiful pagoda-like structures are not temples, but just walls surrounding the family plots.




According to my friend Cam, Vietnamese people see cemeteries as the last home for their dead relatives. Therefore, like any other house, they need fences, gates and and tombs.




These cute lions (or dogs) guard the tombs and the happy dragons support the roof of the structure.




We visited a smaller, poorer cemetery the next day. Here, not all people can afford a large plot to bury their relatives together, but they still spend what they have to build a decent tomb and small gates.




This is the marble tomb of a rich merchant. I was surprised to see lots of granite and marble tombs around. But the explanation is very simple – about 20 km from Hoi An, there is a Marble Mountain. And it’s not just the name. It’s actually marble.




This is one of the rich tombs. It is double-story and even has a small annex to cover the sign. The space under the top plate is used for incense and flowers. Food and other memorabilia are usually placed in front of the grave.




All writing is in Vietnamese of course, but I saw a few graves with English and Vietnamese obituaries.

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The graves are really close to each other. Sometimes it was quite difficult to navigate to a particular spot which may have attracted my attention.




This is a very spectacular place. It looks so European to me – I would even say it could be Italian. It also looks so out of place at the Vietnamese cemetery, though many Vietnamese people are Christians. We attended the Easter mass in Danang and it was interesting and similar to our services.




Despite appearing “Italian”, everything inside this chapel was strictly local including the language, shape of the tombs and the feel.




Some tombstone have pictures, but this is rare.




And there is always incense. Most of the time I was there, they were burning.

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My friend Cam places incense and flowers on her husband’s relative’s grave. All those yellow graves belong to his family.




People take great care for their dead. They visit cemeteries often and sweep, bring flowers, food, sweets and refresh the writings.




Each cemetery has a crew of workers who look after the grounds. They can also take care of some specific graves if family is far away and requests they do so. They are paid by the local council and relatives of the deceased.




The Swastika is a common sight here.




The poor side of the local cemetery.




Those sandy mounds are also graves, but for the people whose relatives are very poor. There is a chance that later they will scrape together enough money to arrange some simple tomb, because it’s really embarrassing to put people to rest without a proper grave.




This is a very old grave. No name, no indication who it belongs to. And probably no relatives left as its looks very unkempt.




Here is a cross. Highly unusual in these surroundings.




This is a graveyard on someone’s property in the country. We passed a lot of similar sites on our way from Hoi An to Hui. This photo was taken from the bus window.




This is a war memorial for the soldiers who lost their lives in the war against the Americans.




Thousands of tombstones, very well presented and immaculately clean.




During my walking photo class in the backstreets of Hoi An, we walked past this small “bump” in the middle of the road. I couldn’t even suspect that it was a grave right here. Our guide explained that this is a burial place for someone local. On both sides of this small mound, there was burnt incense.




We could not believe him. Apparently, the footpath and this road belonged to one of the residents here, but the local council needed to expand the tiny street, so they bought a bit of land from the people. Unfortunately for everyone, this grave was in the middle of the extension. It is not respectable thing to exhume the bones again, so they left it in place. People just drive and walk around this grave. Then our guide took us to the house a few doors down and showed some similar mounds in the backyard. According to local traditions, the Vietnamese bury their dead close to their dwellings. And they do it twice. The first time, they mourn for three days with the deceased being kept at home for friends and relatives to say their goodbyes. After this, they bury the body in a coffin somewhere on the property. Often it happens in rice fields (similar to what I saw from the bus).




Three years later, on the certain day defined by an astrologist, someone from the family has to dig up the bones, wash and scrub them in order to repack them into a small box, lined with gold paper or foil. The bones need to be arranged in order resemble the original body. They then wrap the whole box again and bury it again.




My brief encounter with this part of Vietnamese life was eye-opening. I learned so much about the traditions and everyday life of people. I experienced the full extent of hospitality in Vietnam. I made a new friend Cam, and her daughter. And all of this wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed at the hotel or went to the beach.

Open the door, step outside and you may find lots of amazing things!

Music: Aken – Mei Hua San Nong (Instrumental)


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