I’ve been visiting Vietnam for over seven years, including residing for three, and it hasn’t been until this latest trip that I finally found the right metaphor to describe the place. This is all due to a funeral I attended in Quang Ngai, a town in central Vietnam where I realised I was in the upside-down world.
A man died in Vietnam, past his 86th birthday and after years of battling cancer his fight was finally lost. His family knew he had cancer but never once told him of it, instead choosing to rally him with support to belay the spread and give them more time with him. But ultimately, as we all will someday, he lost and departed this realm.
A message appeared late one evening on my phone from Thao, whilst I was exploring in northern Thailand, that Du Pham had passed that morning. Immediately I set to changing my plans. Exploring Chiang Mai’s beautiful mountains would have to wait, I needed to get to Vietnam to show my support for this family in their time of loss.
It took two airplanes, three visa interrogations in Da Nang and two car rides once I did clear customs before I got there. It was a hectic, last minute journey just to arrive in central Vietnam, but I made it to the town of Quang Ngai, arriving on its outskirts to a home nestled amongst the rice fields.
Quang Ngai is a small city (by Vietnam standards, there’s over a million people living there). Prior to the war it was a nothing town, just villagers in shacks. After the war, those that survived the air raids, the agent orange and the massacre turned Quang Ngai into a city, using concrete and steel instead of bamboo and mud.
Du and his wife Thi Luong, after marrying, bought, lived and raised five children on the same property he passed away in. The property is a few hectares large and was jungle when they first arrived, their closest neighbour a kilometre away. They immediately set to work on the property, building rice paddies and using the unearthed dirt to create a mound high enough to build a shack on.
It was in this shack they raised six children (one of whom was lost to sickness as they were unable to afford medication). The house had naught but a food preparation area, a place to sleep and a place to go to the toilet. All the food came from their property, there was no supermarket or butcher, grocer or restaurant. They made good of the land.
During the American War (that’s what they call it) times got tough, as Du was deployed as a truck driver in the southern army. He didn’t want to get involved in the war, so he managed to get discharged due to medical reasons. Before returning his wife often remembers hearing sounds of jets or helicopters flying overhead. At first it was intriguing, until those roaring engines began to drop bombs. She quickly learnt to grab the kids and hide, building a makeshift tunnel underneath the property for protection.
When the air warned of the approach of aircraft Thi and kids would turn and flee, making their way to an underground bunker they had prepared due to all the bombing, only coming out once the overhead din of motors ceased. This went on for years.
Later, once the children had grown up, Du and Thi moved to another, smaller property a few hundred metres away and gave their son Bay the property to manage.
Her closest neighbour back then wasn’t even within shouting distance, now some thirty houses, all built of concrete and steel surround them. The skies are quiet and they are free to flourish.
Its three days after Du passes that I arrive to this rebuilt home and have the opportunity to get a true insight into Vietnamese culture, an inside look into a traditional Central Vietnamese funeral. Everything they do in this country is different from what I know, it can make acceptance difficult but that is exactly what I have learned to do.
I stumble onto the property, heavily laden with two backpacks, sweating with the effort in the mid-afternoon sun. A concrete pathway dissecting the rice fields leads me on towards the house, I see lots of people but nobody from the family.
Outside the mould encrusted house there has been some alterations. I have been to this home many times but the transformation that has taken place in a short amount of time astounds me. I notice numerous wreaths that line the thin concrete gangway leading up to the house, among them my own contribution, a beautiful 6ft high yellow flowered wreath with my family name and the words ‘with respect’ stenciled on a sign above it.
There are over a dozen of these that flank my walk up to the ‘patio’ ending in a large wooden, rectangular entranceway, similarly designed to that of a pagoda. Its teak and gold inlaid together creating a doorway onto the property. The centrepiece above the door inscribed with the words Vang Sanh Cuc Lac (Gone but not dead, gone to the land of paradise). I bow my head and enter.
The normally bare concrete floor of this home is now covered with soft synthetic grass, its normally open aired roof and sides have been replaced with silk linen of purple and yellow colours, giving the appearance of being inside a tent. More wreaths, gold inlaid signs and flowers decorate the interior, along with dozens of circular tables. The corrugated iron roof has been transformed into velvet and silk dressings of yellow and black, the chosen colours. It’s a complete transformation of Bay’s house and truly feels as though I’ve entered another world.
This becomes more apparent as I enter.
As I walk in, a sweaty, long-haired backpacker, all the heads at the dozen or more tables inside turn; a foreigner in a t-shirt, shorts, straddling two backpacks has just walked in.
Who is this? I see their eyes all ask – and what is he doing here? I wonder this to myself, squinting my eyes over the crowd, awkwardly scanning for a familiar face to welcome me. There isn’t one. My chest caves in a little, sweat beads drop annoyingly from my forehead and my whole body cringes.
With the transformation of the house I wonder ‘… have I walked into the wrong funeral?’
I brush the sweat from my brow and move forward hesitantly, feeling immensely awkward as I hear a monk chanting from within the house. Inside the house someone spots me and rushes out in shouted tones, waving their finger at me to go this way, I follow and enter a room to the side of the house.
Inside is a familiar face, an aunty, who smiles at me then promptly tells me to take off my shoes. I apologise for forgetting to remove them and do so while she grabs at my bags trying to help me. Moments later Thao arrives, grabs me by the shirt and drags me towards another room.
People are exiting with heads bowed from within, the monk has stopped chanting and I’m taken inside the room and notice that all the people exiting are the family I couldn’t find before. My anxiety levels drop a little bit, I’m in the right place.
I’m placed in front of a huge wooden cask, raised up on a table in the centre of the room. I’m given incense and directions, shown the body, beautifully encased in an oversized wooden coffin and told to pay my respects. Which I do by lighting incense and paying my respects.
Moments later I’m dragged outside again to greet the family and say hello.
I try to follow the Vietnamese as it’s shouted from a dozen mouths at me but realise I haven’t spoken it in nearly four years – I’m a little rusty as a result. I’m told, amongst the hello’s, that I am not dressed respectfully enough and am ‘quickly dragged by an old lady back to where my backpack lays and told to change.
No sooner have I changed and come back out in more suitable attire than the family are back in the room with the body and alter, chanting again with the monk. About twenty of them are in there with the body bowing, nodding and occasionally falling to their knees as the monk who had stopped earlier now resumes again.
I’m later told they’ve been performing this ritual at intervals for three days, with no break. The vigil and chanting must last, 24/7 until his body is in the ground. This is the way, the body must never be left alone, chanting must always take place. Now not everyone has been in the room with the same monk for three days, it’s taking shifts to accomplish this. A team of monks are on hand who come and go and as long as a member of the direct family is in the room there is no violation of this edict to not leave Du alone.
I find it quite endearing, his family will not abandon him, until they lay him to rest. For the family though, I can see not only sorrow, but tiredness in their faces.
I’m seated at a table with strangers while the chanting resumes. They all smile and try to talk to me, but my Vietnamese fails me, in the whirlwind moments of arriving in unfamiliar surroundings the words I used to speak evade me. After five minutes everyone at the table loses interest in me.
There is perhaps a hundred people outside at the tables, but this number varies as people come and go. This is how they do it here. You come, pay your respects, are served some food by a team of ladies who work the kitchen and perhaps you offer some money before you leave. This goes on the same as the family vigil, people can come at any hour and any time to pay their respects, a 24 hour pay your respects service. It makes the outside tables a corral of well-wishers, a lot of whom want to sit with me, the foreigner.
It’s an arduous afternoon and evening for me as I struggle talking to dozens of strangers in a language I’ve forgotten. I’m already exhausted from the ordeal just to get here, but I’m tired further but the constant flow of people in and out and the relentless heat of summer in the central region.
The family are all preoccupied with hosting the event, be that praying or preparing food, so they have no time to sit with me and introduce me, or even to translate the constant attention I’m getting. I try not to worry about myself though, they’ve been at this for days now and are surely more exhausted than I.
It gets late and the crowd thins out, most of the family leave as well. I get a chance to sit with the wife of Du, who hasn’t slept or eaten since her husband of nearly sixty-five years has passed. I rub her shoulders and feet, eat some food trying to urge her to so the same. But she is bereft, she has been with this man by her side for so long that I have no concept, no idea of the loss she feels.
Quite often I’ve heard stories of partners passing within days of one another and I fear the worst for her, as does her family. As we sit and talk I’m told that her health is constantly being checked, particularly her blood pressure which spikes at intervals as high as the wails coming from her bereft lungs. This poor woman has lost a part of her soul, I try to stem the emotions from dispersing at my eyes but I cannot. She’s lost an appendage, a part of her. She looks around, her eyes glazed over, searching around her for something she’s lost and when she realises that it’s gone, she cries aloud.
Eventually I leave with Thao’s family, in their newly purchased car for the first time. Halfway back to their house her father stops abruptly, gets out and tells me to get out and drive. I need to practice he tells me, I don’t argue, in Vietnam I’ve learnt to just do what I’m told.
Early the next morning we return. Overnight, the head grandchild has maintained the vigil over the body. Remaining awake, chanting and keeping his grandfather company whilst everyone else got some much needed sleep. He’s relieved at 5am but his work is not done, other duties await and he will not sleep this day.
I ask if he has slept at all since this has happened and heads shake to the side. Responsibility during this, by tradition, is fallen to the first male of Du’s children, which is Thao’s father, and he does not waver from his duty to the family. He knows the responsibility he bears, that his family tradition dictates he must perform. He passes on duties to the family, including the first male in the next generation.
Nobody complains or contradicts proceedings, this is just the way they do things. Follow the tradition, honour the unwritten code.
By dawn people start arriving in droves again, along with a procession of about 20 uniformed men. I ask if they are soldiers, as their attire has them resembling American Naval officers, but am told that this is what the funeral company employees wear.
The funeral companies’ assembly includes these men in addition to three wooden covered trucks. They look like floats you would see at a Carnivale, intricately carved wooden designs, particularly dragons make for a distinguished presence. Later these will form the flotilla of mourners out from the property.
After much chanting and crying it is time to move the body. His final wishes were to be cremated and the ashes buried with his ancestors. Apparently since he has died everyone has argued, saying that he can’t do that, the arguing has persisted for days until a compromise is made between the family. They will cremate him but his bones will remain. I didn’t even know this was a thing, let alone know that you were allowed to challenge the wishes of the dear departed. Upside down world.
The only crematorium though is in Da Nang.
I find out this is why I was given the driving lesson the night before. The body was to be driven up to Da Nang, cremated and then brought back to the family plot for burial - and the whole family had to accompany the body for this process. Don’t leave Du alone.
By 9am the monk led procession of the body from the house to the hearse begins, along with screams that will haunt me for some time. His wife sits on her aluminium frame wailing, screaming from the deck with the pain of loss, willing her husband back to her as they carry him away from her. She is too old to make the journey so this is the last she will see of him.
I can’t hold back the tears and observe through wet eyes as they move the cask down the concrete pathway and into the back of a waiting van. Once inside and the doors close many hands rest on the windows as people sob openly.
Actually at this point I should mention that the men don’t cry. All the wailing, sobbing and shrieks all come from the women. I can see the emotion welling up inside the men, but they do not allow it to show. Never in front of people. Men don’t cry in Vietnam.
Nobody pays attention to my emotions, which I’m thankful for as I cannot contain myself from wiping the tears streaking down my face. For once I thank the gods I’m sweating profusely as it helps mask the fact.
Along with the three wooden flotilla’s, the body is joined by four econovans and roughly thirty motorbikes as we leave the area and traverse the narrow streets of Quang Ngai.
When it ends at the entrance to the highway the wooden dragon trucks disappear, along with the thirty motorbikes and a few cars, what remains are three busloads and our car. We hit the highway on our way to Da Nang and every few hundred metres, from the lead car with the body inside, I see wafts of fake paper money being thrown out the window.
I ask why they do this and am told that because we are taking him to Da Nang to be cremated we need to make the passage so that his spirit knows the way to return. I silently think to myself I wonder if he’s going to pick up all the trash on his way back.
It’s a long drive, three hours, and Vietnamese always seem to prepare for these things. All I brought was a bottle of water and a pack of cigarettes, I didn’t realise in the back of the van I’m driving is a whole roast pork and a bag of bread rolls. The monotony of the drive is broken with delicious morsels fed periodically to me by the group of ladies in the back.
In time we arrive to what I’m told is an unusually empty crematorium. Stories of this place during COVID reach my ears, telling me there were bodies lined up out the street. Today there is nothing but a sad family, bereaved for the loss of their family idol, their father, grandfather, uncle and husband.
The monk has joined us and recommenced his chanting as the cask is placed atop a bench, the exhausting ceremony goes on for over half an hour inside a steaming hot room. I cannot take the airless, energy sucking heat for more than five minutes and have to move outside. The family cannot do this and suffer through it. As I watch from outside I see burgeoning patches of sweat expand at the backs of everyone’s clothing as they pray.
To me the chanting is repetitive, monotonous and only broken by short high-pitched ringing coming from the symbol the monk periodically taps. I allow my mind to shut down and listen, absorbing the rhythms and find myself entranced by it, connecting to another place. Until a bead of sweat drops from my forehead to my nose and snaps me back to reality.
The final words are delivered and as soon as they’re finished the cask begins to descend, dropping through a passageway to the floor below.
Everyone cries. The cask disappears and then someone yells out from another room that they can see the cask making its way in the other room.
The cask departs along a conveyor belt below, disappearing into the confines of an oversized green cylinder, the families emotions heighten as they all come over to the window to watch it disappear. Wails and cries reach out, some still haven’t come over to the viewing window and others scream at them to hurry up and come join. Come, watch as he disappears into the fire.
The exhaustion, the sheer emotion of the moment and stifling proximity of everyone in the confines of the room causes a young mother to collapse, before hitting the ground many hands grab her and a whole new round of screaming begins again, this time out of fear for the girl.
Seeing her faint I quickly move over and tell them to get her outside, out of the sauna and into fresh air. Nobody understands me as she is eventually carried outside in a thrall of twenty people who crowd over her worrisomely. Again I make a plea, get out of the way, again I’m ignored.
I move over to the car, open the back and tear apart the cardboard drink carton inside. Making makeshift fans I hand them over to her brother and auntie, who have her cuddled in their laps. They nod and begin fanning, I spread my hands wide, indicating that everyone needs to back off. Twenty people crowding the area don’t seem to understand the need for space.
Soon the elation of the moment dies down, and the Vietnamese return to the one thing they know best – food. As they girl still lays comatose more food from other cars is brought, a table erected and a lady on a motorbike with cold drinks and fresh ice appears from out of nowhere.
The girl wakes up, dazed, confused and sad, but she’s ok. Ten minutes later she’s got a Bahn Mi in her hand, she’ll be fine. Thao tells me this is the fifth time a lady has fainted in the past four days and I wonder to myself why they haven’t gotten better at responding appropriately.
Thao asks me what I would do and I respond that perhaps crowding together with thirty people shoulder to shoulder in a poorly ventilated room whilst you chant incessantly for thirty minutes isn’t the best formula – she shrugs, it’s what they have to do. Upside down world.
So we wait outside, middle of the day steaming heat as the body is burned. We eat, some sleep and a few of the men play poker in the shade. I’m shown the cask that he is going to be put in and question why it is so big. The large wooden chest would be big enough to hold a baby and then I’m told of the argument that followed after the man passed.
Cremation is a fairly new tradition in Vietnam, and especially for the country folk. Nobody in this family has ever done it and when Du requested it as his final wish the arguments flared up between the family of what to do. Individualism clearly doesn’t exist here but he was very adamant that was his final wish for his remains. Eventually, by negotiation, he was burned down to the bones as a compromise. I didn’t even know this was a thing, but that explained the wooden box.
Several hours pass and the cask is returned with the remains sealed inside, everyone got to watch whilst this happened, I’ve never seen charred remains before but I felt a disconnect seeing the bones come out. Now as he is sealed inside and placed in the car we are finally heading back to Quang Ngai to lay the cask to rest.
It’s dusk as the flotilla arrives at the family plot, a twenty square metre overgrown and aged cemetery dedicated to the Pham family only. The smell of cow dung and cigarettes permeates the area as I walk the dusty path up. As I do I notice beyond a small concrete wall everyone has gathered together around the burial site.
The smells waft upwards along with the mosquitoes and insects and I smile thinking you are never really alone in Vietnam. Even in death you won’t be left alone.
In the time we took to drive to Da Nang and back, other members of the family stayed behind and prepared the site for his burial. Yesterday this was an overgrown scrub lot. Today it is transformed.
I’m amazed at their work and see the exhaustion on the faces of a half dozen men after clearing the overgrown area of scrub, digging a six-foot-deep hole and creating a fully inscribed marble headstone in preparation for the cask. They’ve done it all in a day and by themselves.
The monk chanting resumes, another half an hour passes, and the cask is committed to the ground. Men takes turns tossing the dirt on top, until another claims he can do it faster, grabbing the shovel and hurriedly moving dirt to cover the cask. Now interred, more chanting resumes.
After I’m told now we return home and will pray again. We return to the house, the one he died in, and a shrine is erected inside the house for him for him and for others to come pay their respects. It’s a raided wooden platform, with his photo in the centre. On the shrines surface gifts of food and pots for incense are on display. It is blessed by the monk in another arduous ceremony, but this is last time for today.
I’m completely done, grab a hot beer and sit down to drink it. It’s completely out of turn and several heads turn at what I’ve done but I don’t care, after a miserably hot and exhaustive day I needed one. It’s been a relentless couple of days for me and now the body is finally at rest perhaps I can get some too.
Ten minutes later I’m joined by others and a feast ensues for the remainder of the night.
Now this certainly isn’t the end of proceedings. In the days that follow several other trips out to the cemetery happen, as well as special visits from the monk to bless Du’s shrine on certain days over the next three years. But after five days my time here is done, I’ve just experienced the wonder of a traditional Vietnamese funeral and am ready to leave.
I’ve since realised the difference in this country, after coming here since 2016 I finally found the metaphor to best describe the true nature of this place. In a very popular TV show called Stranger Things the plot revolves around another world, called the Upside-Down world. Everything there is the opposite.
That’s it, that’s what Vietnam is – the upside-down world. And as Du passes into the next place I can only say humbly, thank you for the opportunity to get a glance into the opposite to the place I come from, to see and experience a Central Vietnamese funeral for the first time. An ode to dedication, tradition and respect for the spirits of your ancestors.
In Vietnam family comes before the self and the family never forget, for they are one. And perhaps one day, when all the ashes have fallen and the dust settled, they will be together again.