Visiting Vietnam, the place where my entire family, before my generation, is from. Where all my grandparents, their parents, and their parents’ parents were born and buried. Because I’m unable to visit their grave sites very often, we do visit them at least twice when we are in the country.

My mother came from a Catholic family, and my father a Buddhist family, although now he’s since converted. With these two different religions, the kinds of cemeteries that we visit are rather different, in both ritual and aesthetic. Yes, the cemeteries are segregated depending on the religion. Actually, I don’t know if that’s how it is in North America or not because I don’t visit cemeteries here.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the idea of the Christian/Catholic afterlife. Be good and you go to Heaven. Be bad and you go to Hell. The Catholic side of my family all resided in the rural areas outside of the main city of Hai Phong, so it is only natural that this is where their plots lay, in the primarily catholic village’s cemetery. The road to get there is rocky and really difficult to get to in a large group or with a car. The path is narrow and broken up, with large rocks and deep “pot holes.” It’s hard to deftly maneuver a bicycle there even, as you just hit the rocks and keel over.

The graves themselves are angular, efficient, and have a powerful presence to them. They’re mostly made of ceramic tiles, though some can be brick or marble even. Each has a small vase packed with dirt that you stick incense in. When you arrive at the plot, we say a prayer, individually light incense, and greet the deceased. Depending on the occasion (anniversary of death, etc), songs can be sung and/or the rosary is recited.

Life is a journey.
Death is a return to earth.
The universe is like an inn.
The passing years are like dust.

Regard this phantom world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp – a phantom – and a dream.

In Buddhist beliefs of the afterlife, after you die, you are either reborn as a different being, be it another human or a creature. This is the belief of reincarnation. However, you can also enter Nirvana, which is the Buddhist equivalent of Heaven. Depending on the sect of Buddhism, Nirvana can mean different things, mostly a synonym of ‘reaching Enlightenment,’ such as achieving a ‘purified, superior mind,’ or ridding oneself of craving, pleasure, or ignorance and therefore ridding oneself of suffering. Anyone who achieves Enlightenment becomes a Buddha and is no longer reincarnated, but instead enters Nirvana.

As you can see, Vietnamese Buddhist cemeteries are quite different from Catholic ones, even though they do have some similarities. Part of my family has a mausoleum-like area where much of my paternal family members are buried. The architectural details of both the graves and larger structures call back to an ancient Oriental aesthetic. They remind me of pictures I’d seen of the Forbidden City of Beijing, except a bit more morbid.

At a Buddhist cemetery, we also burn incense as a way of honouring and communicating with the dead. Instead of praying, however, we sort of have a very surreal, one-sided conversation with our ancestors. I always feel weird doing anything besides greeting them. My grandfather died about 4 months before I was born, so I never met him, and the only other relative that I know of buried there is my uncle, whom I’d never met. I think my father once said that he wanted to be buried here too.

At the entrance of the cemetery, there’s a little shop/shack that you can buy incense and other things. One of these other things are stacks of fake American bills as well as yellow paper with Chinese-like characters on them. We buy these leafs of very thin paper and burn them in the designated pits by the grave site (see above). The idea behind this is that the money must also ‘die,’ aka be burned, and pass onto the dead, so that they can spend it, wherever they are. I’m now realizing that this doesn’t quite fit in with the Buddhist afterlife theory, so maybe we’re not Buddhist? But I think we are. My parents’ English is not perfect. Maybe my father’s side was Taoist, which is also prevalent in that area of the world.

In one sense: afterlife doesn’t exist in terms of a Taoist belief system

It’s in life that we are eternal in Taoism. The afterlife is within life itself. We are of the Tao when living and upon death are the Tao again. Death is the point where your essence is not you, non being… Yet it’s always you as we are always of the Tao, But your expression of your life is within life.

There are also some variations where it’s a belief of Buddhist-Taoist hybrid. I remember when I was younger, I watched a Chinese movie where this woman died, but being unable to move on to the next life, her body got trapped inside an umbrella which was left in the attic of an old house. A very long time later, a man found the umbrella, opened it, and freed her ghost, but she was still unable to move on. Through the story, the man fell in love with her and would buy her beautiful garments, but of course, since she was a ghost, she was unable to wear them. So, he burned them, and then they would appear in her ‘realm,’ for lack of a better word, and then she would be able to wear them. I think this is kind of what happens to the money.

I also visited another (let’s just stick with) Buddhist cemetery on the way to Hue, in the village that my grandparents came from. It was my first time there, and I saw my great-grandparents’ graves. They were finishing up a tomb encasing there, moving an urn to its proper place in my family’s plot. There were groups of grave-tomb-things, each with an urn placed on top. They were mostly in pairs but some with three or four in a row.

It was easier to draw a picture. At the top was the shrine and grave of my ancestors, which were probably 4 or more greats above my grandparents, so it went a long way back. Each row represents a generation, their children, their spouses, etc. I don’t exactly know how it works, but that’s the gist of it. It’s like a macabre family tree. This is closest I’ve ever been to my actual roots. I’ve always been so jealous of the people that can say, “I can trace my family back to this century, or this person.” It gives you a sense of history, that I think, maybe, I might be missing.

At the back of the plot, there was a tiny bump about 2 feet by 1 feet, and maybe a foot high, with a bunch of snack wrappers on it, as well as incense sticking out. I thought that was terribly rude, until I overheard that it was a family member’s child’s grave. That gave me intense chills as I was standing right beside it. It was a two year old boy, playing by the river or a hill, one second looking away, and he fell and hit his head on a rock. He wasn’t old enough to get his own large urn-holder thing, so they buried him at the back of the plot, marked only by the offerings of sweets on a pile of dirt, overgrown with grass.

There are so many unmarked graves here, either unidentified bodies, those from the war, or families were just too poor to be able to afford to build anything–they could only pay for the plot of land. The hour that we spent here was unnerving, and I felt my breathe caught in my chest the entire time; like I was afraid to breathe, much less speak.

Walking to and from the car as especially nerve-wracking because in addition to being an incredibly bumpy and hilly path (as with in the Catholic cemetery), there were unmarked graves everywhere. I was on the edge of tears trying not to step on someone’s final resting place. Aside from being extremely haunting, however, it was elegiacally beautiful. It was a foggy day, fresh from the rain, and the mist hung in the air. The cemetery was in the middle of nowhere and haze stretched far across the fields.

And that is the story of cemeteries I visited in Vietnam. I think this is the last post on Vietnam. The posts following this will return to normal, Canadian life, what I’ve been up to, and of course, food. Hope you enjoyed my tour of Vietnam.