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Ancient customs show durability of old ways in modern Vietnam

by Kristin Huckshorn, Mercury News Vietnam Bureau, 3/1996

On a recent morning, exactly at 4 a.m., Nguyen Danh Hoa slung a shovel over one shoulder and strode through dense mist into a graveyard. I followed, curious to witness an ancient custom that demonstrates the durability of old ways in modern-day Vietnam.

"This is a job that you do from the heart," explained the 44-year-old Hoa, a North Vietnamese soldier during the Vietnam War. "If you don't have a strong love for this, you can't do it."

Hoa is what is called a "happy burial" gravedigger. It is his job to dig up, wash and arrange bones of the dead for a final burial among ancestors in their home village. Although more popular in the north, this custom is observed throughout Vietnam. It apparently has not been transplanted to the United States.

These second burials, three years after a person died and was buried, usually take place at night, at a time selected by a fortuneteller. "The dead person belongs to the negative world, the world of the night," said Hoa. "The sunlight belongs to a separate world."

On this particular early morning, the sisters of a man named Kim had come to this cemetery on Hanoi's outskirts for their brother's exhumation. He died in 1993 at age 61, and his skeletal remains were ready for their happy burial.

As Hoa dug to unearth the coffin, the two sisters kept a graveside vigil-burning incense and chanting Buddhist prayers.

From the coffin, Hoa lifted handfuls of bones into a pail. When he had finished, Kim's nephews lit a small fire. Into the pyre they placed a set of men's clothing, all made of paper-pants, a shirt, sandals and a paper pith helmet. Kim's sister explained that her brother could wear these new clothes on the journey to his final resting place in Nam Ha province, the home of his ancestors.

Washing the bones

Our small band walked back through the mist to an open-air, concrete shell lined with sinks. Here, Hoa hand-washed each pungent bone, then arranged the bones in a ceramic box the size of a small orange crate lined with gold paper.

Relatives believe that bones must be stacked in an order resembling that of the human skeleton. To perfect their ability as arrangers, gravediggers like Hoa undergo a one-year apprenticeship.

After fitting Kim's bones into the box, Hoa swaddled them in more gold paper and tissue as if tucking in a baby. "We want to make him comfortable," he said. Hoa left the eye sockets of the skull uncovered "so that he can see everyone and meet the new underground landlord," Hoa said.

Kim's family loaded the box of bones into a van that would take them to Nam Ha, south of Hanoi. Hoa trotted back into the graveyard to keep a 6 a.m. appointment with another family.

Such rituals clash with my image of a communist country dashing headlong toward capitalism and modernization. But they remind me that, even as many people here rush to learn English idioms and purchase Honda motorbikes, they cling to traditions that bind them to the past.

A friend who has given birth to a baby girl warns me to remark on the infant's ugliness when I first see her, lest a compliment bring bad luck.

Virgins for carrying

A friend who was married last week had hunted for six women to carry ceremonial plates of food to the house of his bride-to-be for the official "asking and engagement." The women had to be virgins.

And recently I bought the requisite wreath and three packages of incense joss sticks for the funeral of a man I knew well.
Nguyen Hai Son, 39, was the personable deputy director of the Foreign Ministry office that supervises visiting journalists. He was the first official I met when I arrived in 1994. In a country where the common response from most officials is "No," he was an uncommon man.

Others cited rules and put up barriers to traveling and reporting. Hai Son sought solutions. No approval for a visit ? "Go as a tourist," he would suggest with a wink. "Just don't tell them I said so."

He crashed on a motorcycle and died alone in a hospital morgue, shunted there, still breathing, by doctors who decided his head injury rendered him a hopeless case.

To his funeral the next day, my husband and I brought a wreath shaped like a large shield and covered with yellow, red and orange flowers-the identical wreath brought by everyone else.

Arriving at the funeral hall, we were given inch-square pieces of black ribbon to pin to our clothes.

Expressing sympathy

Our names were announced. We walked into the hall with our wreath. A videographer taped our entrance. A had heard at other funerals here.
My husband was handed three incense sticks to place in a jar on an altar at the foot of the coffin. I put an envelope with money for Hai Son's children on the altar, along with the three packages of incense-an odd number for luck.
We circled the coffin to express our sympathies to the family. His wife and two daughters were swathed in traditional ghostly white gauze.

After two hours of such entrances, Hai Son's coffin was carried to a truck. Family members began to shriek and wail-an outpouring that seemed more honest to me than the Jackie Kennedy-like composure many Americans have grown to expect from grieving relatives.

The truck, covered with wreaths and carrying the coffin and Hai Son's family, led a caravan through Hanoi. We stopped twice-once at Hai Son's mother's house, once at his own. The family scattered slips of paper along the route so that Hai Son could find his way home.

Outside Hanoi, amid rice paddies, the caravan arrived at the crematorium. Today, unlike Kim, more people are being cremated-something the government encourages because land is at a premium. But the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese still bury their dead.

At the crematorium, mourners crowded into a sterile, white room. A television monitor suddenly switched on, displaying the opening to a back room oven that resembled a wood-burning pizza oven. White-suited attendants appeared on the monitor. They set the coffin on a conveyor belt.
As we watched the monitor, the coffin rolled into the oven.

Arriving back in Hanoi, I went to a downtown pagoda where I was scheduled to give an English lesson. Following the custom of burning fake money for people to use in the afterlife, I bought a stack of phony $100 bills from an old woman selling offerings on the sidewalk.

Reporters often complained to Hai Son that his office charged visiting journalists exorbitant fees for assistance. I put the paper money in the temple's naming pit and told Hai Son it was the last cash he would get from me.

I knew he would enjoy the joke.

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