Familial worship in Vietnam crosses lines of religion, and predates them all. Nearly every house has a shrine, which is variously decorated with photos of the deceased, fresh fruit, flowers, cigarettes, beer, Oreo cookies. Death day anniversaries are observed, and funerals unleash wailing New Orleans-type dirgey jazz and sword swallowers on the still living.
Paid criers are sometimes enlisted. In the years that follow, relatives burn paper cars, suits, fake US dollars and more things to help the dearly departed enjoy their curiously materialistic afterlives.
Having this dimension of death in everyday life makes for some interesting photo-ops. People burn offerings on the street, buy flowers at 6am for their shrines, build altars everywhere they can manage. Altars can be built in and around banyan trees (said to have souls in them), in every café and restaurant, even on construction sites (to appease the ‘god of the land’).
One day I was walking with a friend, and we spotted a sign for a lost dog, ornately handwritten on a placard, hanging on a post 30 feet from the roadside. It was a mystery to us that such a time-intensive sign would be positioned so far from the ordinary flow of foot traffic, and we went to investigate. What we found was the entrance to another world.
There was a 17th-century Chinese burial ground sprawling beyond the lost dog sign, tucked into the space between million-dollar homes in the expat-heavy Hanoi suburb of Tay Ho. The path was well-maintained, padded with foam flooring. The graves showed regular care, and each faced the long ashes of incense sticks — telltale signs of reverence.
As we walked further into the graveyard we found ourselves shrouded by trees, points of light illuminating the odd swath of ground. Little gravestones crowded the path at some points, and we were careful to avoid them, conscious of the little souls they watched over.
And then it started to rain. There was a gate opening onto the cemetery, beneath its covering was a woman chopping wood. She offered shelter inside the house.
Stepping through the gate, we were conscious of passing into another world. There were graves here too. Another handwritten sign hung on a board, over a shelf with a store-bought wooden shrine and an incense holder. It read:
NEIGHBOR NATION IN FRIENDSHIP
TOWARD THE FUTURE
The old man invited us into his home, little more than a table and a mosquito net-covered bed. He poured midday rice wine shots for us and proceeded us to tell us his story.
Twenty years ago, he had had some trouble. So he went to a fortuneteller, who told him that he’d angered some spirits and had to make amends.
He decided to devote the latter part of his life to caring for these long-dead, whose community had been deported from Hanoi during the Chinese border war of 1979.
He took us to visit his shrine room — he said that it would have been much larger if the government had allowed. Since it was a resting place for the always-controversial Chinese population, he had only been permitted to maintain the space that was already there, a kind of grandfathered-in shrine. Eyes glistening with tears, he said a prayer over clapped incense sticks.
Later, he took us to the oldest graves, and complained about the meager government stipend that came his way. We parted ways, with a new reverence for this street that had previously been just a way of getting from one place to another.