In the necropolis of An Bang, the houses of the dead are more valuable than the dwellings of the living in most cases.
An Bang, a city for the dead
Recently we visited my wife’s hometown, Phu Loc near the imperial city Hue in central Vietnam.
Apart from the unbelievable relief it was for us to spend a couple of days in the old and simple house of her grandfather, surrounded by lush greenery, rice fields and a beach nearby where you can eat fresh squid and the likes, it was a great experience in terms of original Vietnamese culture, and, of course, food.
What is especially interesting about Hue are the tombs. Inspired by the emperors of yonder (I wrote an article about the tomb of emperor Khai Dinh one or two years ago), also common people memorise their ancestors with amazing, colourful structures.
Myself I feel slightly attracted by things related to death anyway, so seeing this cultural blossom first hand amazed me quite a bit.
A labyrinth of tombs
The Vietnamese actually call it “Ghost Town”, however different from the meaning in English where that term refers to abandoned places. So let’s rather call it a city of the dead or spirit town.
Usually these tombs are relatively small and easy to take care of. Our own family maintains a few, but their sizes and layouts are well within the limits of reason.
However there is one place where it got slightly out of hand. I don’t know the word, I just call it the Grand Necropolis – the city of the dead, because that’s what it is.
Imagine you walk in the shadow of these towers, without real roads, just paths of white sand, tombs seemingly jumbled together, all beautifully detailed with artful mosaics, paintings, statues and reliefs. Nobody there but you and your companions. And then you realise you are on a graveyard. One of the most amazing graveyards in the world. All that grandeur is solely devoted to the dead.
A solemn thought.
Most of these huge tombs were built by families who fled to America following the end of the war. After the opening in the nineties they returned with pockets full of money and started to compete for the biggest, most colourful and most expensive tomb.
Whether they are Buddhists, Christians, Taoists or worship any other gods (I think I saw one in the style of Hinduism), they still follow the Vietnamese way of the ancestors, so they built and built and built…
The traditional style of Hue is to buy crockery and porcelain, break it and use the shards to create colourful and lively mosaics. The first time I encountered this artform was actually at Linh Phuoc Pagoda in Da Lat, however it originates in Hue. An average tomb in this necropolis may cost around 100.000€ to begin with. The more elaborate the decorations, the more you add on top of it.
The story gets an even more interesting twist once you actually see the homes of the families with the greatest tombs in Necropolis: Many of them live in shabby huts, not much more than holes really. Sacrificing all comfort for the sake of their beliefs.
Necropolis as source of jobs
Critics say it is decadent, a horrendous waste of money and resources that could easily support the poor people of the area or be invested in proper infrastructure.
On the contrary, I say!
Imagine how many people work on these tombs, from the crockery that has to be made to the concrete and the final touches. Designers, artists, builders, workers – they all have a job and their families food on the table.
Besides, on the long run this stunning necropolis may attract adventurous visitors and create even more tourism jobs in the area.
Here is a video about the making of these tombs. It is in Vietnamese, but you get a rough idea how they create all the ornaments. This is actually a honoured profession in Vietnam and the company gets even hired by foreigners to work on pagodas and temples in Hong Kong and elsewhere.
That way a lot of the money actually flows back into the local community, while otherwise it would be spent on imported luxury goods, cars and the likes. Much better to have a cultural heritage location.
Statistics reveal that 90% of the people in Vietnam are atheists. Now let me tell you, these statistics are wrong, or at least interpreted the wrong way. The Vietnamese are actually quite religious, but there are two factors these statistics totally miss out on.
First, you cannot obtain any position in the government if you follow any religion. So people rather don’t state they worship anything, just to be on the safe side and keep doors open.
Second, these statistics only count in religions where gods are worshipped. Ancestor worship does not fall under this definition and you can assume that every Vietnamese, especially the people from the Centre of Vietnam do revere their ancestors as part of their family. I believe it is less a religion, but much more an integrated part of culture and daily life. The ancestors are a part of everything in Vietnam.
The ancestors are with us and all around us, they help the family in times of need and protect the original home from bad things. Of course you keep the traditions upright and share food and drink, as well as incense and other amenities with them.
Enough chattering, best enjoy the photographs here: