JUST outside Vietnam’s ancient imperial capital Hue is a tiny fishing town known as the City of Ghosts, where the dead live in more opulent style than the living.The spectacular tombs of Vietnam’s former emperors are a well-trodden stop on the tourist circuit in Unesco-listed Hue, the country’s capital for some 140 years starting in 1802.
But in nearby An Bang village, local fishermen are taking the tomb tradition into the 21st century
Though Vietnam is officially an atheist state thanks to its communist rulers, the country has been deeply influenced by Confucius and Buddhist thought, and many people take ancestor worship seriously ©Hoang Dinh Nam (AFP)
Families in the rural community are pouring up to $70,000 into elaborate final resting places for their kin — an astronomical cost in a country were the annual per capita income is $2,000. high, with every inch meticulously decorated.
But the practice is being taken to new heights in An Bang. Unlike nearby Hue, where UNESCO regulations are in place to preserve the 18th and 19th century buildings, locals in An Bang have been free to let their creativity run riot. From Buddhiststyle temples to Gothic tombs, with a hefty sprinkling of Romanesque columns, the cemetery’s aesthetic is — anything goes. While traditional Vietnamese dragon carvings are popular, some graves also appear to draw inspiration from Hindu imagery, with others featuring Christian or Islamic symbols.
While traditional Vietnamese dragon carvings are popular, some graves also appear to draw inspiration from Hindu imagery, with others featuring Christian or Islamic symbols ©Hoang Dinh Nam (AFP)
A few of the tombs stand empty — villagers have built them in advance of their own deaths, including one that was completed in 2005 and is waiting for its owner to shuffle off his mortal coil.
Money From Overseas
According to local policeman Hoang Khang, the lavish graves are largely bankrolled by relatives of the villagers who live abroad, mostly in the United States. In An Bang, an influx of foreign cash from such relatives has triggered something of a competitive tomb building spree, with families eager to build the most extravagant grave in the plot. Policeman Khang said the tombs are getting taller, wider and more ambitious every year. “According to traditional customs, a taller tomb gives the ancestors a better view,” he added.
As the cemetery has grown, it has become increasingly famous throughout Vietnam — putting the local communist leadership in a tough spot. Authorities have run multiple communication campaigns to discourage locals from expanding the graves, but to no avail. AFP