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31 October 2021

Viet Nam - All Souls' Day in the Mekong Delta


Hello Folks!


The dry season is here for good. It is the fifth day outside the window, sunny and hot weather we expect in Southeast Asia at the beginning of October. You probably did not miss my remark from the previous articles that the dry season was delayed by 3 weeks. Having lived in Viet Nam for 4 years, I notice differences in the rhythm of the weather. Climate change is becoming a dangerous fact.

You probably already know that Viet Nam is mostly a Buddhist country. This is over 70% of the population. Although Vietnamese Buddhism is slightly different from Thai or Chinese Buddhism, Buddhists are in the majority here. In addition, there are Catholics of which there are almost 25% and the other religions are 5% (Muslim, Hindi and Vishnu).

Looking at the map of Viet Nam, you can clearly see that it is an S-shaped country extending vertically over a distance of over 2000 km. This has a significant influence on the climate but also causes cultural differences. Interesting location. When we observe four seasons in the north, in the south we have tropical summer all year round, divided into rainy and dry seasons.

One of the noticeable cultural differences is the approach to the rituals related to the burial of the dead. It is this observation that I would like to share with you today. It will therefore be about the differences in funeral culture and paying tribute to the deceased. Just in time for All Saints 'Day and All Saints' Day.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in the celebration of the anniversary of death, celebrated in a Buddhist ritual.

According to him, it is very important to remember your ancestors by paying tribute to them at the annual meeting of relatives and friends of the family.

This meeting is partly spontaneous. The closest family informs friends about the date of the meeting and everyone has the right to come and participate in such a meeting.

The family always remembers - it is an element of culture. Even if he cannot be physically present, technology comes to the rescue and the family joins in for a video meeting.



All Souls' Day

The guests come slowly from 5 pm. The ceremony takes place at home, usually of the oldest descendant of the deceased.

The whole event is prepared from the morning, the tables are filled with food and the guests start by going to a special altar, which is located on the top floor of the house or the largest room of the apartment.

I think it is worth noting that there are two Buddhist altars in the Vietnamese house.

One is an altar located opposite the main entrance to the apartment. This is, as a rule, a living room. In the case of a house, the altar is located opposite the entrance, with the difference that it is outside the house.

It is the altar of the spirit of a house or apartment.

It is erected on the day of its settlement and for the first year it can stand only figures of Chinese gods of war, incense sticks, lamps of eternity and fresh fruit, gifts for the gods.

This time is intended to allow the spirit of the house to live in and befriend the residents. Buddha figures can be added only after a year.

As a rule, the altar is not large - it is often 80 centimeters high and 50 cm wide.



This second altar is the goal of all visitors. If it is a house, it is on the last and highest floor. It is much larger than the altar of the Spirit of the House and full of Buddha statues. If it is an apartment or flat, it is placed in the center of the largest room.

This is where we honor the ancestors. Everyone brings as a gift fresh fruit that is placed on plates. A moment of reflection and we light the incense stick. Here, too, certain elements of the ritual are important.

First, the number of incense sticks must be odd. Second, after lighting the incense stick, you must not blow out the flame. It must go out on its own. We can help with this by gently waving the incense stick until the flame disappears and aromatic smoke begins to be released.

Then we bow 3 times to the deceased person and place the incense sticks in a jug, bowl or other vessel filled with sand.

After paying tribute, we are fully entitled to feasting. Yes, feasts and it's fun.

We welcome the hosts and give another gift, this time to the participants of the meeting. A standard gift in Viet Nam is a carton of beer. This is a must-have item. The beer is flowing in streams and the tables are full of prepared dishes. Soon there will be toasts, chants and jokes.

These types of meetings are a derivative of the Buddhist approach to the subject of death.

This is a significant, and not the only difference between Viet Nam and the rest of the world (especially Europe and North America). So let's follow these differences.



North - South

What I can say at the beginning is that, in Viet Nam and around the world, death is an inevitable event. Ars Longa, Vitae Brevis, as the Latin maxim says. Life is a moment, art is eternity.

On the other hand, the funeral ceremony itself, the atmosphere of the family reunion after the funeral, and what happens in the year after the funeral are different from those in the rest of the world and, moreover, are different in the north and south of Viet Nam.

Up to a certain point, the traditions of the north and south are very similar, i.e. generally in the whole of Viet Nam the funeral ceremony and the funeral are similar. There is a ceremony in the temple, a tomb, and a meal together after the ceremony. The dead, after a short celebration in a Buddhist temple, are brought to the burial place in a beautiful, gilded hearse, decorated with dragons and other animals of the Buddhist religion. The vehicle is illuminated by flashing lights, with background music.

Interestingly, it is a rather positive experience. This is because the Vietnamese believe that the deceased going to live forever in the heavenly world would be very angry with them if they cried, despair, etc. So it is customary to just carry out the whole "operation" merrily.

So the first difference - funeral ceremonies in Viet Nam are conducted in a fun way, to the sounds of music and generally funeral participants do not cry. The anniversary meetings are held in the same vein.

Plain wooden coffins are used similarly to Poland or other countries.

And here we come to another difference.




Namely, the vast majority of the burial place is not a cemetery.

In Viet Nam, it is customary to hide the dead at home.

Very often, the place intended for a grave is already taken into account at the design stage of your own home or designated by your ancestors within the boundaries of their land.

Of course, there are designated city cemeteries, but there are not many graves there.

As a rule, they are war cemeteries and burial places of people of merit for the local community.

Where does this approach come from?

First, older people tend to prefer to live in the countryside or near cities. Secondly, they often already have a family burial place, which may be a tomb in the backyard or near the house, or, most often, simply a designated place in a rice field.

Yes, these are the "colorful houses" because in fact, from a distance, they really look like little houses among the fields. These are, quite simply, family tombs.

There is a very interesting story connected with it. Namely, Viet Nam, as a country with an area similar to the area of ​​Poland (331,000 sq. Km), is quite a densely populated country. There are over 90 million Vietnamese people and there is not much arable land.

For generations, therefore, to protect the land from being sold, subsequent generations of parents simply have themselves rummaged in the field. Therefore, such a field, land on which there is a grave or the graves of deceased ancestors, is not easy to sell.

This protects, in a sense, commercial land trading in Viet Nam.

The tombs scattered across the fields can be clearly seen when driving, for example, to the Mekong Delta or between places in Viet Nam. In fact, tombs accompany us constantly.

Interestingly, if the family has to or will have to sell such land in the future, the graves of the dead are moved to a new place in order to free the land from the remains of their ancestors.



Until then, there were no major differences between the north and south of Viet Nam. We have a funeral and a tomb, usually somewhere in the field or at our own home.

However, we have two different paths of tradition in dealing with the burial of the dead.

The three cut-off dates are respected in the south of Viet Nam and partly also in the central part.

The first is four weeks, the second is six months, and the third is a year after the funeral. On these three dates, the family meets again to remember the deceased and visit the grave. It is a kind of festive dinner, remembrance of the dead, etc. etc. So, three times after the funeral, the passing of the deceased into a better world is celebrated in a sense (as I wrote earlier, the funeral itself is rather treated as the beginning of this transition). Hence the tradition of keeping fresh fruit and water on the tombs so that our loved one could nourish himself on the way to the afterlife.

All over Viet Nam it is recognized that after one year the Deceased has already reached his final resting place and then only once a year, as is customary in Poland, for the Day of the Dead - Tet Thanh Minh - which is celebrated here in March of the lunar calendar, just clean up the graves, bring you fresh decorations, flowers and food. Incense and symbolic banknotes are burned so that, along with the smoke, money is transferred to the world of the dead. It is simply remembrance of one's ancestors together and forging closer ties between those who are living.

In addition, there is a meeting on the anniversary of death, which I mention at the beginning of this article.

In the North of Viet Nam the customs are slightly different. While the atmosphere of merriment, joy, singing and music is the same during the funeral and at the dinner after it, then quite a significant change occurs.

Well, in the north, the deceased is placed in the family tomb, and one year is waiting for the next step.

After a year, the eldest son in the family is obliged to clean his parents' bones, cremate everything and place them back in the grave, but in an urn. In this way, it is ensured that the dead can cross the gates of the land of happiness.

In any case, this is the biggest cultural difference.

While in the south of Viet Nam the bodies of the deceased remain in the field and the coffins are fully stored in tombs, in the north, after a year, the coffin is removed from the tomb and, according to the ritual, the cleansed remains are cremated and then transferred to an urn, which is placed back to the tomb.

Usually, in the north of Viet Nam, in one tomb there are several urns with the ashes of the dead. In the south, meanwhile, the tombs contain one coffin and are scattered over the rice fields.




Let's go back to the anniversary meeting.

The main drink during the meeting is beer. The menu is prepared by the lady of the house and the dishes are served in accordance with local customs.

At this point, I want to mention that there is a significant difference between the north and south of Viet Nam when it comes to ... treating your in-laws.

While in the south mother-in-law are a full-fledged part of the family and are taken very seriously, in the north of Viet Nam, in-laws are practically outside the family circle. For example, they don't attend such anniversary meetings. Well, such a habit.

During our meeting, we started with finger snails, crabs and rice. Then there were fish, vegetables, mainly asparagus and "morning glory" or asparagus stalks stewed in a pan with a little oil and a lot of garlic.



For this meat, fruit and… often in the second part of such an evening, vodka. Shrimps, bitter soup and pieces of pork fried in oil complete the menu.

The guests joke, sing and bond. The feast usually lasts until midnight, after which the guests depart.

It is important to thank you for your hospitality before you go out. The lady of the house for great food and the host for the atmosphere.

The outgoing guests are accompanied by the ubiquitous smell of incense and the watchful gaze of the House Spirit.

Sometimes also protective eagle wings, as in my case :).



When visiting Viet Nam, seeing the colorful houses in the rice field, be aware that these are family tombs in which the remains of the dead are buried, protecting the family property from being squandered.


Ars Longa, Vitae Brevis - art is eternity, life is only a moment.



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