Burial Sites in Vietnam
May 19, 2008

Burial sites highlight Vietnam’s expansive tradition and history. Since being in Vietnam, I have visited multiple burial sites, including war memorials, family grave yards, and royal tombs; all of which have lent great insight into Vietnamese culture. Each burial sight hints towards the traditional elements used and implemented in everyday Vietnamese medium. Individual burial sights project the rich history and religious tradition of Vietnamese culture. Although the war memorial, family graveyard, and royal tombs are completely different in significance and value, apiece they share comparable features. Together, these sites broadcast a rich customary tradition and therefore, manifest the cultural component of life and death.

The war memorials were all together moving, but rather consistent in layout. The entrance to the memorial had a Vietnamese style pagoda. Under the pagoda, was an altar-like structure, which honored the province buried at that specific site. Here, homage was paid to the men and women who sacrificed their lives during the war and highlighted the struggles and efforts that these people endured. It was obviously impossible for me to read this considering it was written in Vietnamese, but luckily Professor Trian was there to translate. Once we passed under the pagoda, a field of cement hedge stones greeted us. The field was divided into multiple sections. Rather unclear as to how the entire memorial site was divided, it was made clear to me that each particular graveyard is sectioned by province. However, when I walked around, I witnessed multiple provinces grouped into one section within the large cemetery, therefore, making my certainty rather indeterminate. Each memorial site had rather simple landscape (i.e., small trees, flowers, bushes, etc.) and was designed to not only honor the dead, but also embellish Mother Nature’ natural surroundings.

The field was nuzzled into the heart of the woods, giving the site a unique characteristic appearance. Although the site appears to have a complexity to its structure, it was the actual hedge stones that were simple and rather lifeless…no pun intended. The hedge stones lacked character, but fortunately the colorful use of the Vietnamese communist flag (i.e., red and yellow) on the grey background made for a more appealing visual experience. Every grave was based with a yellow and blue rectangular cement object and was topped with a small five by five square filled with sand, where memorial visitors could place incense and flowers. This did not come as a surprise to me considering every temple and site that I had visited which honored someone dead had a designated space for placing incense and flowers. On another note, the memorial site was looked over by a larger style pagoda, which shared the names of every man, and women who was buried in that specific site on a double-sided granite slate. This was especially moving considering the names, birth date, death date, and military rank was mentioned on this list. It might not sound that moving, but the considering that many of the people in that sight were either unidentified or everyday civilians, really gave the site more cultural meaning. The war memorial held great denotation in the sense that the United States is presently at war and many of the American soldiers and Iraqi civilians will end up in a place very much like this.

Family graveyards in Vietnam are not as heartrending as war memorials, but all together they balance a significant value. Visiting the grave of Professor Trian’s mother was all too surreal. I did not know what to expect when we drove to his mother’s grave. I was picturing it to look something very similar to the family graveyards in the United States, but to my surprise, it was like nothing that I had every seen before. Like the war memorial, which was grouped based on the province in which the people originated, Vietnamese family tombs are grouped purely based on family kinship. His mothers grave was not only the final resting place for her, but it was also the final resting place for Trian’s many brothers, sisters, and other immediate relatives. I was culturally shocked how much the Vietnamese people valued family, just by looking at a family graveyard. The site was decorated brightly with pastels and vibrant colors; only the mother and fathers graves had a large-scale mantle, which was designed with traditional Vietnamese designs, colors, and religious symbols. The actual grave (where the members where buried), was also topped with sand for the traditional use of incense, flower, and fruit offering. On another note, I was surprised to see the excessive use of swastikas throughout the graveyard, but once I learned that is meant something more than a Nazi related symbol, I began to understand and appreciate the symbol. It was engraved onto every hedge stone, symbolizing the “blessing” from the Buddha and the beginning of a new life. In addition, other than the mother’s and father’s tomb decorated brightly, the remainder of the site-lacked color and individuality. The remaining members of the family had a simple, boring, and colorless hedge stone. Engraved on the stones were the family name, the individual’s full name, and the birth and death date of that person. Although this specific site was rich in charm and character, it lacked the symmetry and design of a traditional war memorial site.

In comparison to the historic value of the war memorial and the traditional meaning behind a family graveyard, it is only fair to tie relations to the royal tombs. Considering this particular structure is extremely different on all levels, I was interested to find many similarities throughout its entirety. I would describe every royal tomb that we visited in it great detail, but since that would take me a decade to write, I am only going to give a general overview of a royal tomb. Physically, all the tombs that I visited were very similar in layout. The entrance had a large Vietnamese style gate, with large doors, disproportionate decoration, and usually some form of human or animal statues guarding the tombs doors. I was particularly surprised to see how consistent the use of the individual statues was throughout all the tombs; there were normally six or eight male warriors and a couple of elephants and horses. Each figure had its own individual characteristics and lacked any form of symmetry; they might have appeared to be the same, but there was no one character that was identical to the other. In addition to the tombs design, the exterior of the tomb was normally bathed with traditional decoration (i.e., religious, etc.) and symbolic design. Majority of the tombs had multiple buildings, honoring and symbolizing something significant to the individuals past lifestyle and most were very clear as where the royal figure was buried. Inside the main building, where the individual was honored and buried, was usually a grand alter and some form of obnoxious decoration. The use of bright reds and honed gold was very prominent throughout the tombs. Vibrant colors and designs permeated the walls and the smell of incense filled the room. All together, the royal tombs were extremely detailed and only the highest level of royalty was exemplified.

Traditional burial sights truly emphasize the vastness of Vietnamese culture. All together, each form of burial sight (war memorial, family graveyard, and royal tomb) combines the customary elements of Vietnam. I was amazed by the complexity of the layout, decorations, and meaning of each site. The beauty and individual characteristic of each site, accurately formulated a complete understanding of how death is dealt with in Vietnam. Regardless whether the burial location was a symbol of royalty or war, death was honored in the utter most respect and represented with great convention.