travelling between life and death

This post is the first in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

Arriving in Da Nang on September 6th, i was just about two weeks too late to say goodbye to my father-in-law. I had only a vague idea of what had happened, pieced together from brief phone calls as the nightmare unfolded. Upon arriving, the family had me offer incense at his shrine—a traditional gesture that would become very familiar to me in the following six weeks. This gesture is performed at every funeral in Vietnam—and during the six weeks I was there following Ba’s passing, no fewer than three close friends and family members also passed away. You bet I got a lot of practice. (More about offering incense later—lots more, I promise.)

Vietnamese funeral customs are based on a mix of Buddhism and indigenous spirit beliefs that date back several millennia. An extensive set of rites and customs govern every aspect of death, before and after it takes place, even extending years into the future. The process of grieving itself involves not only whole families, but whole communities, with entire neighbourhoods gathering to help mourn a loss.
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death and life in vietnam

dawn reflections in da nangmy recent trip to Vietnam to visit family after my father-in-law’s passing afforded me a lot of time to think. Even while I was still there, I knew I wanted to share with the world reflections on the experience of losing a loved one across cultures, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective. as it turns out, I’ve actually got a lot of notes, so much so that it’d probably take way more effort than I can give at the moment to put it all into one big essay-type format. So I figure I’ll split it into a few posts, covering a few different—but very related—topics. These may change, but I figured people might like to know what I’m planning.

As noted, I expect these posts will come out every 3–4 days, as I have time to work on each of them (that said, the dates noted here are approximate).

Edit: All posts are now up (finally)!

not so forbidding

game overAfter the Great Wall (and the outlying Not-So-Great Wall, aka the Mediocre Wall) we decided we’d sleep in the next morning and catch the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City wasn’t so forbidden—they all let us in as long as we bought tickets. In fact, the only thing that was forbidden was going back in after you went out the back door. Attached is a photo of the brilliant commentary on the signage at the North Gate (tours go from south to north). All in all, we were amazed at how huge, er, how extreme the place was in all respects. We had a little game of “guess whether there’s another palace past this one”. I always lost, all the way to the end. The palaces kept on becoming more and more beautiful the further we went north—that is, the further we came to the emperor’s private dwelling—yet somehow, more and more lonely as well. You really get the feeling of being locked away in the proverbial ivory tower in there. I’m pretty sure there was an ivory tower somewhere, too.

After we finished walking through the Not-So-Forbidden City, we walked northwest of the grounds and ended up walking through Beihai Park (no, not Baha’i Park) at sunset, then making our way back to our hotel/hostel via Yoshinoya, a fast food restaurant with chicken-and-rice bowls, and Three Trees Coffee (see below). We found a pho restaurant not far from where we’re staying; we took a picture for the novelty, but we didn’t go in. We can get all the pho we need when we get back to Vietnam, we figure.  Today, we’re waking up early to see the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. That means more excitement for us and more photos for you, when you wake up tomorrow.

Miss you all, and, as the postcards say, wish you were here.

together in guangzhou

Quynh and I checked in to Hotel Elan in Guangzhou around an hour ago, after paying a quick visit to a friend at work. We’ll be going out for dinner soon—supposedly to a nice noodle place (“yellow noodles”, to be precise) somewhere. The hotel is nice, small, and cute. A bit salty around the edges, but for the (low) price we’re paying, it’s actually quite a good place. We left Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at 8:20 in the morning and got in to Guangzhou’s Baiyun airport at around 12:00 local time, for roughly 2h30 worth of flight time. Arriving was a bit confusing, what with very little English posted anywhere, but thanks to my previous experience coming to Guangzhou, we boarded a shuttle bus to the Guangzhou West railway station for only 16 yuan apiece and walked (with only light luggage) the rest of the way to our destination, saving us about 70-80 yuan over taking a taxi from the airport.

China’s cold, compared to Ho Chi Minh City. And it’ll only get colder in Beijing. Quynh is complaining about this but she’s very happy to be in a city with so many shoes. More on that later, of course. Now we’re off to dinner. 回头见。

china-ward and back

lotus lanterns, macauToday in our junior youth group here in Hanoi, we studied a lesson in which Rose, a fifteen-year-old girl who is training to be a nurse, travels to a small village by bus to visit her cousin Musonda and her family. The participants—all Vietnamese junior youth of various ages—learned words like “travel”, “arrive”, “greeted”, and so on. It gave me the idea that I should write a little bit more about my own travels of late, especially to and from China, so here’s yet another not-a-travelogue for you all to read.

After returning from Sapa in the mountainous Vietnamese northwest (look for a not-a-travelogue on that trip soon), my fellow travellers and I were greeted by appallingly hot weather back in the ninth level of Hell, uh, I mean the centre of the Earth, uh, I mean Hanoi. Still battling an infuriating air-conditioner cold, I spent the next few days resting up and packing my bags again (more tightly this time) for a nine-day trip through Hong Kong, southern China and Macau.  My schedule was fairly basic: after the flight in from Hanoi, three days in Hong Kong; then a train to Guangzhou, China to spend another three days; then a bus to Macau for another three days, after which I would fly back to Hanoi and settle down for a long nap—or a long quarantine, judging by the H1N1 paranoia. Arrival in Hong Kong greeted us with the odd spectacle of infrared images or ourselves displayed on a coloured screen, allowing security staff to weed out those who were running temperatures of 38 C and above—if your face showed up in oranges and reds, you were fit for the infirmary. (Sneaky H1N1 carriers used fever-reducing drugs to circumvent this system, giving Vietnam its first few cases in June.)

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shoe city

siang in shoe heavengreetings from behind the Great Firewall! At this very moment, I’m coming to you live from the city of Guangzhou, known as the shoe wholesaling capital of China (the world?). there are literally thousands of shops here, all packed into huge buildings and complexes, selling shoes at wholesale prices for buyers that come from just about anywhere in the world. it figures that someone who intensely dislikes shopping for shoes (such as me) would pick a place to go that is internationally famous for selling shoes. isn’t that right? of course it’s right. and that’s okay.

all sarcasm aside, after several months hanging around Vietnam, I’m taking a break for a short trip into China—I figured, why not swing into China for a week since I’m in this part of the world anyway? So I hopped onto a flight from Hanoi to Hong Kong this past Friday, spent a few days hanging around in HK getting hawked by Indian tailors, and just yesterday grabbed a train up the Pearl River to Guangzhou, one of China’s bustling commercial cities. I… don’t know how I feel about China yet. I haven’t been here long enough, and I’m still under the shock of arrival. The first thing I noticed is that I can’t read any of the signs, since they’re all in Chinese (duh). Since I’m visiting a friend while I’m here, I got him to teach me some of the more common Chinese characters, and now at least I know the difference between, say, the Heavenly Cloud Five Gold Shop and the regular Five Gold Shop. (????) I managed to at least buy a bottle of cola and get back some change in Chinese yuan, which is something.

uh, so yeah, shoes. right now I’m in the downtown part of Guangzhou, which is stuffed to the cracks with shoes, shoes spilling out of every street corner basically. they’re gathered here from many different factories in the area and in China as a whole, shown to international buyers, and shipped off by the crateful to shoe stores in Canada, Japan, America, Australia, wherever, you name it. I’m not especially knowledgeable about wholesaleing but these people seem to have gotten it down to an exact science, or rather, made it into a bustling national enterprise. No wonder China’s economy is doing so well. It’s just too bad I’m not so crazy about shoes—if they were wholesaleing, say, smurfs or something that’d be pretty awesome. I’d pay to visit a smurf wholesaler. there must be one in China, I can feel it. Smurf City, here I come.