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Vietnam's boat people pay tribute at 'City of Ghosts'

3:37 PM, November 26, 2018

Vietnam:Overseas relatives fork out $40,000 on elaborate, temple-like tombs to show respect for ancestors who helped them escape.

James Nguyen Xuan Mung has been occupying his days recently by supervising the workers responsible for building an elaborate new tomb for his uncle-in-law at a cemetery near Vietnam's ancient imperial capital, Hue.

His relative passed away years ago but the family tomb is now being upgraded. Mung's aunt, who is 87, will also be buried there one day.

Mung, who runs a coffee shop, said the tomb resembles a temple with its ornate architecture and colorful decorations. It stands on a 100-square-meter plot and is costing an estimated one billion dong (US$43,000).

Mung, who has five brothers and sisters living in the U.S., said he built two family tombs for his grandparents and parents in 2007.

Each was decorated with statues of angels, Mother Mary and the Eucharist, and dragon carvings. They each have an 8.5-meter-high gate and cover an area of 150 square meters.

He said his Vietnamese-American siblings, who run nail salons and produce clothes for a living, have funded the costs of building the tombs.

Hundreds of large and impressive-looking tombs have been built in various styles at the cemetery, dubbed "the City of Ghosts."

Some look like Buddhist temples, others are reminiscent of the Gothic style, and there is a hefty sprinkling of Romanesque columns throughout.

Many magnificent mausoleums tower up to 10 meters high, with every part fastidiously ornamented.

They cost from 300 million to three billion dong (US$13,000-130,000) and are mostly funded by relatives living overseas. In contrast, the average cost of a "normal" tomb in Vietnam is around 30 million dong.

The cemetery is near An Bang parish, which covers the quiet fishing village of An Bang just outside Hue.

Mung, 45, whose siblings sailed abroad and arrived in the United States in 1980, said: "We build elaborate tombs to express our deep gratitude to our ancestors who suffered many hardships and brought us up in hard times."

Van Dinh Long, a 78-year-old follower of Confucius, said last September his children, who also live in the U.S., decided to build a 99-square-meter tomb for him and his wife.

"They want to show their filial duty and affection and honor us with this magnificent structure," he said.

Long, who is overseeing the construction of the 500-million-dong tomb, said the work is due to be finished by December. In a country recently ravaged by floods, it has been built to withstand a range of natural disasters.

The cemetery lies next to a beach and is constantly buffeted by winds, sand and leaves, which conspire to obscure the smaller graves.

"We are very pleased to see our graves already prepared for us while we're still here," said Long, who is financially supported by his children.

"Traditionally, children in Vietnam are proud to see their parents buried in elaborate tombs, and we believe that the dead watch over and pray for their living relatives to make them prosperous and give them peace," he said.

Long said that in 1979 he sold all of his belongings to pay for his seven children to sail abroad. He was arrested for breaking the law by assisting with their illegal emigration and forced to do two months' unpaid manual labor as punishment.

Many Vietnamese have sailed overseas in recent decades to escape the poverty and persecution caused by the government after the country reunified in 1975.

At the time, the authorities banned fishermen from catching fish offshore as a way to prevent them from sneaking off and seeking a new life in foreign lands.

Long said 28 people from An Bang village are known to have died at sea while attempting the perilous voyage.

Van Thi Nhu Ngoc, a local Buddhist, said her uncle and five other villagers died in similar circumstances in 1977 after soldiers fired at their boat, causing it to sink. Their remains have never been recovered.

Ngoc, 47, said that in 2016 her 14 overseas relatives spent US$50,000 to build their ancestors an enormous 300-square-meter tomb.

She admitted that many people compete to build increasingly tall and more elaborate resting places to show their wealth. Well-cared-for tombs are traditionally believed to bring the family good fortune, she added.

Father Paul Pham Ta, the pastor of An Bang parish, said 80 percent of local villagers have relatives living overseas, mostly in the U.S.

They started sending money home to support their relatives and build the tombs as a way of paying their respect to their ancestors in 1990.

Father Ta said many elderly Vietnamese wish to be buried in elaborate tombs that can stand the test of time as they fear their relatives will stay abroad, and no one will be around to care for their final resting place.

Moreover, tomb building gives jobs to hundreds of people who trade and transfer building materials, he said, adding that workers can earn 300,000 to 500,000 dong a day.

The priest said the parish and province relies on donations from abroad to support those living on the bread line and build roads, hospitals and schools in remote areas, as well as houses for people with physical disabilities.

An Bang parish serves 548 Catholics among a total population of 9,000.

Source: UCAN

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