Hanoi Funeral

Creative Nonfiction
N.K. Napier

I stood in the November rain with Lan Huong, one of the Vietnamese faculty members I work with, looking at the gravediggers scooping out mud from Professor Giao’s grave. My face was wet and my shoulders ached from standing hunched in the rain since early morning. Even though I had known and worked with Professor Giao for several years, I still felt like an interloper at the service. I was tired from being with Vietnamese colleagues and other mourners for hours, not understanding what they said, feeling sad but not being able to express it well.

I met Professor Giao when I first taught at the National Economics University in Hanoi in the early 1990s. Initially, I found it hard to focus on his words, since my eyes kept creeping to the mole on his chin, which had a two-inch hair protruding from it. I learned much later that men never shave those hairs, expecting them to bring good luck.

Professor Giao was Vice-Rector of the university and the visionary for the aid project that I managed years later. He recognized that Vietnam’s managers and students needed to learn about market economics and that it was a key to bringing Vietnam into the regional and global marketplace. Even though he probably mistrusted foreigners, he wanted their expertise. Vietnam’s wariness of foreigners has a long history, from the 1000-year Chinese domination to the French and American wars. Then the country faced years of isolation when the U.S. embargo started in 1975 and again in 1989 when the Soviet Bloc, its only major trading partner, fell.

In my early days working in Hanoi, I felt an undercurrent of watchfulness. Vietnamese could not visit me alone. The police tracked my activities, and I could not leave Hanoi without giving the authorities my itinerary. Even by the time Professor Giao died in November of 2000, after six years of visiting and working in the country, I still refrained from pushing the boundaries and never talked of politics, personnel issues, or whether my colleagues had relatives in the U.S.

When we first met, Professor Giao wore a Soviet style, gray windbreaker jacket, with a dark tie and short sleeved white shirt. By the time he left the university in 1996, he sported tailored black suits, looking more like a square-shouldered gangster than a university vice-rector. His departure was an honor for him and the university; he became Vice Chairman of the National Assembly’s Economics Council, a position equivalent to a senior member of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors. He was about to be promoted to Committee Chairman when he died from a heart attack on a Saturday afternoon at home.

Rituals carry us through occasions of trial, removing many decisions and defining expected actions. Yet, the nature of decisions, the extent of prescribed movements and the pacing of rituals in Vietnam vary dramatically from what I’d experienced in the U.S. In Hanoi, the first three days of mourning have a clear set of rules—the family visits on Day 1, funeral and official ceremonies span Day 2, and close friends and colleagues visit the home of the dead on Day 3. The literal movements and actions at each stage of the mourning, from presenting a wreath to the family, to offering incense to the deceased, are clear.

Monday was Day 2 of the official grieving period, the day for the funeral and mourning ceremonies. Mrs. Chi, the office secretary, had wet red eyes when I arrived at the office. We called her “Chi C” to distinguish her from the other two Chis (A and B) in our program. In her early thirties, Chi never sat still, was the best karaoke singer in the university, and wore bright red high heeled shoes for the first few years I knew her. Today, she wore smudged lipstick and slouched next to the desk.

“Please come now to the mourning ceremony,” she said. “But the day will be long. It is raining. You do not have to go to the burial later.”

“Of course I’ll go with you to the burial,” I said. “If that’s ok?”

“Professor Giao would like for all of us to go. Yes, it will be good for you to come.”

We packed into taxis and on motorbikes about 9 a.m. and went to a government compound that had a courtyard formed from a U-shaped group of concrete buildings. I had asked Mrs. Chi to arrange for a funeral wreath from the consultants of our project; it stood in the courtyard, the only wreath with an English language sash. The wreaths—nearly all the same—were oblong ellipses, about four feet high by three feet wide, leaning against walls and each other on two sticks. The wreaths’ three concentric flower ellipses had patterns of yellow orchid-like flowers on the outer ring, then red roses and finally yellow flowers in the center. The donor organization name, written on a black six-inch wide strip of ribbon, ran diagonally across the wreath.

In the courtyard, clusters of people huddled in the rain under small freestanding umbrellas. Some scrunched under the building eaves out of the rain. Others hunched together, the women with their arms crooked together, under pink umbrellas with white rabbits tripping along and blue umbrellas spotted with ducks.

I tiptoed around looking for a space to be invisible, impossible as the only Caucasian among 200 people. I stood in puddles half way up the sides of my shoes. Water dripped inside my shirt. My wool sweater smelled musty.

The procedure for which group entered when was choreographed and announced. When our university’s name came over the loudspeaker, we formed double lines and shuffled up the stairs. We circled through a stone room, thirty feet high and sixty feet wide and deep, filled with family mourners and university and government officials. Bundles of unlit red incense sticks lay at the foot of Professor Giao’s coffin; I added mine to the pile of sticks that would burn over the next several days. Spandrels of white incense smoke curled toward the ceiling and mixed with the rain smell.

Professor Giao lay in a red lacquer wooden coffin, the width of his shoulders. I thought of my father, who said he wanted to be buried in a simple pine box. Professor Giao’s coffin was just that, a box. A decorated box, but still just a box. The coffin decoration was gold filigree Chinese characters that my Vietnamese colleagues assured were not “true Chinese” but “Vietnamese Chinese.” During the Chinese occupation, well before the 1500s, the Vietnamese imitated and modified Chinese characters for their own language. Still, given the animosity between the Vietnamese and the Chinese for so many years, I was surprised to see the characters atop the coffin.

A glass window flap on the top front of the coffin lay open, baring Professor Giao’s face to the stone building and to me. I stepped up on a wooden box to look in and say goodbye. Without thinking, I sucked in my breath with shock. Professor Giao’s face was placid and too calm to be the man I knew. While he rarely smiled, his bemused smirk usually showed his mood, and his squinty eyes could chuckle or growl in our meetings. Today, he had no smirk, no expression.

I moved to a receiving line where Professor Giao’s wife stood wailing. His daughter whimpered, as she leaned on another woman. Sometimes Vietnamese mourners wear white, pointed helmet-like headgear, made of rice stalks, to protect their heads should they fall when they faint from grief. Instead, mother and daughter had white gauze draped over their heads and clothes; their faces were tearless but weary. Family members stood by the women to catch them as they wavered. The son-in-law was third in line, with a white headband and a white sheet over his torso and legs. He did shake hands, but he leaned back and looked at me straight on. Maybe he wondered why a foreigner had come.

Funeral traditions and reactions seem out of balance in emotion and involvement, in both countries. Family and friends who are truly distraught may be unaware of what’s going on around them; most people who attend funeral ceremonies seem detached, sometimes more interested in vicariously gawking than in participating. Others show strong emotion, whether real or feigned, and still others stand apart and wrench their insides. But usually, people expect restraint in the U.S. whereas in Vietnam, the women wail and give themselves up to grief.

Outside the building, two red notebooks sat on a table, waiting for any comments from mourners. I wrote Professor Giao, thanking him for his help. My messy American handwriting clashed with the structured careful loops of the Vietnamese before me.

Our vigil outside lasted another hour, accompanied by a mix of drums beating and cymbals rubbing together, while the remaining visitors paid respects.

Hang, another university colleague, stood beside me under the eaves. She stood, all 5 feet of her, with her arms crossed in front of her, rocking a bit and shaking her head.

“He was good. He helped us. I miss him.”

“What do the drums and cymbals mean? The sound is so strange.”

“The drums mean death and ending. They say that Professor Giao’s life is over. The metal rubbing together is the sound of the ‘next world, not of this one.’ Professor Giao travels to another world. The sounds help him.”

At 11 a.m., the 150 of us still in the courtyard went back in for the mourning ceremony. In a country where time stretches, and no one is offended if people arrive 10 or 30 minutes late to a meeting, this occasion astounded me by its preciseness. The visits went exactly from 7-11 a.m. and the next phase began.

Inside the gray cavernous entry hall, one of Professor Giao’s friends read a 10-minute eulogy of his life and contributions—to the university, government and country. His family filed past the coffin and, again, moaned.

“Wake up, why are you sleeping so long,” said Professor Giao’s wife. This ritual question gives the dead time to wake up before being buried. His daughter started a new round of weeping, exhausting herself.

Hang told me later that crying by the “first” or eldest daughter is necessary to help the spirit reach the next world. In Vietnam, where emotion is palpable—anger, frustration, joy but not affection other than with children, this was beyond what I’d seen.

The convoy to the cemetery comprised the funeral wreath truck, with 20-30 wreaths lashed on top and sides, a truck carrying the coffin and family, six buses, a dozen autos and close to 50 motorbikes flitting through the autos like flies. I rode to the cemetery in a bus crowded with university people I didn’t know. They offered sandwiches—baguettes with slices of pork fat and shredded pork—water, milk and chocolate-covered crackers. I was touched by their thoughtfulness but everything tasted dry to me. My university colleagues on motorbikes waved to me from under their rain parkas—the men in navy, the women in white and blue polka dots on rose and blue colored parkas. Some people put plastic bags on their shoes, others gave up and just rolled up their pant legs. We arrived precisely at 1 p.m. for the funeral ceremony, which finished right at 2 p.m.

Perhaps because Hanoi is a large city, perhaps because death is so accepted and part of daily life, funeral processions are commonplace. The wreath-covered trucks, with mourners trailing behind in white headbands is something ordinary, hardly worth noting. In any city in the U.S., cars and people still acknowledge a funeral motorcade by stopping and waiting for it to pass; in Hanoi life goes on around the cavalcade. Merchants hawk goods, women shuffle with shoulder baskets of fruit, children scamper past. The attitude seems to be one of “someone else’s grandfather or mother or friend or child has died today, not mine.” But maybe those onlookers, saved for the moment, also dread the inevitable feeling when death comes to someone close.

Three gravediggers, dressed in heavy-hooded rubber rain suits and boots, had dug a four-foot deep dirt area—clay mud really, since we were still standing in rain. Then they moved to the plot next to Professor Giao’s and began working on the next grave. They scooped out mud on shovels, patted it against a mound around the edges, and shoved the spades against the side of the hole. They slid in the mud, stepped into water holes, and looked weary. I could see a dozen fresh graves that they must have dug that day or the one before.

The workers lowered Professor Giao’s coffin. His son-in-law and a few others tossed mud in the hole and the diggers filled it and built up a rounded mound, 4 feet high. Within a month, flowers and tall grass will cover this mound, representing the “last house for the dead on earth.” The cemetery mounds, set about 4 feet apart, appear as goose bumps on human skin must to a microscopic flea. They are so close together that one can barely walk between them without reaching out with both arms for balance.

Three years from now, Professor Giao’s family will exhume his body, place his bones in a ceramic tube and move it to his home village or nearer the family in Hanoi. The demand on cemetery space requires that the plots be recycled. Unfortunately, the ground in this cemetery is “not good for burying,” according to my colleagues. Polluted and too moist, the ground prevents the muscle from disintegrating, meaning that the family will dig up a wooden box that contains a partially intact body.

What becomes of bodies in the U.S. that remain in pillow-covered coffins, cured with waxes and oils to stave off natural decay? The soul has gone, but when? In Vietnam, the steps and timing are clear. After the first days of mourning, the next 49 are for the spirit’s journey. At that point and again at the 100 days marker, friends and family come together, mourn and begin to rebuild, and then meet yearly after that. The survivors have time to say good bye. They grieve publicly and privately for a year. During that year, they wear black arm bands or ribbons, showing the world that they have lost someone, relieving them of expectations of being social and sociable. In the U.S., we put aside the dead within a few days, move forward and avoid speaking of him or her with others. We bite our lips, shake our foggy heads, and try to concentrate on remembering to eat or do the laundry.

Meanwhile, the six wreath carriers, dressed in their white, flat-topped police hats and what were once white uniforms, hauled in the wreaths from the truck. After 15 minutes of tossing wreaths, the mound was taller than any man standing near by. Professor Giao’s wife and daughter collapsed in the arms of five women, drained from the wailing that had started early that morning and continued till mid afternoon. As the last wreath tumbled onto the pile, the rain stopped, the cemetery umbrellas protecting us came down and we hurried away to make room for the next group of mourners using the grave next to Prof. Giao’s.

When the Vietnamese formally gather on the 49th day following a death, they eat and talk, still numb from the loss, and let themselves look backward, wallow and be sad. In America, we do so as well, but furtively, in bathrooms with the faucet on to hide the gulps of crying, during sad movies, driving alone. Yet, I find that six weeks after a death, nearly the same as 49 days, is the time when loss strikes hardest.

In Hanoi, the sky continued to cry all week.


N.K. Napier, a professor of international business at Boise State University, has managed a development project in Vietnam for several years and has published in Small Spiral Notebook, Christian Science Monitor, and Brain, Child. She can be reached at nknapier[at]earthlink.net.