A journal of TMI

Please share the sadness…

One week after I arrived in Vietnam I set out on foot on a quest to purchase various sundry items to outfit myself with, the basics, so I thought, needed to set up house. I remember buying a hairdryer in a bookstore for instance, thinking it would be necessary for my new job, which required me to be fresh and professionally attired at 7:00 am Saturday and Sunday mornings. I never ended up using it, as Saigon is blessedly free from the freezing temperatures that I was used to half the year in the city I had just come from (Philadelphia). In any case had I began teaching a class with wet hair, no one would have actually been bothered as it would have been dry by the scheduled break-time. In other attempts to acclimate myself I also purchased a Chinese chess set that I am still waiting to learn how to play as well as a ceramic teapot that I use nearly everyday. As I wandered around that day I had an iPhone in my pocket that I used to snap shots of all the interesting and bizarre things that I was witnessing, events that I half-guessed were normal everyday affairs in this new place that I was calling home. Among the things that I saw were denim-clad municipal electric workers on bamboo ladders, people transporting all manner of things on motor-bikes, including mannequins and sheet-glass, such as a large mirror, and what was the prize event of the day, in terms of range of detail and sheer illumination into the Vietnamese way of life, a funeral procession, complete with a Prajna carriage and a marching band accompanying the mourners in what was an unmistakable to my American eyes bleed over from New Orleans tradition, the ‘funerals with music’, now known as Jazz funerals. This was the first time I had ever seen whatever I was seeing, so when I turned and saw what I can now refer to as a Prajna boat (having done a little reading on the subject), the thought that popped into my mind was “Buddha bus”. I needed little confirmation to suspect what this ornate and impractical vehicle was intended for, what we call a ‘hearse’ (but with a decidedly different signature), intended to deliver the guest of honor not to a solemn rain-soaked last-rites, but to Nirvana. It seemed as good a photo opportunity as any, although I hesitated with the typical laziness diluted with shyness of a middle-class tourist witnessing something not yet categorized. My split second dawdling lost me some key moments as the band somehow cued into action. In a swirl of photogenic activity I managed to capture a few fumbled shots and turn on the digital recorder that my phone also contained. Now captivated, I followed the bus along as it began to amble down a Saigon lane, carrying the beloved family member to their next place of rest, not realizing that I had formed a second-line to the musicians until some people we passed on the street smiled and pointed at me, hoisting my iPhone almost like a parasol in rhythm to the unmistakable tune of [St. James Infirmary]. After a short promenade the musicians in their captain’s caps and all-white coats and pants hopped onto the bus and it accelerated to the normal pace of traffic on its way to wherever the deceased would be buried.

New Orleans Funeral c. 1991

Saigon Funeral c. 2010

I later asked Vietnamese friends and colleagues about the music that I saw that day but no one suggested a foreign (i.e. American, New Orleanian) source for this. But how can they think this is Vietnamese music? Perhaps there are earlier Vietnamese horn-music traditions that this seeming anomaly was grafted onto, but I was reduced to stretching for a proper explanation.

Here are the facts on the table, as far as I can tell, be they relevant or not. Vietnam and France have a lot of history together, both politically and inevitably culturally, the French for instance introducing Roman letters, coffee and bread into Vietnam. Take iced coffee with condensed milk and banh mi sandwiches (both decidedly Vietnamese in flavor) away from the average Vietnamese and they would be disoriented to say the least, and very few would be able to read the old Vietnamese Sinicized chữ Nôm characters, still visible on some old temples here and there. The French also settled the city of New Orleans, eventually selling it to the growing American nation in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, finalized in 1804. So…is it possible the French provided some sort of cultural conduit from New Orleans to Saigon? Quite a stretch it would seem, as Jazz wasn’t really developed until the beginning of the twentieth century, long after the French played any direct role in the administration of that city. The Catholic church, another item introduced by the French, frowned on the playing of secular music at funerals (in New Orleans), especially so the ‘hot music’ that has come to distinguish these marches, though it can be said that the restrictions of Lent, for example, dictate the excesses of Carnival. Nevertheless, the musical societies that comprise the tradition in America, although inarguably influenced by French  (and Spanish) martial music traditions practiced during the city’s history, are almost uniformly Protestant African American New Orleanians (not French!), a set beyond miniscule in Vietnam’s Saigon which could be said as well of any one of the components of the previous description. Nevertheless the French have long been big Jazz fans since the 1920’s at least and probably played the role of introducing through diffusion Jazz recordings and appreciation in what was then known as Indochina.

There is a also rather large settlement of Vietnamese in New Orleans these days. I found an article that figured the population as around 12,000 in 1990 and described them as largely being Catholics that fled the North of Vietnam to the South during the division of 1954, and then fled further after reunification in 1975, perhaps being drawn to the strong Catholic presence in N.O. as church sponsorship could be a decisive factor in successful immigration. This possible back channel of American culture to Vietnam, through overseas Vietnamese contact, only points to the larger issue of cultural contact between the United States and Vietnam, largely of course through the American support of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam beginning in 1955 and then escalating into the well-known and well-studied conflict that ended in 1975. During these years somehow the “funerals with music” tradition of the marching brass band with military style caps somehow became adopted or melded onto a similar tradition whose sensibilities matched what I am only aware of taking place in one other city in America.

Is it always so, and has it always been so?

A woman I know who runs a tailor shop in HCMC tells me that people didn’t use to have music at funerals. “When did this change?” I asked her.  She seemed a bit puzzled, because she didn’t know. Her recollections it seemed came from her childhood, when she lived in the countryside. The change came when she moved to Saigon although she’s not sure exactly when was the first time she remembers this. Nowadays at least it’s a frequent complaint. Mourners sometimes revel until 5 in the morning, drinking beer at tables while being entertained by Mekong Delta guitar-men (a common feature of Saigon funerals separate from the brass band tradition) who play their strange slinky riffs, similar to the slide of old Delta bluesmen of another river, the Mississippi. My friend calls this “crazy, noisy, country music” and smilingly described its proponents as “xom lao dong (hamlet laborers)”, or common country people. Another friend recently joked “if this funeral lasts much longer, there’ll be another one coming right up” meaning either that he would perish from lack of sleep or be driven to a homicidal state, the funeral outside his window having lasted for 3 days.

As mentioned above, music plays a key role in more than just the final procession in funerals in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly [and informally still] Saigon).

“As with weddings, feasting is an essential part of the funeral process”(189) according to the editors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit ,and along with feasting comes music.

I first began noticing these gatherings on my way home from work. Many motorists would just stop in the street, in a crowd of motorbikes, to watch the musicians play, just like I saw them do in front of electronics shops, to watch an important football match or because a promotional extravaganza was being put on by the store, with a model or some other form of entertainment provided. The Mekong guitarists sometimes play with the guitar flat, recalling the prior stringed instrument, the đán tranh, a Vietnamese board zither.

I am still struggling to learn more about traditional Vietnamese music forms although I can tell you that there is a folk opera tradition called Cải lương as well as a folk chamber music tradition called Nhàc tái tử (the name translating something like skilled amateurs) which undoubtedly share melodies and themes  much like jazz, blues, old-time, Broadway and popular music have interacted in America.

I moved into a house on a residential alley (hem) in District 3 soon after arriving. Fortunately for my neighbors, no household funerals were required during my year there, demographics and luck being as they were. The next year we moved deeper into the residential hems just down the street, near  chợ vườn chuối (the Banana Garden Market). Life here seemed to be more all encompassing, catering to many needs of the residents, like a self-contained mini-city. All manner of vegetables and protein as well as varieties of dried rice are available in and around the traditional market. Thoroughfares through the adjoining alleys provide various types of noodle stands, as well as hair-dresser shops and juice and banh mi carts. There is a pawn shop, various bodegas, as well as small tailor factories, computer and motorbike repair shops as well as people just selling mobile phone credit, all out of the gated first floors of the residences lining long and sometimes twisted alleys, not big enough for a car but wide enough (for the most part) for two motorbikes to pass. Generations of folk live together here, or in houses close to each other, and occasionally one of the old people will die. Several, in fact, seemed to die all at once, or in close proximity to one another right before this past Tet holiday. I speculated on the psychology of giving up one’s last hold on life, and dying peacefully at home, before the New Year could begin, clearing the way for one’s family to make a fresh start. Was this a common practice? My wife insisted I had this wrong, as no one would wish that there families be sad on such an important holiday. Nevertheless, with a few also coming after the turning of the year, we have yet to see such a cluster again, in fact barely any have been held at all in the past few months, with our neighborhood thankfully busy with matters other than dying for the moment.

There are preliminary signals to the neighborhood that someone has died, and a funeral will take place. The family will hang a special flag somewhere in the alley at a crossroads near the deceased’s house. The design is a series of concentric squares starting in the middle with red, then going outwards, white, sky blue, orange, and then deep blue. The final deep blue border has a jagged edge.

The flag reminds me somewhat of the international Buddhist flag and at least one informant also misidentified it to me as such. A side by side comparison reveals that they are not the same. Incidentally, the location I am describing is a quick walk from the Xa Loi pagoda, the center of the Buddhist crisis of the 1960’s, which began when 9 unarmed civiliains were shot in Hue protesting the banning of the Buddhist flag by the South Vietnamese government. The self-immolation of  Thích Quảng Đức  probably the most memorable event of the crisis also occurred at a nearby street-corner. (These events led to the downfall and assassination of President Ngô Đình Diệm after 8 months of such turmoil, through an internal coup.)

Though this flag can be striking once noticed, harder to miss when they occur are the barricades or signs leaning against chairs blocking the alley which ask neighbors to kindly find another way around, as a mourning tent is to be set up. Tables and chairs are placed under the tent for family members, relatives and neighbors to gather for the vigil, until the body is carried away. If the deceased died at home, the coffin will remain. However, according to the editors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit, “when someone dies outside the home, the casket is not permitted to be brought back inside, and the funeral must be conducted with the casket outside the door”(188). A small altar is set up near the casket, usually with a portrait photograph of the deceased, and incense and candles.

A professor of Vietnamese culture, Professor Phan Thi Yen Tuyet, of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City graciously answered my questions further about what typically takes place. According to her, the family often carry out the washing of the body themselves; using herbs and water made fragrant with a special red flower, and then carefully dispose of the water. The deceased is then dressed in a traditional Ao Dai (silk tunic) suit tailor-made in advance for the occasion. The family themselves will wear white ghost-like shrouds over their clothes, or perhaps only headbands of the same rough linen. 9 grains of rice (and sometimes even gold) will be placed in the deceased’s mouth. The coffin will be filled with dried tea to absorb water and odors from the body as it may lie in state for days or as long as a week before the appointed day to journey on arrives. In another curious custom peculiar to South Vietnam a bunch of green bananas may be put on the umbilical region of the corpse, explained either as a diversionary meal for a spirit dog who might otherwise consume some of the deceased, or merely as a natural neutralizer of odors and dangerous substances which might leak from the body. A friend of mine witnessed this once as a child when her grandfather passed away and his body was prepared in the family home.

The contours of Vietnamese spiritual life are revealed and confirmed further by some of the less immediately pragmatic practices that may take place. For instance, the editors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit tell of a practice where bowls of rice porridge are often placed near the threshold between the house and the outside, in order to appease and distract wandering, possibly angry ghosts who seek to find lapses in proper ritual as an entree to cause havoc (like the aforementioned spirit dog), perhaps by stealing items intended for the family ancestor. These angry ghosts (con ma) are themselves the result of an inadequate funeral, perhaps the result of “one of Vietnam’s most poignant contemporary problems…the tens of thousands of soldiers, from both north and south, who died in battle and never received proper funeral rites.” Published in 2003, only 8 years ago, the authors go on to say  “Although the wars are over, this army of wandering souls remains, and scores of families continue to search for the bones of their lost loved ones so they can perform appropriate funeral rites and give their souls their final peace “(191).

Sadly, as the world turned, inexorably, another and another and another person died, including one of our neighbors. The authors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit compare weddings and funerals and after describing typical features, admit “above this deeper structure rests a bewildering number of possible variations”…and “not only have such variations long existed, but new ones keep appearing”(185). I can confirm that features of the funeral that I witnessed did not conform wholly to accounts I found in other sources; an example is the clowning that the bandleader performed, beginning by balancing his cap upright on his forehead. He continued with a plastic stool, then a bicycle, then two bicycles (I kid you not, balanced on his forehead), then 13 red plastic stools arranged geometrically, and then finally ending with a folding metal table balanced on one leg, all on his forehead. I can only guess that the unreal performance was intended to somehow balance the magical forces present in the air, not unlike the lively music played by the brass band accompanying the coffin to the waiting vehicle, or the fighting stance taken by the band member wielding two funeral flags like torches as he led the vehicle in a slow procession briefly on the street before the ceremony ended and basic city-street driving began.

The machinery of the ritual thus arranged itself around us to guide the family and all others swept up in the wake of events through to what is perhaps just another beat in the cycle, where a person who was walking among us becomes a corpse laid in a box, and then carried outside the community to whatever new incarnation, in this particular case, cremated remains and then whatever, if anything, after that. My wife told me that the Vietnamese have a saying, that this is the temporary life, which is over quickly, and then the real life begins. On the final day, when this occurred for one white haired lady we had been accustomed to seeing, a brass band arrived to line the alley adjacent to our house to act as an honor guard. I instinctively grabbed the best camera we had in the house and went out to capture some of the events. The neighbors encouraged and directed me to photograph as fully as possible what was taking place and later I was able to provide them with an album for their memories. Perhaps also my presence as a foreigner gave them luck somehow, as I may have overhead the matriarch of affairs comment to the others after she insisted I come on the bus with them to the cemetery; my language comprehension however is spotty. In any case I hope my being there served to “share the sadness” and dilute the burden, as I had said the day before to the brother-in-law of the woman, as I carried out a custom of giving a small envelope to help defray the costs of all that was taking place; “xin chia buồn”.

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