An ambassador who wanted to be buried in Vietnam

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Niels Julius Lassen, the first Dannish ambassador to Vietnam from 1994-1997, taking a short break while taking photos of birds in Dong Thap's Tram Chim National Park. PHOTO: LAO DONG

At a press conference in Hanoi in 2002, Niels Julius Lassen looked exactly like a professional reporter.

Wearing a journalist's jacket, he held an SLR camera with a telephoto lens and ran around to find good angles for his shots.

A Lao Dong (Labor) reporter who knew many foreign reporters in Hanoi met Lassen there for the first time and asked what newspaper he was working for.

The answer was surprising: Lassen was not a reporter. He was the former ambassador of Denmark to Vietnam.

After his four-year term in Vietnam ended in 1997, Lassen was assigned to Germany before retiring at 70 in 2000, when he returned to Vietnam to spend the last six years of his life.

The years spent in Vietnam were the most beautiful time in his life as a diplomat, Lassen told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

During this time, at a neighborhood near Hanoi’s Tay Ho (West Lake) Temple, people got used to Lassen, a foreigner who often went around on xe om (motorbike taxi) with the tools of a professional photographer.

But only few people knew he was the former ambassador of Denmark.

Lassen always brought along his camera anywhere and anytime and it was time for him to live for his photograph passion in Vietnam after retirement.

Except for long trips around Vietnam, he always rode around by xe om because he said it was a good means of transport for a photographer.

He suffered minor injuries in a few accidents, but he continued to take pictures from the back of a motorbike.

Asked by some curious neighbors why he did not go home for his retirement, he said his hometown was very beautiful, but he always missed Hanoi whenever he was away.

He took countless photos around Vietnam. His favorite subjects were of the people and beautiful scenes of Hanoi and the rural areas of the Vietnamese countryside.

Several magazines used his photos but he always refused payment.

Lassen also recorded the sounds of daily activities in Hanoi: the calls of the street vendors or the sanitary workers collecting garbage on the street, or the sounds of a butcher chopping meat and birds singing.

The former diplomat always wished for a simple but happy family life consisting of little more than dinners with family on weekends and holidays.

His wish was fulfilled in Vietnam, where he lives with Tam, his adopted Vietnamese daughter, and Tam’s child.

But Lassen said his greatest wish was to be buried in Vietnam so that someone would burn incense for him during death anniversaries.

Vietnamese people traditionally burn incense as an offering to the deceased.

In the last years of his life, he often came to cemeteries near his West Lake home in an attempt to buy a grave for himself.

People near the cemeteries used to think he was joking until he kept asking and showed up with money.

Sometimes, he visited Hoang An Pagoda and talked with the head monk. He also asked that his picture be placed in the pagoda after he died.

He died in 2006 in Copenhagen on a trip back to Denmark for medical treatment.

Tam, his adopted daughter, then took a flight to Denmark to burn incense at his grave as he had wished.

She still regrets that she could not bring his body back to Vietnam for burial.

“I don’t know whether it is legal to do so. Moreover, I was pregnant with my second child and was unable to do much at the time,” she told Lao Dong newspaper.

However, Tam set an altar for Lassen at home and brought his picture to Hoang An Pagoda as his wished.

Eight years after he died, his friends, neighbors and former colleagues at the Denmark Embassy still talk about him with love. On the [Lunar] New Year, they hope that he rests in peace.

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