City of the dead

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In the 1990s, the luxurious graves at An Bang Village cemetery in the central province of Thua Thien - Hue earned it the moniker, "City of the dead."


The cemetery has grown in the last two decades, and given its current scale, to call it a mere "city" is to demean it.


Sprawling over an area of 40 hectares, the graveyard is home to thousands of tombs and tomb complexes. While most tombs are built using symmetric architectural styles of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), others have been influenced by Chinese, Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, and even European trends.


Le Hai, who has worked as a contractor for tomb projects in An Bang for decades, said that earlier, people were only interested in replicating the architecture of Nguyen kings' royal tombs but this has changed in recent years.


"More and more people are hiring architects nowadays to design tombs for their ancestors or loved ones. Everyone wants bigger, better, and more unique designs," he said.


"It has become easier for people to reseach the Internet and find unique architecture styles from different countries. It's no wonder the tombs in An Bang cemetery are so varied," Hai added.


Nguyen Huu Thong, director of Vietnam's Institute for Culture and Arts in the central region, said that a visiting American cultural researcher was amazed at the assortment of architecture styles in the cemetery .


The "city of the dead" has expanded not only in terms of design but also in cost.


According to a builder, while an extravagant tomb cost VND300-400 million (US$14,451-19,923) in the 90s, a similar one can cost up to VND1-2 billion ($48,247-96,495) now.


A tomb complex being built for a Le family is estimated at more than VND3 billion ($144,752), he said.


Dead or alive


Do Thanh, an elderly local, said the trend of building grand graves began in the 1990s when Viet Kieus began sending money home. More than 80 percent of the 5,000 families in the area have members living overseas.


After improving their living conditions, people began to renovate the graves of their ancestors, Thanh said.


Le Van Lan, another local, said graves began to grow in size and opulence when overseas Vietnamese returned home to visit and began comparing their ancestors' graves to others around.


Lan said "grave jealousy" has increased in the community, with families renovating older graves and building new ones, each bigger and better than the others.


At one point of time, the cemetery looked like "a big construction site" with hundreds of graves being refurbished, Lan said.


"The local government then didn't have specific zoning plans, so people built graves as they wished. Some even covered areas of more than 1,000 square meters," he added.


And, people build tombs not only for the deceased but also for the living.


A 73-year-old man said his children and grandchildren built a VND800-million ($38,647) "villa" tomb in Nguyen Dynasty's architectural style for him and his wife three years ago, even though both are still alive and healthy.


The man spends every afternoon cleaning his tomb. "I feel at peace knowing where I'm going to rest after I die," he said.

According to Do Xuan Hoan, secretary of the Party unit at Vinh An Commune, which manages An Bang, local authorities prohibited the building of any more tombs at the cemetery nearly two years ago.


Authorities even opened a new cemetery site but so far, no one has built any tombs there. It will take long before the pre-built graves in the "city of the dead" are filled, Hoan said.


Tourism among the dead


Meanwhile, some officials have proposed developing the "city of the dead" into a tourist attraction to showcase the unique architecture in the cemeter.


In fact, Hue Travel Company introduced a cemetery tour more than a year ago after surveys conducted by the provincial Department of Sports, Culture and Tourism showed tourist interest in visiting the "city of the dead."


Phan Thi Thoai Khanh, director of Hue Travel, said the tour has been wildly sucessful.


However, Khanh said the site itself still needs to be developed and local tour guides trained in showing visitors around. At the moment, there are barely any paths, and wandering through the labyrinth of tombs can be unnerving.


Not the dead only


For many, it's a paradoxical way of life. On the one hand, they live a mere walk away from graves costing billions of dong. On the other hand, hundreds struggle to make ends meet - often living without a roof over their heads.


In fact, while An Bang, whose people account for more than half of Vinh An Commune's population, has been the home of the rich, at least in death, thanks to support from overseas, 17.9 percent of the commune's families, or some 361, fall below poverty line.


Hoan said local authorities have called for An Bang people as well as overseas Vietnamese to set aside part of their investment into graves to alleviate poverty and improve infrastructure.


"At the meetings, all agreed and promised, but after that they forgot, or forgot on purpose," Hoan said.


Meanwhile, a man, whose family struggles to make ends meet, said a few overseas An Bangs recently sent more than VND4 billion($193,236) to build a granite statue of Buddha at the seaside.


"They said the statue will bless fishermen and develop tourism in the future," he said. "I don't know about spiritualism and tourism; all I see is a huge statue.


"Passing by the other day, I wished they had lent part of the money to poor people at low interest rates so we could develop businesses and support our families. Wouldn't that have been better?"


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