I learned on Thursday that my wonderful friend and maid, Hien’s mother had passed away. While I could not attend the funeral on Friday, I did go to pay my respects yesterday. I learned that her mother was a little ill, but in the course of 10 days, she became worse, was checked into the hospital and just couldn’t gain her strength back and was gone. She was 87 years old.
Hien lives out in the outskirts of Hanoi. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get out to her area of town. The village she lives in has about 300 families or so. Kurt, Anna and Sean joined me on this visit, as Hien has worked with them for about six years. Upon arrival, we were told there was another elder in the village who had passed away the day after Hien’s mother. That service was held across from the home of Hien’s brother. We arrived at her brother’s house where family, friends and neighbors were gathered to pay respects, visit and mourn. It seemed they were all a bit shocked and saddened by the quickness of her death; it seemed she was a relatively healthy woman.
In Vietnam, there are a few things they do differently than you or I might be familiar with. An altar is created in the home displaying a photo of the deceased. There are numerous offerings on the alter. Flowers, fruit, foods, beverages and incense sticks are arranged on two or three tiers. The Vietnamese believe that the relative must receive 3 meals a day for 49 days, as that is how long the stomach takes to decompose. The incense sticks must be burning for 24 hours a day during this time, too. All the family members wear black, but also a white headband, signifying the loss of a family member. I couldn’t quite get the answer as to the meaning of the white head band, though.
After three years, the family will uncovered the buried body, clean the bones and put them in a special ceremonial box. This is made usually of metal and are quite decorative. When the family has found the perfect and lucky spot for their relative, they will re-bury the remains there forever. The problem many Hanoians are facing now is that the city is expanding and the city building are starting to invade the countryside. The families are very concerned as to what land they buy for their loved one, where the final resting spot is, because moving them after the “permanent” burial is considered terribly unlucky. With a growing metropolis exploding in front of them, many folks in the countryside have had to relocate their ancestors to more remote areas.
The family takes about a week off to mourn, maintain the alter, welcome visitors and receive guests. I was glad I could support Hien, as she has been so kind to me. Her sister-in-law is quite good at speaking English and among other cultural points, we discussed tourism, her children and the family. Hien is one of 8 children. Her oldest brother died in the Vietnam War. (They call it the American War here.) Her only sister died rather young of a “blood disease.” Her father passed away some 24 years ago, and so Hien’s brother looked after their mother. In Vietnam, boys are usually of more value simply because it is their duty to look after the elders and ancestors.
After our visit with Hien’s family and neighbors, after a moment at the altar to pay final respects and leave an envelope with a monetary gift, Hien walked us down the street and around the corner to show us the status of her house. Her husband seems to be a rather “lazy” man and does not earn all that much money. Hien has saved an invested $15,000 to buy land and the first story of her three story house. She needs another $15,000 to finish the home. She anticipates it will take her another three years to be able to pay and so in the meantime, her home will be built brick-by-brick on a pay-as-you-go type basis.
You know, the occasion for visiting Hien was not a pleasant one, but she and her family were so generous with their time and so gracious to receive us…it ended up being a very pleasant afternoon, one full of cultural understanding and connection. It helped me understand a lot more about this one custom in Vietnam, but also a lot more about Hien.