In Vietnam, a cemetery kicks out the living

Christopher Johnson Mar 12, 2015
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In Vietnam, a cemetery kicks out the living

Christopher Johnson Mar 12, 2015
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Some of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Asia. With more cash flow, more jobs, more people, Asian cities are getting a lot bigger. Some are overflowing.

In Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, it seems as if little can stand in the way of urban sprawl — not even the dead. The city’s biggest cemetery is slated for demolition, with plans to use the space for a shopping mall, apartments and parks.

Moving 70,000 tombs is one challenge. Here’s an even trickier one: What to do about the hundreds of people who work and live inside the cemetery? 

The cemetery, Binh Hung Hoa, is a relatively quiet place  to lay flowers, light incense at a loved one’s grave, even say a solemn prayer.

And hey  before you leave, grab a massage. 

“Oil, full body, hand, head… everything! Very cheap!” a masseuse named Man says with a laugh. She says she’s offering oil, full-body, hand, and head treatments for less than $5 an hour.

It’s kind of a steal  if you’re okay with a rubdown among nearly two hundred football fields worth of above-ground cement tombs.

Man says her customers couldn’t care less. Many local people who have colds, the flu, or fever often come here. There’s been a big community living here for years and years, since before the early 1960’s, when a much smaller cemetery first opened. After the U.S. war ended, the whole place just got bigger. More graves, and today, hundreds of people.

Thi Cuc Nguyen and her husband live here, where they work sweeping and looking after nearly 1,000 tombs.

“Are you scared of ghosts?!” Nguyen asks, laughing. “No ghosts here, only bodies. Their spirits are up in heaven already. So I feel totally peaceful living here.”

The Catholic Church hired the couple almost 25 years ago. Nguyen says this gig sure beats her old job selling produce.

“Visitors often thank me, as they see that I am taking care of their families’ tombs,” she says. “I make $100 to $150 a month. And I have more freedom. I really enjoy taking care of the graves.”

There are other ways to earn cash here. Some rent out rooms to day laborers, others run makeshift speakeasies. Want to order a whole roasted pig? One of the temple caretakers will hook you up.

Hoa Binh runs a small stand at a crossroads in the cemetery, where she sells sweet iced coffee, plus flowers and incense for the graves. Things have been tough for her since 2011, when the district People’s Committee closed the cemetery to new burials. Families came and started emptying the tombs.

Since then, she says, business, well, it’s been kind of like a graveyard around here.

“As soon as they started removing the tombs, the number of visitors dropped a lot,” she says. “There used to be 500 tombs in this area. Sometimes there would be a line of cars here, just to visit one tomb, you know? But it’s getting quiet. Very quiet!”

Quiet? Not exactly. The cemetery sits just two miles from Ho Chi Minh City’s very busy international airport. This is where it’s all supposed to happen: luxury apartments, a shopping mall, maybe a park, all by the year 2020.

Partly, yes, it’s about sprawl, but there are public-health issues, too, says Yale anthropologist Erik Harms, who’s written about urban redevelopment here.

“There’s been stories about people drinking water from wells there,” he says. “That’s pretty nasty, right? To drink water from a well in a cemetery where corpse juices are dripping into the well, right?”

Some of those who live here are embracing the new plans. Harms says that with projects like this one, people often imagine a more comfortable way of life.

“They say, ‘Yeah, it would be nice to live in a nice house or an apartment building with air conditioning, clean sewers … good schools for the kids.’ That’s in some ways preferable to living in a cemetery.”

But the local government hasn’t said what it’s going to do for the residents. It’s tricky in part because many people don’t have any legal claims to the land.

One thing is clear: Soon, they’ll have to pack up and move on, as this old graveyard gets set to start a new life.

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