02 Mar City of Ghosts
Forty five minutes outside Hué, (the old capital city of Vietnam), lies another city. ‘The City of Ghosts’ is not inhabited by the living, but the dead. It is an eerie and extraordinary place. We have already passed war cemeteries with uniform graves, cemeteries full of tombs decorated with cement curlicues, rice paddies with a small family tomb in the centre, and large gated roadside family tombs. This, however, is in another league. The City of Ghosts boasts family mausoleums in a bigger league. The grandeur, ambition of construction and decoration super cedes most houses. These multi-coloured mosaic tombs are now rumoured to be costing up to $300,000. Set on a beach, built with concrete on sand, the layout of plots is un-gridded. Unlike the meticulous division of paddy fields and farmed plots, the edge of each mausoleum randomly butts up against the next, without formal pathways. I am told that refugees exiled as ‘boat people’ in the 1970’s, no longer able to return, send money from western incomes to older family members who save for these grand memorials. The designs represent the faith, décor and architectural styles of their patrons. There are Buddhas, Confucian symbols and crosses. Some are themed in blue and white – willow pattern style. A Virgin Mary is nestled in an alcove. There is a Vatican shaped cupola. Dragons and bears guard doorways. While family gatherings to remember ancestors are an essential part of life in Vietnam, there are few signs of life as we scramble around endless memorials in the rain. It is definitely one of the most incredible places I have ever been, and it made me feel strangely uncomfortable and empty.