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A Soldier and a 96 year-old man

By Kent Converse

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the last two weeks I was in Vietnam, I was invited to visit two small villages. I don't turn down those invitations because they give you a more real impression of Vietnam. Most tourists are impressed with the hustle and bustle of the cities and the world class museums, world heritage sights and wonderful beaches. The real Vietnam is out in the country with the life in the Villages.

With all the growth in the cities, still about 80% of the people live in the country. It is also quiet there. The people are more authentic and very friendly. The best food I have ever eaten anywhere in the world has been prepared on an open fire, outside, in these small villages.

The first village Khanh Hong is about 100 KM southeast of Hanoi. It is about 21 KM west of Phat Diem, home of the famous cathedral. I was invited to go there with Loannie's family. Loannie first told me that Khanh Hong was the village of her Grandmother. Going there Loannie's Dad would stop and ask directions, got lost once, and I wondered why he didn't know how to get to his Mother's village.

I asked too many questions so Loannie finally said: “Okay Uncle Kent, I lied to you. We are not going to my Grandmother's village. This is hard for me to explain so I just tried to make it easily understandable.”

The real, true story was actually a beautiful story. I learned a custom of Vietnamese that actually is very remarkable. The real story was that Loannie's Dad had caused a young man's death. It involved an automobile accident, and I don't know who was at fault but a young man about 23 years old who was in the army lost his life. So, the custom as I understand it, is that the two families come together, meet and repeatedly observe a ceremony celebrating the young man.

The actual ceremony was solemn and respectful. Loannie's parents had brought candy, food, alcohol and a paper uniform made to look like the uniform the young soldier was wearing when he died.

We drove to the cemetery where the soldier grave was located. Loannie's Dad placed all the gifts on his tomb, then poured the alcohol on the presents and lit all the gifts on fire. They all bowed their heads and said silent prayers for the young soldier.

When we were at the ceremony at the grave of the young man we met a very interesting person. I forgot his name but he was 96 years old, and he was there to build his own tomb. He told us that he wanted a fancy tomb so his Grandchildren would come and visit him after he died. I put my arm around him, and he was not a frail man. He had tremendous shoulder muscles. I also noticed he still rides his bike.

Graves are a serious cultural event in Vietnam. The Jesuit Priest Alexandre de Rhodes who wrote about Vietnam over 350 years ago mentioned how much care and expense the Vietnamese give burying their loved ones. If they can afford the expense they will hire geomancers (thay die ly) who pick out the most auspicious grave site. The more money they have the more elaborate the tomb. It may be placed anywhere. It might be placed in the middle of the best rice paddy if it is determined to be the best place. Poorer people may be buried on the side of a road or some other uncultivated place.

The rest of the day's gathering was very happy and cheerful. With all the laughing, joking, they did seem like one big happy family. They all prepared a great meal that everyone enjoyed.

Two families drawn together by tragedy replacing hate with love.



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