I was enjoying a lazy afternoon on the couch catching up on some reading. The previous two days had been particularly quiet due to the King's Day public holiday here in Vietnam. In my research, I discovered that King's Day is a tribute to the Hung Kings, a bunch of folks who founded Vietnam and who were also the first emperors. In certain areas there are ceremonial parades to mark the occasion.
During my reading I heard a motorcycle drive down my laneway (it would be an overstatement to call it a road) and someone slowly striking what sounded like a brass drum. There are so many different sounds floating in and out here that I have quickly managed to filter most of them to the background. This sound however stood out. I went to the door to see what was going on and a number of people were gathered in front of my gate looking down the laneway.
Some were in white costume, and others were holding colourful flags that seem to be of some significance. Instinctively I grabbed my camera from the bench and headed upstairs to the balcony for a slightly better aerial view of what was happening. By this stage there was a large gathering of people along the path that leads through the rice fields. My initial assumption was that it was a ceremony to mark Kings Day. I returned downstairs and decided to head out the gate to get a closer look.
Vietnamese people have very little concern for privacy or for people, particularly tourists, taking photos. They're very open to me walking onto construction sites, workshops and similar. The key is to show respect and interest in what they're doing, smile, nod and say hello in Vietnamese, "xin chào"! (pronounced sin-chow)
With this in mind I slung my little Fuji camera over my shoulder and joined the gathering of people at my gate. The locals were clearly surprised to see me appear from seemingly nowhere and then further surprised to realise I was the inhabitant of the large 2 storey house. I smiled and nodded and many of the people in the group, women and men, returned the gesture. The group were standing and waiting so I stood quietly among them and just observed. There was a smaller group of people wearing very thin linen dress and matching headbands who were gathered around a large, colourful and ornate wooden crate. At this moment I knew this was a funeral ceremony. There were no outward displays of emotion just quiet reflection.
For a moment I wondered if it was respectful to stand amongst the group with my camera, these people were mourning the death of a friend or family member and here I was, like a typical tourist, with a camera. I considered this for a few minutes, recalling various pieces of advice from the tutor's of my photojournalism class, and decided that as no-one seemed to have any problem with my presence and had actually made me feel accepted into their group that I would stay and create a photo documentary of the ceremony.
With a new found confidence I decided to walk through the group of waiting mourners and observe and take photos of the various people and ceremonial accoutrements and offerings. I was very open with what I was doing, holding my camera out in the open. As people could see what I was doing they smiled and gave me a quick nod. Further confirmation of acceptance. I spotted an older man in very colourful ceremonial dress and headwear, who I assumed held the role of priest.
I just had to get a few shots of him so I slowly moved in his direction and captured a few images of him in various poses of chain smoking.
After a long period of waiting the drumming began again and the group of people slowly started moving. The men in the white linen dress lifted up the colourful wooden crate, a western version of a hearse, in which I could just make out another long wooden box - a coffin. I walked slowly with the group, looking around to check that people were still comfortable with me being there. Indeed they looked more amused and confused that I was now part of the procession through the rice fields to the cemetery. I kept photographing as I walked and remained very aware of being respectful. We turned off the laneway and walked up the sandy path through the cemetery. Gravestones were placed in a very disorderly fashion, some diagonal, some parallel to the path. The priority was more about the best use of the remaining land, like most of Vietnam!
The procession stopped, and the men in white linen placed the hearse down on a bamboo mat that was put down over the path. Some women in the group sat down on the ground so I sat alongside them. More smiling and nodding continued to be exchanged. To pass the time, the women chatted and the men lit up cigarettes. Another woman moved through the crowd handing out styrofoam boxes of pork buns, or banh bao. The woman sitting next to me motioned to her to give me a box. I graciously declined the offer, concerned that someone actually connected to the funeral procession would miss out. Instead I was offered some water from her bottle which I accepted more as a gesture to thank her for thinking of me.
After a period of further waiting, everyone stood up and the men in white linen dress proceeded to lift up the ornate wooden hearse and lift the gold painted wooden coffin out from under it. I observed what was happening as I hesitated to take a photo