As public cemeteries close, many Vietnamese find themselves faced with an unsavory choice: go big or go dust.
On a Saturday morning in July, Bui steered his Toyota Yaris into the Thien Duc Vinh Hang Vien Cemetery just 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Hanoi.
The 56-year-old tea trader gave his name at the guard gate and entered a roundabout ringed with 30-foot white stone columns emblazoned with giant Buddhist crosses. Minh, a saleswoman dressed in T-shirt and skinny jeans, stood waiting for him in the shade of a thatched hut that served as a dining room.
At 11 a.m., the pair sat down to a simple lunch of steamed chicken and fried spinach at one of the six wooden tables inside the hut. At the empty tables around them, the same meal sat cold under plastic wrap awaiting customers.
After his two-hours on the road, Bui ate hungrily while Minh apologized for having sold a plot he’d viewed during his last visit. Businessmen from as far away as Saigon have already snatched up a third of the 90-hectare cemetery, which opened in 2011.
“We’re opening plots on a new hill that go from $350-$520 per square meter,” she said before launching into a smiling sales pitch.
For between $10,500 and $15,600, Bui could inter six members of his family on 30 square meters of prime land. (Vietnam’s average annual income was around $2,200 last year.)
For the past year, Bui had spent most of his free time trying to find a future resting place for his 94-year-old mother. He’d visited at least three private cemeteries around Hanoi, considered a public plot in his hometown and another in her hometown.
None of these options suit his budget or his overwhelming wish: to visit his mother’s grave regularly after she passes away.
Both public burial grounds are over 200 kilometers from Hanoi, where he now lives.
After lunch, Minh and Bui hopped into an electric cart and weaved along a paved road lined with flower-beds. They passed giant statues of the Buddha in various postures and neatly trimmed gardens.
Bui recalled his mother’s face bursting into giggles when he showed her the pictures of the cemetery. Her eyes shone wide with joy.
“I could move my father’s tomb here if I buy this for mom,” he said, considering all the angles.
In the end, Bui headed back to Hanoi without putting money down on a plot.
He’d have to think about it.
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Nguyen Manh Tuyen, 52, grew up on the outskirts of one of Hanoi’s oldest and most-polluted cemeteries, Van Dien.
Today, he owns a mansion outside the capital and serves as chairman of Lac Hong Vien – the first major private cemetery to open in Vietnam’s North.
Over tea in his domed two-story office on the edge of the cemetery, Tuyen declined to reveal the source of his wealth.
Dressed in a black vest and trim beard, he slowly explained a world tour that inspired him to launching his project in 2008.
“The first place I stopped in every town I visited was the graveyard,” he said.
Tuyen came home believing that no one valued their dead like the Vietnamese.
“We don’t think it matters where we live in life; the grave is our eternal home.” he said. “That’s why Vietnamese are so concerned about their final resting place.”
Business only started taking off in 2014, as public cemeteries began to fill up. Tuyen’s customers now pay a minimum of $3300 for a 15-square-meter plot that they’ll hold for the ‘extended period’ described in Vietnam’s land laws.
High-altitude plots that appeal to adherents of feng shui cost as much as $4,600.
The construction and maintenance costs of large family shrines can become astronomical.
Tuyen says that Lac Hong Vien’s most expensive burial site sold for $350,000.
The 800-square-meter (8,611-square-foot) gravesite presently includes tomb surrounded by stone benches, a perfectly mowed lawn and a sign that warns visitors to doff their sandals before approaching.
The $350,000 grave. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang
For the same money, one could buy roughly 15 plots at Highgate, which The Guardian recently described as the UK’s most expensive cemetery.
“Our most expensive plots sold the quickest,” Tuyen said proudly. “And those prices climbed even higher as people flipped them.”
Like the garish mansions now filling Vietnam’s wealthier neighborhoods, Lac Hong Vien now contains shrines cut from expensive marble and quartz. The wealthier denizens all try to outdo one another in gazebos and flower beds.
“We had to set certain regulations on tomb height and size,” Tuyen told VnExpress International, adding that when it comes to outdoing one’s neighbor in Vietnam—the sky’s the limit.
Slideshow: Family plots at Lac Hong Vien Cemetery, where management has had to set restrictions on tomb height and width. The higher the plot, the bigger the size and the more expensive the price. For every 100 square meter, a family could place up to 15 tombs. Photos by VnExpress/Quynh Trang and courtesy of Lac Hong Vien.
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After retiring as the director of Hanoi’s Municipal Department of Architecture and Planning, Dao Ngoc Nghiem continued to follow the city’s astonishing growth.
Nghiem remained particularly fascinated with what the 1,000-year-old city would do with all its dead.
Sitting in his home, the silver-haired vice president of the city’s Urban Planning & Development Association confirmed that burial has always been an important part of the country’s spiritual traditions.
“We say ‘trần sao âm vậy’ (as above, so below)’.” Nghiem explained. “Graves offer the living an opportunity to pay tribute to the dead.”
Cemeteries used to sit far from the center of village life often in berms separating communal rice paddies. Many farmers in the South continue to bury their dead in their orchards or front yards. In the North, where land plots are drawn closer together, this proves less tenable.
As Hanoi flooded with rural migrants, grand buildings and busy streets began to swallow old graves and cemeteries.
For decades, those living outside cemeteries complained of polluted water, vengeful spirits and the din of Hanoi’s funeral processions. When city officials announced plans to close six major public cemeteries in 2014, the surrounding neighborhoods rejoiced.
For everyone else, the decision sounded a starting gun on a race to secure a spot for their dead.
The maze of tombs at Quan Den cemetery in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan District. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang.
Thanh Xuan District’s Quan Den cemetery remains of the few municipal cemeteries open to traditional burials and competition is rough.
The cemetery’s manager said that since early 2017, the maze of 5,000 graves has swallowed the graveyard’s narrow walkway in places. The half kilometer expansion has nearly sold its last open grave.
Families registered with the district can reserve a $550 plot here; outsiders remain strictly forbidden. The cemetery has also outlawed the sale of plots, which once allowed anyone with connections and the patience for paperwork to buy a plot at four or five times the original price.
Low-income and middle-class Vietnamese couldn’t afford shrines in the past and still can’t today.
As traditional burial increasingly seems like a luxury for city-dwellers, many Hanoians have warmed to cremation or ‘ash burials’ in which bereaved families build traditional graves for their loved ones’ ashes.
A sales official at Van Dien, one of the oldest cemeteries in Hanoi, told VnExpress International it costs $170-$260 a year to store an urn there and $1400-$1900 to hold an ash burial.
Families who have held such ceremonies claimed they paid another $700 for the cremation and ritual fees, making this simple compromise far beyond the average annual income of the average citizen, which was only $2,200 last year.
The cheapest option of last resort, which the government strongly opposes, involves burying loved ones on suburban farms or wasteland.
As soon as one leaves the cities, such graveyards appear in every direction.
Demand for burial space is about to grow, significantly.
In 2015, Euromonitor, a market research provider, predicted that deaths in Vietnam would rise from 545,900 to 715,000 a year by 2030.
Years before that, officials in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City started offering a $132 subsidy to encourage cremation—effectively covering half the cost of the service. The program sought to raise cremation rates to 30 percent by 2020 in cities and 5 percent for rural areas.
“The cremation rate in Hanoi is currently only about 10 percent,” said Nghiem of the Hanoi Urban Planning & Development Association. “We don’t expect it to increase until the dead start to take space away from the living.”
Government projections show that Vietnam has around 100,000 hectares of cemetery—a mere 0.3 percent of its total land resources. Hanoi alone will have to dig another 700 hectares of cemetery space to accommodate its dead.
Fear of groundwater pollution regularly sours concerned urbanites to any mention of a cemetery project. Meanwhile, suburban farmers have resisted efforts to seize agricultural land for both public and private burial grounds. In 2017, local media reported several instances in which disputes among the living scuttled efforts to create more room for the dead.
“It’s very hard for the city to move people and make way for new cemeteries.” Nghiem said. “No community wants them but they all need them.”
After a lifetime spent plotting cemeteries in Vietnam, Nghiem’s no fan of ostentation in the afterlife.
“We now see a very visible wealth gap in the livings and the dead.” he said.
The 98-hectare Lac Hong Vien cemetery could accommodate 120,000 bodies if each client opted for modest plots. But things aren’t going that way.
About 1000 wealthy bodies currently occupy roughly 30 percent area of the cemetery, which will soon erect a columbarium that could host up to 50,000 urns.
“Cremation is key and we need to change people’s mentality.” Nghiem stressed. “We should pave the way for cemeteries, while we figure out how to govern them so everyone has an affordable place to die.”
“The livings have found equality in low-income housing.” Nghiem said. “Isn’t it about time we started thinking about low-income cemeteries?”
*1 kilometer = 0.6 mile
1 hectare = 2.47 acre
1 meter = 3.28 feet
Story and photos by Quynh Trang
Chart by Ha Phuong