Life and Death: The Vietnamese Way

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Asians, especially Vietnamese, are very peculiar about the notions and perspectives surrounding death.  For example, I was shocked to discover that Americans and perhaps, most citizens of the Western world do not photograph funerals or wakes.  It never occurred to me that this might be considered odd or at the very least, morbid until a friend was completely shocked when I showed him pictures of my grandmother’s funeral.

Why would you take pictures at a funeral? he asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

Why would you not? I indignantly retorted back.

I’ll have to admit, weddings, funerals or any large get-togethers give my family an opportunity to use our cameras.  Constant picture taking has strengthened our index finger to the point that it is second nature for us to press down on any shiny metallic button.  In fact, our picture-taking reflex is almost autonomical like blinking or breathing.

Growing up, my family used to receive pictures from funeral services of relatives in Vietnam.  The pictures were usually the same: black and white photos of relatives standing over graves or caskets looking grim and sullen.  On occasion, the accompanied letter would sometimes describe grief stricken family members trying to crawl in the casket of the deceased.  Whenever we got those letters, it would always spark a debate among the children as who in the family would be the casket crawler. Somehow I was always chosen being that I have a flair for the dramatics.

When my family got these funeral photos, we didn’t flinch or wince.  To us, morosely, it was like receiving a postcard but instead of saying, Wish you were here, ours would say, Wish your uncle was alive or Wish your cousin was here to enjoy this.

Vietnam is not only physically on the opposite side of the world from America, it’s also its philosophical opposite.  Most funeral services in America consist of mourners wearing black attire.  Men dressed in black suits and dark ties, women in black dresses and the occasional black veil.  Traditional Vietnamese funerals are contrastingly different.  If you ever walked in on one, you would probably stop dead in your tracks (no pun intended).

The most striking contrast is that Vietnamese mourners do not wear black: we wear white.  Well, I should clarify: the immediate family of the deceased wears white.  While Americans traditionally view white with weddings, Vietnamese associate white with funerals.  Red is the color of choice for weddings as it represents prosperity and luck, while white represents loss and a passing of life.  The color white symbolically represents the ashes of the deceased.  Since most Asians are cremated, it’s more appropriate for funerals than black.

When you attend a Vietnamese funeral, you’ll notice the deceased’s immediate family is sitting or kneeling in close proximity to the casket.  However, it is not the close distance that immediately draws your eyes but the traditional mourning regalia: white robes, pants and pointed hoods.

The outfit consists of white pants that billow out like over-sized pajama pants, a white wrap-around tunic that makes anybody who wears it a Samurai double and last, but not least, a white, pointed hood.  The hood is simple in design, two pieces of white cloth sewn together to form a pointed end, long enough to cover the neck but exposed in the front to show the mourner’s face.

Unfortunately, when I mention white, pointed hoods, it conjures images of the Klu Klux Klan.  However, the biggest difference is that Vietnamese are not ashamed to show our faces. Amazing how iconic a white hood is in American society that it immediately evokes feelings of hatred and animosity.  Asians view a white hood as sorrow and loss.  I guess, by the same token, Americans probably feel the same.

To Americans, talking about death is taboo but to my family, it’s connecting a duality.  Death is just as much a part of life as is the reverse, a delicate interwoven tapestry.  There is a balance as fine as a silk thread that has long been revered by us.  When we take pictures of funerals or wakes, it’s not to be macabre but more like a quiet reverence.  The pictures show the deceased was just as important in death as when they were alive.  When we are older and our memories begin to fail, we are comforted knowing that we have our pictures to show us the full panoramic view of our loved one’s life.

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45 Comments

  • i enjoyed the read. it amazes me (through culture) how much we have in common.

  • Humanity is the tie that binds all of us.

  • Des Sloman wrote:

    I stumbled across your website in searching for confirmation that Vietnamese mourners wear white, and found I’d struck a small treasure of writing.

    The “Vietnam Experience” (the war & its aftermath) seems to have been a rich source of literature. (Andrew Pham, Le Ly Hayslip, Duong Thu Huong, to mention a few.)

    Impressed with your stories from “the war” and hope you are working on a novel. The novel allows that slow submergence into a depth of experience you can never really achieve with a short story. There’s got to be a novel in the village where your grandfather, mother & uncle struggled for their survival.

    Perseverence!

    Vietnamese are good at that, aren’t they? But I guess you are pretty much American. Best of both worlds, perhaps.

    Cheers
    Des Sloman
    (Australia)

  • Thanks Des for the comment. I am currently working on my memoir – a different take though from the traditional Vietnamese experience – a little more tongue and cheek. Not to say that my family’s experiences are trivial, but I find humor more appealing than sorrow. Hmmm – as your comment about being American…it’s that never ending question – Americanized Vietnamese or Vietnamese American.

  • Ly I am married to a Vietnamese woman whose Father has passed. When she showed me hood to wear for upcoming funeral I said maybe I not wear, I’ll sit in back. She said maybe I not go. That upset me. I feel that is for Vietnamese to wear not me. I’d feel very awkward to wear that. Your thoughts please

  • Without not much background information, I can only try and explain this from a Vietnamese point of view. Traditions, customs and rituals are intrinsically intertwined in the life of a Vietnamese person. It’s often very difficult to separate the two. So when you say “maybe you not wear the hood,” it sends a message that you have not completely embraced Vietnamese culture, thereby, not embracing her. I get that there are some Vietnamese traditions that are uncomfortable, but in this case, funerals represent the last act of love, obedience and honor a child can give to his/her parents. This is her last chance to show her devotion. In all honesty, I rarely see a Western person wear the traditional mourning outfit, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t. Yes, you shouldn’t do something that makes you feel awkward, because the sentiments and emotions during this ceremony should be sincere. But just remember, if you feel uncomfortable, imagine how she feels when family members ask why you are not there or that you are not participating in the ceremony. If this was a Western funeral and the family asked you to be a pall bearer, would you decline? Funerals are the times where we are present for our loved ones…this shouldn’t be any different. I think that the question should be why do you feel awkward wearing the hood and maybe have an open discussion with your wife to understand why it’s important to her, then maybe you both can come up with an agreeable compromise.

  • Joseph Nguyen wrote:

    My parents just came back from a trip to Vietnam and we watched the funeral of my uncle who had recently passed. My future sister-in-law (who is White) sat and watched with us and was curious to know about all of the traditional customs of a Vietnamese funeral. When she asked about why the family members were wearing white robes and white headbands, we directed her to your post here. I had run across it in the past when trying to help explain our customs to other friends of mine and just wanted to thank you for a well-written and enlightening post. Thankfully, most of my friends (and future sister-in-law) who have inquired about this, are asking because they genuinely want to know more about our customs and this was a very helpful resource for them.

  • Ly Nguyen wrote:

    Joseph – thanks so much for your response. I hope your sis-in-law was able to glean some insight into our wonderful culture!

  • Elle Nguyen wrote:

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this!

  • Thank you so much for reading!

  • Wonderful–and so helpful–thank you! I, too, “stumbled across” this page. I was looking for a way to honor my neighbor, and her son, who was killed by a drunk driver 2 years ago. He was 27.

    The information you provided here is fascinating, insightful, and well-wrirren. I really appreciate the care taken in sharing the customs, and meanings behind them, of your Vietnamese heritage. (I look forward to reading your other stories. 🙂

    I couldn’t attend all of the get-together at my neighbor’s home, but it was wonderful. Her relatives came; and they were surprised by the number of his friends, and their families, that were there. He was truly beloved by so many (I wish I had known him). It seemed, at once, to be a remembrance and celebration (which seem in keeping with the customs described here).

    There was a service in her home, with prayer, and melodious responses to the [M?c s?? Gi?ng ??o? Tôn tro?ng?], it was beautiful! (even though the only word I knew was “Amen” :-/) The service was followed by a dinner for all who came.

    Do you have a post about Vietnamese customs regarding anniversary celebrations for those who have passed? I’d like to know more about them; and if there is a token gift, or other gesture, I can share with my neighbor to show my compassion for her loss? (or would that be opposite to your culture?)

    Thank you, again, for your wonderful explanation. 🙂

    Grace

  • Grace – thanks so much for reading! I’ll be posting some stories soon!

  • Thank you for writing about Vietnamese funerals. I just attended my first and did notice the white, especially shirts. There was a young woman in a white pointy hood very close to the open casket. There were Buddhist monks chanting. The ceremony was very peaceful and calming. People looked sad but only a few tears. I googled Vietnamese funeral and white pointy hood to find your lovely article. I feel I learned a lot today about Vietnamese Buddhist culture. I knew the man who passed away from Toastmasters. He was only 42 years old, but he had a wife and a 5-month-old son. I’m sure they were a real blessing to him during his final days. I heard he had cancer. Your sharing has expanded my borders. Bless you for sharing.

  • Jasman Evans wrote:

    I attended my friend/co-workers funeral today. She was also Vietnamese. I am African-American by the way. The service was the most beautiful funeral I’ve ever saw. This being my first time attending a funeral of a different background. I was so curious, and eager to know about everything I saw today!! Thanks for posting this, I now have a clear understanding. It’s amazing, what you can learn when being apart of an event, of a different culture. May God bless you all. RIP Tiffany Chu

  • Stephen Johnson wrote:

    Like others, I found this page after attending the funeral of a grandparent of a colleague. In my case, I googled “white headband mourning” as that was the most striking image I retained. Thank you for sharing your information. I was glad to be able to share the mourning process with my colleague and her family, especially because she shared my family’s mourning of the death of my mother just a few weeks previously.

  • Most of Asia and Vietnam have similar beliefs when it comes to death and funerals. The same way different culuture have their wedding ceremonies and rites they also have different funeral rites. This beliefs are quite similar across Asia.

  • Pam Ph?m-Barron wrote:

    Thank you so much for your wonderful article. I was looking to find an explanation of why the white hood is uneven on the back. When I asked the elders at my gradmother’s funeral they just said it was tradition. Do you know the significant meaning for that?
    Thanks.

  • So your question intrigued me because honestly I never noticed the uneven cuts. I did ask my mother and she said the uneven cuts can sometimes indicate where you rank in the family. In Vietnamese culture, ranking is very important. How you are greeted by family members, what your responsibilities are, and what you wear during traditional Vietnamese ceremonies are heavily influenced by your ranking in your family. While this is not a definitive answer, the uneven cuts could reflect this long-standing Vietnamese viewpoint.

  • Ngoc L. wrote:

    Thank you for posting. My mother just passed away. I am Viet-American, who was Americanized. I don’t know much about Vietnamese-Chinese death and mourning customs. The death was sudden but we knew it was coming since she had cancer. We were at a loss for what exactly to do. My father and mother’s brother knew a little bit about some of the customs that we needed to do. We were at her bedside until she took her final breath. We bathed her and dressed her so she would be warm in the afterlife. This and other preparations for the end of the 3 day mourning were extremely helpful for me to feel like I was doing something for her. From putting makeup on her, to preparing the death money for burning, these little things added up to being able to grieve her passing and reminisce about her life.

    As you said, every funeral may be different because each person has different dying wishes. My mother only wanted close family and not much fuss over the memorial. She thought of my brothers and I till the end because she knew we were Americanized and knew little regarding the customs. She didn’t want us burdened with figuring it all out and having to tell her friends that she had passed away because her death would be the first death that we would witness and grieve.

    I never thought about death and the grieving process until now. Each culture is different but one thing does remain the same, people are human who connect to each other in life and through death.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience. My first time attending a Vietnamese funeral was a combination of fascination and sorrow. In the end, my takeaway was that the ones we lost were honored and remembered.

  • Teacher Kerry wrote:

    Thank you for your post. Like many of the others leaving comments, I am a non-Vietnamese looking for some information. One of my students and my friend just had a death in her family. The funeral will be in a few days, and I am hoping to learn appropriate ways to show my support.

  • I went to a Vietnamese wake today; Easter Sunday. The family wore black, and white headbands, but no hoods. The service itself was beautiful. It was my first wake for a person of a different culture, and how interesting it was. They had a photographer taking pictures, family members played piano, there was food and drink. It was a 10 hour long day, from 10 am to 8pm. I am glad I went and was able to be a part of the experience. Just wonderful, though somber.

  • I’m glad you got to experience this. It it truly something to witness.

  • Thank you for the post. However I am a little lost as to what is the role of friends of the deceased as opposed to friends of the family. A sudden tragic death of a young work colleague of my daughter has us devastated and struggling with the suddeness of this loss. He lived in a different town to his family and he and his belongings have been collected and returned to the home town of his family.

    We are not sure if we will even be asked to attend but are awaiting details of when his funeral will be but it seems a funeral is an event that covers several days.

    The question I have is, what is expected of friends outside the vietnames community and outside his family. Given we are not known to his family.. Is it appropriate to visit the family prior to the funeral. Is the ‘main event’, which guess is the procession, for family only. What is the dress code for friends and do we bring a gift for the family, or for the deceased. Is it appropriate to bring food and if so what? flowers or money (real or fake).

    Help please. We dont know what to do and do not want to be disrepectful.

  • First let me say, I’m sorry for your lost. Vietnamese funerals are heavily focused on the family, reason why there are ceremonial attire to draw attention to the deceased one’s closest family members. You are right in that the funeral process does take several days. Depending on your colleague’s religion, people might meet at his/her house to pray. In my family, we held several prayer sessions prior to the funeral. I would not recommend attending these events because the prayers will probably be in Vietnamese and the family would have to attend to your presence, rather than focusing on the prayers. If you don’t have information about the funeral arrangement, it’s acceptable to visit the family and share your condolences prior to the funeral. I wouldn’t bring a large group; one or two people to represent everyone is sufficient. Don’t send money. If you can make the funeral, do so. Your presence will convey more sincerity than flowers would ever do. In Vietnamese culture, gestures and acts carry a lot of weight. Hope this helps.

  • depends on which asian country you go too if the body is cremated or not. In japan tons of cremation a few burials though, China only until recently were dead bodies cremated the traditional way is burial. Koreans do cremation though.

  • When my uncle died, my family still carried on with the burial rituals even though he was cremated. His body was displayed during the funeral and we were able to honor him by conducting the funeral rituals. So in the end, it didn’t matter if he was buried or if he was cremated, the fact that we were still able to mourn his passing in a traditional manner was something we knew he wanted.

  • […] passing. She is Vietnamese and asked how many days we would keep vigil? Apparently, her custom is for three days of remembrance unless the person died on a good day. Then one day will suffice. […]

  • There is a three day mourning period and as for the “good day,” this is following Buddhist beliefs. For the most part, memorial services are held at different times of the year. In my family, we held memorial service after a month, then 49 days and then after 100 days. We also wore black cloths on our clothing for a year to show that we are still in mourning.

  • We will be placing gold and tea in her mouth, for prosperity in next life.

  • I’m sorry for your loss. Nam Mo A Di Phat is a very common Buddhist chant. You’re right in that it is very calming and allows you to focus on the now. Would love to read your account once you’ve written it.

  • Thanks for your words, esp about children’s final act of devotion. She was born near Tri Tôn, An Giang, that was Cambodia at the time. I’ve studied Buddhism, I’m pretty sure there’s a mixture of customs happening. I was told crying in her presence was not good, my biggest challenge. After my first wave of grief, chanting helped.

    I was bracing for a tough stay when my wife went to hold Ba Ngoai’s hand, and it was smacked away, no contact so close to death. I promptly screamed Ba Ngoai!!..as always, she can’t hear well..that got me several VN tsk..tsk mouth clicks. 🙂

    I’m a little uncomfortable being attended to so much. The custom here is to cook for visiting guests. The ladies served rice porridge with pork floss yesterday. Today, everything is vegetarian, as you’d expect.

    Today, it’s easier. Despite the ongoing vigil, kids are playing, ladies are cooking, gossiping, and joking how her son (my c?u thu) can’t keep up with the chants! 😉 So, it’s a normal day in the Mekong, just the way Ba Ngoai will remember it.

  • Chào b?n,
    After 3 days of keeping vigil, Bà Ngo?i is still holding on to life. We have returned to TPHCM, due to other committments. I fully expect to be returning within the week, but am keeping my thoughts to myself. It was an extraordinary experience. I was asked to assist in the nonstop chanting/praying, as it had been going on for 4 days by her sons daughters. It was an honor to be included. I am having a difficult time figuring out exactly what’s happening next. The funeral will be at home, on the family plot, in a small place called Ap Nh?n M?. My guess is they practice Hòa H?o. If you can provide any insight, I would be grateful.

  • Usually, the deceased is brought home and there will be more praying. There will be a funeral procession to the burial plot and a final funeral ceremony should be performed. From there, it’s expected that the family will visit the grave site and make offerings.

  • This was well written. Your candidness and keen observations about perceptions, what items symbolize, and how each culture demonstrates respect and sorrow were very helpful. One question is does one present something to the family when you attend? Is it exspected? Is it appropriate to give say a card, flowers, food?

  • Most of the time, your presence at the funeral is enough to convey your respect. Food, cards and flowers are not necessary. If you feel inclined to bring something, I would wait until maybe after a week or so to check in on the family. At that time, you can bring something like food, flowers or a card, but just know, the gesture of you being at the funeral is more than enough to show your support.

  • Tra Nguyen wrote:

    Eloquently captivating… You made my heart smile and my soul grin. Please don’t ever stop writing.

  • Thank you for your kind words.

  • Hi, a work friend’s mother just passed. As a group, we want to do something in remembrance of his mother. You mentioned that attending is best. The funeral will be held in another city. What can we do? Do we send flowers are better yet something that is more traditional to the Vietnamese culture. I am native American, so I do know that tradition is important. Thank you.

  • First, I’m sorry for your friend’s lost. Your friend is very lucky to have such supportive friends. To answer your questions, flowers are a thoughtful gesture, but your money can best be spent in other ways. In Vietnamese culture, the afterlife is very important and honoring the dead is very important. One thoughtful gesture is to help your friend build or purchase a small shrine in honor of his/her mother. Throughout Vietnam, when you visit families, very often, you’ll see small memorial shrines of lost ones. It can be as simple as a photograph or something more ornate like a wooden shrine. Usually, family members will light incense with the hope that the smoke will carry their prayers or wishes to their loved ones. In my family, we had a shelf with photographs of lost ones and each week, we would honor them with fresh flowers. In the end, any gesture you and your friends do will be greatly appreciated.

  • I am a student nurse doing an essay on culture in the health care system. I had to make up a case study and chose a Vietnamese non English speaking person admitted to hospital, i came across your writings and it helped me to understand about there religion,customs etc, realy interesting if i ever get the chance to travel to Vietnam i will have a heads up on do’s and dont’s. thanks

  • I’m so glad this could help!

  • Very interesting indeed. I’m currently with wife and Ba Ngoai near Long Xuyen, in waiting, at family home and helping chant Nam Mo a Di Phat. It is very calming, but many of the village neighbors have come by, and almost been non-chalant. I’m chronicling the event, she is a remarkable lady. It’s not the time to write more, but there are many customs I’ve never heard of. Thanks for your insightful writing.

  • Ap Nhon My

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