Glitzy Vietnam cemetery offers bling for the dead

November 22, 2011 - 2:00 AM
Vietnam Bling Cemetery

In this Nov. 5, 2011 photo, a Vietnamese employee who works in Lac Hong Vien cemetery burns incense for a customer's online order at the cemetery in Ky Son district, Hoa Binh Province, Vietnam. The cemetery's online ancestor worship service is the first of its kind in Vietnam. Busy relatives can purchase graveside offerings for the dead, from flowers to boiled chickens to expensive cognac, by the mouse click. Cemetery staff bring the items to the tombs and send videos or photos of the display by email. (AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen)

KY SON Vietnam (AP) — This is where Vietnam's rising middle class is dying to flaunt its bling: a new cemetery with a golden entrance at the end of the "Highway to Eternity" where relatives can order graveside offerings of Hennessy online.

The Lac Hong Vien Cemetery is bringing in tomb shoppers by the busload through its Las Vegas-style marquee to choose from XL, state-of-the-art resting places for themselves and their dearly departed. Some 120,000 graves are scheduled to be built on terraced hillsides over the next four years.

"This land has good feng shui," said Bui Mai Phuong, a 53-year-old accountant for a state-owned company who surveyed the grounds during a recent bus tour for two dozen Hanoi residents. She was considering investing 500 million dong ($24,000) — or about half a lifetime's earnings for the average Vietnamese — for a 320 square foot (30 square meter) plot.

"We have to take care of our parents spiritually," Phuong said.

The grave yard's online ancester worship service is the first of its kind in Vietnam. Busy relatives can purchase afterlife gifts — from flowers to boiled chickens to expensive cognac — by the mouse click. Cemetery staff bring the items to the tombs and send videos or photos of the display by email.

The posh new grounds highlight some of the contrasts emerging across the predominantly Buddhist country. It's a place where ancient traditions meet a frenetic consumer culture stoked by one of Asia's fastest growing economies.

The clash is most sharply defined in the capital Hanoi and the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City, where even the status-crazed nouveau riche, who race out to buy flat-screen TVs and imported luxury cars, still mark time by the Vietnamese lunar calendar and burn incense for their ancestors at weathered alley pagodas.

But these contrasts also are seeping out into the countryside — once a sleepy land of rice fields and water buffaloes, but now increasingly the site of five-star resorts, industrial parks and golf clubs.

The 98-hectare cemetery, which sits about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Hanoi in northern Hoa Binh Province, hopes to cash in on the trend by selling upscale burial plots it claims will connote high status beyond the grave.

Vietnamese honor their ancestors by burning incense and placing offerings on graves and household shrines, including food, fake money, booze and smokes that are thought to provide spiritual sustenance in the afterlife. Tradition also dictates that families must visit loved ones' graves before death anniversaries and Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year.

The trendy cemetery's online service gives Vietnamese living elsewhere in the country or even overseas a way to participate in traditional rituals with a laptop and a MasterCard.

"This service is very convenient," said To Hoai Dung, 29, a Hanoi construction engineer who has ordered fruit, flowers, and homemade liquor online for his grandfather. "It cannot replace traditional worshipping, but it helps us to feel comfortable."

Death here doesn't come cheap. At 8 million dong ($400) per square meter, this burial land retails for nearly four times the going rate of housing property in nearby towns. One family spent 1.5 billion dong ($71,500) for a 200 square meter (2,000 square foot) plot, enough space to bury several generations with manicured grass ringed by orchids and white picket fences. In addition, tombstones sell for up to 1 billion dong (US$48,000).

Despite its flashy website, the cemetery is still a work in progress that's anything but peaceful. It resembles a dusty strip mine with dump trucks rattling down the newly paved "Highway to Eternity" as jackhammers pummel the bare, terraced hillsides.

Tran Tuan Anh, deputy manager of the private company running the grave yard, says about 10,000 sites have already been reserved. But so far only 30 bodies have been buried, with a mere handful of relatives using the online ancestor worship service.

The drag-and-drop convenience may appeal most to Vietnam's tech savvy youth.

More than half of the country's 87 million people were born after the Vietnam War ended in 1975 and more than one in four Vietnamese, roughly double the average rate for countries across Asia, use the Internet, according to the United Nations. Legions of young people across the nation spend afternoons playing computer games in dingy online gaming parlors.

Phuong, whose parents are pushing 90, said she understands how online ancestor worship may appeal to twentysomethings. "The best thing would be for our children to visit our graves," she said. "But if they're too busy, we have to accept that."

But Finance Ministry worker Nguyen Le Hoa, 38, who also joined the recent tomb-shopping tour, said using the Internet to virtually lay offerings at ancestors' graves may work for some, but definitely not for those who believe tradition still trumps modernity.

"In my family?" said Hoa. "That would not be okay."