Walking with the Dead

The streets of Đà Nẵng are burning. Men and women crouch over metal drums, feeding brightly colored paper to the flames. In each case, a nearby table sits laden with offerings: a beautiful meal, loose cigarettes, money, and flowers. The arrangements are bright and cheerful, but haunting. They are not meant for this world. Erin and I have just stepped out for dinner, into an unexpected apocalypse. Every third or fourth building has a fire outside, fed by quiet, grim-faced locals. The air is thick with ash and smoke. We're new to Vietnam--we have no idea what's happening, or why. Everyone is silent, purposeful. And for the first time, we are ignored. No one is shouting "Hello!" or waiving us into their shops. This last part is the most unsettling.

Unwittingly, we have wandered into a city-wide offering to the dead. We learn this later, through an English speaking local. On the first and fourteenth days of each lunar month, Vietnamese families of the Buddhist persuasion put up tables full of food and luxuries for the hungry departed. Then they set up a fire and burn Joss Paper and Hell Money. As embers dance on the evening air, they commune with the other world, making silent prayers for good fortune. Later, after the spirits have been satisfied, they will share the offerings of food and cigarettes, a meeting of the dead and the living.

It's a beautiful ceremony, but unsettling to the ignorant foreigner. Earlier in the day, we'd wandered a market full of vendors selling fake money. We thought it had been a strange tourist gimmick. Now we understood the context.


In the streets, we pass a table set with a sweet rice dessert. There are four spoons, but only a single woman beside it. She looks up at me, then quickly away. I have the strangest sense that I've interrupted someone's conversation - I'm surrounded by a silence that is waiting for me to leave.

A little further, we see a man feeding money to a crackling fire. Behind him, a woman carefully arranges flowers on an offering table. They have spent the last few minutes ignoring each other, but her expression has that quiet intensity of one who is listening.

The sidewalks are nearly empty aside from the celebrants, but I feel like I'm walking in a crowd anyway. Here and there I can see evidence of earlier offerings: piles of ash decorated with incense sticks, bits of paper, and cigarettes. I grab Erin's arm, stopping her from stepping in one. She gives a silent thank you and we move on.

We reach the restaurant a half-hour later. The interior is garish after orange-lit Đà Nẵng. We stare out the window as the evening deepens. Across the way, a young man is carefully sifting the dying embers in a small drum, watching sparks drift up toward the stars. His face is rapturous. I cannot help but wonder what he sees.

We eat and head home. The streets are quieter now, but I still have that sense that we are walking in a crowd. I do not feel welcome, exactly, but I do not feel unwelcome either. It's like being a stranger at a family gathering. Everyone's wondering who you are, where you're from, and why you look so darn weird. It's a sensation I've gotten used to in our time in Southeast Asia.

I just never expected to get it from the dead.