Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Discovering Vietnam

Vietnamese Ancestor Temple. Photo: Stan Shapiro.

Vietnamese ancestor temple. Photo: Stan Shapiro

Travel is so rich and deeply stimulating that sometimes a single day on the road feels more eventful than what we could experience during an entire month or year at home. If we race through our travels too quickly, however, we risk losing our ability to absorb all these new experiences. That’s why it’s so important to slow down sometimes, step out of the car or bus, and start strolling.

Our group did just that one morning by taking a walk through a farming village on the outskirts of Danang in central Vietnam.  It was a mild, sunny day and, as we walked past the well-tended vegetable patches and kitchen gardens full of herbs and flowers, the land seemed so fertile that you could almost see the new sprouts shooting up before your eyes.

For days, we’d been discussing many of the most important themes coursing through Vietnamese society—the role that religion plays in the family, the rhythms of agrarian life, the shifts of balance between rural traditions and the growing influence of the city. Now, though, walking on those narrow village paths, we could see how such themes actually play themselves out in daily life.

Over the past few days, for example, we’d talked a lot about Vietnamese spirituality. At temples and pagodas in other parts of the country, we had already seen the beauty of religious art and architecture. The crowds of worshippers leaving offerings at the altars of a Hanoi monastery had shown the popularity of Vietnamese Buddhism, which combines traditional Mahayana Buddhism with Confucianism and Daoism, strongly emphasizing ancestor worship. It was hard to understand the depth of that spirituality, however, until we took that walk through the village.

Not far from the main road, we came upon two buildings standing on a single plot of land. The bigger of the two structures was a house, old and fairly run-down, but still inhabitable. On the other side of the plot sat another building, tiny but new, with a fresh coat of paint, pretty tiles on its roof, and two large pots of bright yellow chrysanthemums on either side of the entry. Looking in through the open doors, we saw that this building had been constructed as a family temple. It had a large ornate altar at its center, in front of which had been placed a wide array of offerings: pyramids of fruit, vases of flowers, “fake money” for the ancestors to use in the next world. Here, clearly, was the nicest spot on the property, not only a place to pay tribute to the ancestors, but also a lovely structure for the living members of the family to enjoy as well.

Saffron noodles drying in the sun. Photo: Stan Shapiro

Saffron noodles drying in the sun. Photo: Stan Shapiro

Farther down the road, at another home, a family was busy preparing to commemorate the death anniversary of an ancestor. Seeing our group approach on the lane, they quickly invited us into their courtyard, offered us tea, and explained that they were honoring a ba (a grandmother) who had passed away. The lunch party was a way to remember her and also bring the extended family together for a festive meal. Would we like to stay for lunch as well?

Unfortunately, we had to continue on our walk through the village (a home-based noodle-making enterprise was just up the road!), but the moments that we shared with the family as they prepared for their commemoration gave us a clear sense of the powerful connection that Vietnamese feel with those whom they regarded as having travelled to the world beyond. By taking one simple walk through a village, we gained a deeper understanding of one of the most important factors in contemporary Vietnamese life: the central obligation of the living, we saw firsthand, lay in the act of honoring the dead.

Learn more. Click here for more on Dana and traveling with her, click here for Dana's other blog posts, and click here to see upcoming tours to Vietnam.

What did you learn on your latest travels? Please share.