At almost precisely 12 noon yesterday the coffin carrying the body of 16 year old Nguyen Anh Tuan left our hem amid a great amount of noise from the accompanying band. I had been working away all morning in my office on the third level of our house and the sounds of singing and drums had been drifting up through the open windows all day. At 11am I heard the band begin to play and I decided that it was time for a break and some food, so I left the house and walked down the hem to where a huge throng of people were saying their last farewells to Tuan.
The hem was completely blocked with the band forming a semi circle in front of the highly decorated coffin and the lively music was very loud in this confined space. People were singing and clapping along and watching the antics of the bandmaster who is a real showman. At first he was balancing a stand holding flowers on his nose and dancing along to the beat, but that was not as spectacular as his next feat which was to balance a stack of plastic stools on his chin with a young boy sitting on top wearing the bandmasters peaked cap. The balancing act was being done in a very small space with masses of electric wiring only a few centimetres from the young boys head. A very talented performance and one that the crowd enjoyed very much.
Several of my neighbours were sitting amidst this mayhem eating noodles and drinking the very potent Vietnamese rice whiskey and it was clear from the condition they were in that they had been drinking for some time. They noticed me standing and watching the proceedings and, as I expected, one of them got up and came over to offer me a shot glass full of this rocket fuel. At this stage I still had a very empty stomach, but I have never been one to refuse hospitality when it is thrust upon me, so I downed the clear spirit in one go and handed the shot glass back to my young neighbour who thanked me for drinking with them, then promptly turned aside and vomited into the storm water drain opening that was at our feet.
The noise and celebrations continued unabated until midday and I went to eat some rice and pork to soak up the alcohol which was sitting in my stomach like some odiferous being that reminds you of its presence by constantly returning to the surface through the esophageus. I was back at the house in time to watch the coffin disappear out into Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street followed by the crowd of people with the band still in full swing.
Our hem is quiet again now, last night you could have heard a pin drop. There were a few mourners still sitting where the coffin had been and several of them looked very worse for wear. One relative sat fast asleep slumped in a plastic chair while the traffic through the hem went around him.
Now those who were close to Tuan will have to deal with the reality of life without him, but I’m sure that the grieving process is able to be managed better here than in most Western countries where mourners are far more removed from the actuality of the death.