Vietnamese still celebrate life

Through the death of a labourer Walter Pearson discovers that Vietnamese still celebrate life, even a wasted one.

His life was remarkably unremarkable. His death and funeral were something out of the ordinary. His name was Mind and he died at only 41 years old. He was also my Vietnamese wife’s first husband.
In the mid-1990s Binh Long was even more remote than it is today. My wife was 21 years old, Mind slightly older. Her mother decided it was time she married and planned their union with his mother. He had few prospects. She had no one she wanted to marry.
They moved into a tin shack on land his mother owned. She planted a vegetable garden and had two children. The couple worked as day labourers in the paddy fields, on the rubber plantations or on building sites. He worked when she found him work.
He drank rice whisky every day and they argued. The more they argued, the more he drank. He had a hearing impairment. The more he drank the deafer he became, the deafer he became the less interest he took in his family. They divorced after about a decade together.
My wife went back to her mother’s tin shack and set about selling lottery tickets. He stayed in their tin shack. He continued to drink and worked as a labourer when he needed money. Most nights he ate dinner with his mother. Then one morning at about 6am we were woken with news that Mind had died.
The local authorities had been building a culvert for a creek that runs across the road near our house. The culvert was about 2 metres deep. Upstream was a ford to drive across the creek. It dropped away sharply into the culvert. Early in the morning a friend drove over the ford and saw Mind’s bike and helmet at the bottom of the culvert.
He told Mind’s mother, who said he hadn’t come around for dinner the night before, but she hadn’t been surprised, because of the rain.
A local woman who had a leaf vegetable patch downstream from the culvert went out early in the morning to her patch. She went to the spot in the creek where she usually washed her vegetables. That’s when she saw Mind’s body on the bank.
It did not take long for the police to put together what had happened. The day before, Mind went to pick up his pay and then went to play cards with friends, which involved plenty of drinking. When lunchtime came, they went to have something to eat and drink. Late in the afternoon, Mind took his friend home and left to go back to his mother’s place.
This was the dry season, just before Tet. There was unseasonal heavy rain, causing the creek to flood. Mind tried to cross the ford, but the hard running water swept him and his bike down into the culvert where he hit his head and died on the spot. His body was taken downstream half a kilometre.
The police released his body quickly and early in the morning he was laid out on the concrete area used for drying crops in front of his mother’s home. Rigor mortis had set in and his arms and legs were twisted at odd angles. Fifty people from the village gathered to watch him being cleaned up and then taken into the house to be dressed.
At a time set by the Buddhist monk, he was placed in the coffin with green tea and it was sealed. Because Tet was so close he was buried very quickly, the monk setting a time late the following afternoon.
Mind’s teenage son and daughter, with whom he had had no contact after the split, dressed in the traditional white outfits and were chief mourners. They stayed through the night and next day to receive those paying their respects.
Mid-afternoon, the coffin was taken out and placed in a Ford Transit van hearse, and a procession of more than 300 people rode out to the cemetery where he was laid to rest.
My wife was surprised at the large turnout. She remarked, “He was a man who did nothing except drink. I guess he just did not offend anyone.”


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