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An opulent phoenix soars through the heat while a diligent caretaker gently rinses sand from its mosaic talons. Acre upon acre of screaming dragons skirmish for superiority as gilded crosses and Buddhist swastikas tower into the afternoon sky. Beverly Hills for the dead. A bright red Ferrari for your favorite grandfather. These are the mansions of those taken from us. This is Vietnam’s City of Gods.
Just outside the ancient capital of Hue, a sweltering sandbar capped by dry shrubs and the occasional hardy pine encloses one of southeast Asia’s largest lagoons. A narrow concrete path runs for kilometers, bisecting the spit of land and offering off-the-beaten-path travelers a peek into one of Vietnam’s newest, most extravagant traditions — palaces for the dead.
In the mid 1990s, this centuries old cemetery began to transform into the vibrant field of mosaics it is today. Aided by wealthy brothers, sisters, and cousins overseas, the families of the deceased started spending thousands to ensure the final resting places of those they love were anything but modest. Over time, this evolved into a competition of sorts. A race to see who could build the most absurdly extravagant tombs.
Anything goes and creativity reigns supreme. From traditional Vietnamese to ancient Roman, Buddhist or Confucian, this bizarre stretch of sand is glazed in plaster and tile by a vast assortment of styles and themes. Brilliant colors wash endlessly across the barren land. Ornate carvings and decorative beasts, both real and imagined, jostle for space.
As the economy booms, many Vietnamese have been pulled from the depths of poverty, yet few have become truly wealthy. Nevertheless, these families and their far off relatives have decided that the dead deserve the spoils more than the living. Some families spend a few thousand improving their burial plots, others spend exorbitantly — up to US$70,000. Despite efforts to persuade the locals to limit spending, the tombs keep on growing. After all, the taller the pillars, the better the view in the afterlife.
Still breathing? That’s OK, because there’s no better time to get started than the present. Oddly enough, some of the families in this region have started building elaborate tombs for those still kicking and screaming. They may not know precisely which style of dragon the dead want, but they certainly know which one they prefer.