The mystery of the burning coffin

You certainly see some strange things when you live far from your homeland, but never have I been perplexed as I was as I stared at the half-burnt coffin that I stumbled upon recently on a walk through Binh Hung Hoa cemetery in Ho Chi Minh city.

Let me start by taking you back to the beginning…

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I was looking for the way to the newly-opened Aeon Mall in Google Maps when I noticed a large green area just down the road from the new shopping centre. When I Googled the Vietnamese name, I discovered it was the largest cemetery in Saigon. Not only that, but in an effort to make way for the development of some new upmarket highrise complexes, the graves were to be relocated to another location.

I couldn’t miss this! The chance to document with photographs a part of the city that would soon be gone. But there was a catch…

In my research, I found that the area was infamous for being a hotbed of crime. The rate of robberies was high in the area, and much of the city’s drug trade was based in the area. Now, this was old information, as the most up-to-date info was from 2012, but I was a little nervous about wandering around alone in the area.

The solution: get a bunch of other photography enthusiasts together to visit the cemetery as a group. While some accounts of crime can be exaggerated, I figured safety in numbers just in case was the way to go. So I made an event in the Facebook group Saigon Photowalks and got a few other people together to explore the site.

On the day, we met up and headed into the graveyard, which is truly a city for the dead, with some 70,000 graves in an area of about 60 hectares. Before long, we ran into this guy, who had a small home on the cemetery grounds.

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He had worked on the grounds for over 20 years before being allowed to build a home in the cemetery for himself. He told us that relocation of the graves had been put on hold indefinitely due to a lack of investors in the development projects the government was planning to encourage in the area. A couple of years ago the property market here took a dive and there are abandoned skeletons of half-finished towers all over Ho Chi Minh City, and it seems the development planned on the cemetery site was another victim.

The man had a dog that had just had puppies, and curiously, a chick from one of his hens had adopted the dog as its mother. Apparently it preferred to sleep with (actually ON) the dog than with its biological family.

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OK, I know this has nothing to do with the mysterious burning coffin. I’ll get to that soon enough, but first, here’s a few of the photos I took as we continued our photowalk through the cemetery grounds…

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One of the saddest parts of the cemetery was an area where the majority of the graves were babies and children.

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Some hadn’t even been given a name – just “baby”.

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This one was born on November 31st, 1979, and was gone just a week later. We also saw quite a few where the date of birth and death were the same day.

Lunchtime came in a flash, and the group disbanded. But not before I took a photo of Duncan taking a photo of Jacqui taking a picture of something.

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I felt we’d only scratched the surface of what the cemetery had, so I opted for a late lunch in favour of continuing deeper into the necropolis. I’d rather put up with a little hunger than go home without good shots. Plus, I could see the area had been cleaned up a lot since the dark days in its history, so I felt safe enough going on alone (although I did hold my camera extra tightly when bikes passed me on the dirt roads that ran through the cemetery).

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Before long, I chanced upon some guys hanging out playing cards.

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The presence of the camera made them suddenly feel self-conscious about sitting on someone’s grave to play, so they quickly relocated to another slab nearby.

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The guy to the left above tried to check my photos to see what kind of hand the other guys had. I have no idea the rules of their game, but I’m guessing the guy on the right has a pretty good hand!

I bid them farewell and kept exploring…

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I was surprised to see a guy grazing his cows on the cemetery grounds. Below, he’s moving one of them to another section of the cemetery.

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On the eastern edge of the cemetery were a couple of temples. One was under construction. As I looked up at the guys perched on the towering roof with no visible safety precautions, I thought about how safety inspectors would be all over them back in Australia, and I wondered if anyone ever fell. Honestly, I think we take safety too far back home, but this is the other extreme. I considered climbing up on the roof to shoot them properly, but decided against it – if I fell and didn’t die, my wife would kill me!

Pagoda workers

(The black spots you can see are dragonflies)

I opted instead of shooting safely on the ground and had to settle for the tiles they were using.

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While I was there, one of the workers asked if I could take his picture.

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And I snapped a couple of guys playing chess on my way out of the temple.

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By this time I was satisfied I had a couple of nice photos from the day, so I walked back through the cemetery toward my scooter. And that’s when I saw it…

In a huge crater I’d walked past earlier in the day lay a coffin. It looked as though it had been dumped there and someone had tried to burn it.

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It had started to rain, but I had to check it out more closely.

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I’m truly the curious type, so I tried to see if I could open the coffin to see if there was a corpse inside or not, but I couldn’t actually find a place to open the coffin. It seemed to not have a typical lid, as I couldn’t even find a seam where the lid met the base.

The rain continued, and I had to abandon my exploration of the find in favour of keeping my camera safe and dry (I didn’t any waterproof protection for it at the time), so I headed back to the bike, taking one more snapshot of the cemetery as the sun came out (although rain was still falling lightly at the time).

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Now I’m hoping someone reading can tell me what the story is with that coffin! Was it someone who didn’t have the funds trying a DIY cremation? I really have no idea what that thing was doing there, as it seemed it had been dumped and set fire to on the spot, and I just can’t imagine why someone would do that!

Perhaps it will forever remain a mystery, but it certainly makes me glad I kept going instead of having lunch, ’cause that’s certainly not something I see every day!

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