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How Quy Nhon's Old Cemetery Slowly Expands up Vung Chua Mountain

​You might miss it if you were driving past, but once you walk down a small hẻm off Quy Nhon’s main Tay Son Street, the massive cemetery sprawls in all directions. 

Saigoneer had to take to the skies to get a full scope of the unfurling assemblage of colorful graves. From humble plots to ornate, multi-generational mausoleums, Nghĩa Trang Cũ Quy Nhơn, or Quy Nhon’s Old Cemetery, is an astounding collection of monuments honoring loved ones that stretches back into the verdant hills.

Reading the names and looking at portraits etched in stone, one cannot help but think of all the stories buried here: wives that outlived their husbands by decades thanks to war buried, almost cruelly, next to couples that lived together until their 80s; untended plots falling into disrepair beside graves where fresh ash still hangs on placed incense sticks. One looks at the names below which the death date hasn’t yet been added and wonders, How much time do they have left? What will they do with it, however long? 

Despite the savage sunlight and unrelenting heat on the morning we visited, not to mention the beauty of Vũng Chua mountain in the background and the nearby sea, it is impossible to not fall into such somber thoughts when visiting a cemetery.

It wasn’t until after we left that our emotional ponderings gave way to logistical ones. What is the story behind such a massive cemetery in central Quy Nhon? How long had it been here and, considering the encroachment of the developing city, how much longer could it remain? 

We went looking for answers and discovered a more interesting history and future exists for the Quy Nhon Cemetery than we had imagined. Long the burial site of nearby Quy Nhon residents, the cemetery is also home to the Quy Nhon Martyrs Cemetery, Trung Cao cadre burial cemetery, and a Buddhist cemetery. Like many cemeteries in Vietnam, it started small, as exemplified by this photo from 1965.

By 1994 the space was full, and the city built two new ones approximately 20 kilometers from the city center: Bùi Thị Xuân Cemetery, which opened in 1997. Later, as that one is also filled, Bình Định An Viên was opened in 2019. Both rest well outside of the city center. 

Yet, Nghĩa Trang Cũ Quy Nhơn kept growing. In 2000, it was 137,000 square meters, and by 2018 it hit 148,000 square meters, with much of the newly occupied space encroaching on Vũng Chua mountain in the back. This prompted the city People’s Committee to issue a policy that no new or re-burials could take place in the cemetery.

That didn’t stop people, however. In 2019 people could still buy plots upon which a fake grave had been built to secure the space. Depending on the location, these plots go for VND20–40 million. Authorities claim that there are not enough resources to monitor such a large space and families are willing to perform quiet, subdued funerals to avoid detection. 

Many people are upset with the policy to cease all new burials in the cemetery because, as they see it, there is available land beneath the mountain. Moreover, a trip to either of the new cemeteries can take 40 minutes each way. Such a distance may represent a mere logistical hassle or a spiritual separation from one’s ancestors, depending on your perspective. Either way, it helps explain why people continue to build in this “full” cemetery. 

Ironically, many people who have family buried in Nghĩa Trang Cũ Quy Nhơn have moved away or are too busy to visit frequently. Given this reality and the sheer size of the cemetery, an informal system of paying people to tend to the graves has arisen at Nghĩa Trang Cũ Quy Nhơn. 

Women who stand at the front gates selling fruits and flowers will also burn incense and give offerings for families unable to do so. One such woman who spoke to Người Lao Động explained her role: “Have you been busy with work? It's been a long time since I've seen you burn incense for this grave. Why do you let him lie so cold? He’s probably upset at you. If you don't have time, I'll help you. Here, I help a lot of people for only VND100,000 per grave a month.”

Quy Nhon’s development has been remarkable in the last several decades, with the population growing from 60,000 in 1965 to 160,000 in 1986 to 280,000 in 2013 to present estimates of nearly half a million citizens. This has simultaneously increased the need for places to inter people, while also making land more valuable and in-demand. Nothing exemplifies this more than the size of and situation surrounding Nghĩa Trang Cũ Quy Nhơn.

To reach Quy Nhon’s far-flung airport, one travels through sparsely populated farmland. The rice paddies are dotted with the small graves of those who have tended the land for generations. One wonders how long they will remain here untouched, and what is lost by not having one’s ancestors within eyesight of where one works and sleeps. 

Darkroom is a Saigoneer series documenting the beauty and stories of Vietnam and beyond via photographs. If you have a compelling story you wish to share, send us an email via contribute@saigoneer.com.