Realm of paradise

Kim Cheng Boey

Truong Son Martyrs’ Cemetery. Photo: Kim Cheng Boey

The carcass sits astride the motorbike, fastened to the saddle by ropes, its pale pink bulk having ridden pillion in the fine drizzle to its final place of immolation. A faint hint of a smile hovers over its peaceful face, its shut, long-lashed eyes, its creased forehead and endearing snout, and even its flappy ears giving it somewhat a content, eerily human look. Perhaps not incongruously, Ted Hughes’s “View of a Pig” comes to mind. As I try to recall the magnificent ending, the helmeted driver loosens the lashings around the pig, and under the supervision of the women he and three other men grab the trotters and heave the weight on their shoulders, and march it funereally up the wet marble steps to the trestle table draped with a Coca Cola plastic sheet, and ceremoniously lay the cargo down. The Vietnamese matrons take care of the details, and direct their men in adjusting the pig till it looks presentable, dignified, a fitting sacrificial feast for the hungry spirits of the dead soldiers.

I have trailed after a contingent that decanted from two buses into the well-kept cemetery of war martyrs, home to 644 Viet Minh soldiers who perished in the epic Battle of Dien Bien Phu and freed their country from foreign occupation, albeit only for a decade. The visitors were marshalled into company-sized formation by a sweet and slim lady in a white ao dai wielding an umbrella and a bullhorn, who, after a long lecture in a dulcet voice, marched the troops up the gleaming marble-tiled path through the middle of the cemetery.

The group was a balanced mix of different generations — young and middle-aged, and a few old men in uniform and peaked caps, and one in an ash-grey safari suit and Alpine hat, carrying a long-stem umbrella that enhanced his stylish stride. They were here to pay respects to fathers and grandfathers, and comrades who lay all around in neat rows of unnamed graves, each carefully tended with a blue and white porcelain urn planted generously with joss sticks. A woman was making her way down the ranks of graves, lovingly replenishing each with newly lit joss sticks.

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